Archive for March, 2011


Rilke’s The Eighth Elegy

March 31, 2011

Ranier Maria Rilke

In The Eighth Elegy from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the poet seems to question the human consciousness as being less capable of experiencing Nature than a more primitive or base animal instinct. Although our analytical consciousness, which is form-giving and memory laden, may interfere with the direct experience of Nature, Rilke elevates the more simple form of consciousness found in the lower animal kingdom and views within it a more radical complexity. Yet this is not an absolute distinction between human and animal consciousness. Perhaps it is a call to humanity to “simplify, simplify” (in the words of Thoreau) or embrace Wittgenstein’s precept of “don’t think, describe.”

Rilke, like Blake before him, while exalting the imagination and man’s inner life, also questions it here as a potentially delimiting factor in the experience of Nature. Rudolf Krassner, to whom the poem was dedicated, sought to understand the problems of modernity and Man’s subsequent disconnectedness from time and place and his own nature. I see this as an “answer poem” to those problems. How often do we see our lives as “boundless, unfathomable, and without regard to our own condition?” and “where we see the future, it sees all time and itself within all time, forever healed….everything womb.” Some of the framework of this comment was borrowed from a Martin Creaven who wrote a comment on the poem at the website bittergrace. I didn’t agree that much with what he said but liked the way he had thought about it.


Dedicated to Rudolf Kassner

With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, as they emerge into their freedom. We
know what is really out there only from the
animal’s gaze; for we take the very young child
and force it around, so that it sees objects–not
the Open, which is so
deep in animals’ faces. Free from death. We,
only, can see death; the free animal has its
decline in back of it, forever,
and God in front, and when it moves, it moves
already in eternity, like a fountain.
     Never, not for a single day, do we have before
us that pure space into which flowers endlessly
open. Always there is World
and never Nowhere without the No: that pure
unseparated element which one breathes without
desire and endlessly knows. A child
may wander there for hours, through the timeless
stillness, may get lost in it and be
shaken back. Or someone dies and is it.
For, nearing death, one doesn’t see death; but stares
beyond, perhaps with an animal’s vast
gaze. Lovers, if the beloved were not
there blocking the view, are close to it, and
marvel .. As if by some mistake, it opens
for them behind each other … But neither
can move past the other, and it changes
back to World. Forever turned toward
objects, we see in them the mere reflection
of the realm of freedom, which we have
dimmed. Or when some animal mutely, serenely,
looks us through and through.
That is what fate means: to be opposite, to
be opposite and nothing else, forever.

If the animal moving toward us so securely
in a different direction had our kind of
consciousness–, it would wrench us around and drag us
along its path. But it feels its life as boundless,
unfathomable, and without regard
to its own condition: pure, like its outward gaze. And where we
see the future, it sees all time
and itself within all time, forever healed.

Yet in the alert, warm animal there lies
the pain and burden of an enormous sadness.
For it too feels the presence of what often
overwhelms us: a memory, as if
the element we keep pressing toward was once
more intimate, more true, and our communion
infinitely tender. Here all is distance; there
it was breath. After that first home, the
second seems ambiguous and drafty.
     Oh bliss of the tiny creature which remains
forever inside the womb that was its shelter; joy
of the gnat which, still within, leaps up even at its
marriage: for everything is womb. And look at the
half-assurance of the bird,
which knows both inner and outer, from its source,
as if it were the soul of an Etruscan,
flown out of a dead man received inside a space,
but with his reclining image as the lid.
And how bewildered is any womb-born
creature that has to fly. As if terrified and
fleeing from itself, it zigzags through the air,
the way a crack runs through a teacup. So
the bat quivers across the porcelain of evening.

And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
turned toward the world of objects, never outward.
It fills us. We arrange it. It breaks down. We
rearrange it, then break down ourselves.

Who has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole
valley one last time, he turns, stops,
lingers–, so we live here, forever taking leave.


Tolkien and Jung by Patrick Grant

March 30, 2011
Patrick Grant, a specialist in Renaissance literature, teaches English at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. This is a reading selection from a much longer piece titled Tolkien Archetype and the Word.

From Milton to Blake to Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings embodies an “inherent morality,” (, R. R. Tolkien,On Fairy Stories,” The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966), p. 16.) as Tolkien calls it, which derives largely from the traditions of Christian and epic poetry. Yet the trilogy is not explicitly religious, and is neither allegorical nor doctrinal. Tolkien well knows that the Dantesque form of Christian epic, wherein history effortlessly assumes the framework of dogma, cannot be successfully imitated in post-Romantic times. In Milton’s Paradise Lost the sacramentalism fundamental to Dante’s vision is already transformed. The true center of Milton’s epic is a “paradise within,” and the doctrinal framework which supports the poem is idiosyncratic, as we discover from The Christian Doctrine. For Milton, subjective experience, not a doctrinal formula of words, is the key to faith, and Mediaeval “realism,” which assumes the participation of words in the extramental (vocab: existing outside the mind) reality they signify, is not part of the consciousness which produced Paradise Lost.

What remain in Milton are, in generalized form, the great themes of the Christian epic: first, and most important, that true heroism is spiritual; also, that love is obedience and involves freedom; that faith and hope are based on charity; that providence directs the affairs of the world. The reader is repeatedly challenged to establish an attitude to these issues, and the vast shifts of time and space—heavenly, infernal, past, future, pre-lapsarian, post-lapsarian—are means of pressing the challenge upon his attention. In no other Christian poem does the real (inner) meaning so energetically parody the canonical orthodoxies of the external form.

By the time of Blake (who, significantly, saw Milton as a noble spirit except for his doctrine) the “paradise within” has found expression in language even further removed than Milton’s from canonical orthodoxy. The Romantics primarily inherit Blake’s vision, and so, basically, does Tolkien, essentially a post-Romantic like his friends C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. One consequence is that the principles of Christian epic are experienced in Tolkien not explicitly but as embodied themes, a map of values as in Paradise Lost, and without the traditional dogmatic theology which Milton’s great poem is already in process of casting off. The trilogy is, significantly, set in the essentially inner realm of Faery, close to the world of dream and myth, where, Tolkien tells us, “primordial human desires (J, R. R. Tolkien,On Fairy Stories,” The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966), p. 13) are met and interpreted.

Enter Jung
The archetypal flavor of Tolkien’s description of Faery, together with his dream-like settings in Middle-earth, have readily evoked among critics the language and mind of Jung (See J. S. Ryan, Tolkien: Cult or Culture (Annidale, New South Wales: Univ. of New England, 1969), ch. X, “Middle-Earth and the Archetypes,” pp. 153-61)and, in a historical context, Jung is certainly a prime example in the twentieth century of the “interiorization” of spiritual experience so characteristic of post-Romantic religion. In this the psychoanalyst complements the writer of fairy stories, and, because he faces similar problems in similar language, Jung can also offer particular insights about the structure of Tolkien’s work.

The Lord of the Rings can be read, with surprising consistency, as an interior journey through the psyche as Jung describes it, and archetypal structures in the trilogy will be a central concern of this essay. Yet I wish to establish from the outset that a purely Jungian approach has limitations, for Tolkien at all times evaluates the archetypes, however implicitly, in light of the literary conventions of Christian epic. The Word, in a Christian sense, is a primary archetype which for Tolkien both spiritualizes and revalidates for man the extramental world of history and material extension.

Only in carefully observed physical reality can the subcreation of Faery achieve, for Tolkien, its real enchantment, and open into the truth which he describes, in the old language, as Eucharistic (“Fairy Stories,” pp. 14, 68). The great pains taken with the historical background to Middle-earth are not without point. They save the book from becoming allegory, or a thin fantasy of “interior space,” and in his “Eucharistic ” view of history and of the Word, Tolkien addresses again the key problems of the Christian epic in modern times: the possibilities of sacramentalism, and the relation of the archetypes of inner vision to Christian ordinances and heroic themes.

The Jungian Archetypes
The group of friends to whom Tolkien first read The Lord of the Rings, the so-called Inklings, found Jung temperamentally attractive, though they also regarded him with a certain suspicion. C.S. Lewis avows that he is “enchanted” by Jung, and has, on occasion, “slipped into” a Jungian manner of criticism(“Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism,” ed. Walter Hooper, Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 296, 297. ) He admits that Maud Bodkin, the pioneer critic of Jungian archetypal patterns in literature, has exerted considerable influence on him. (Ibid “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism,” ed. Walter Hooper)

 Owen Barfield praises Jung for understanding the spiritual nature of consciousness and its evolution: the Jungian “collective unconscious” and appeal to myth are much-needed antidotes to twentieth century materialism which threatens to make an object of man himself. (Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (London: Faber, 1957), pp. 133-34 ) On the negative side, Lewis thinks that Jung’s explanation of “primordial images” itself awakens a primordial image of the first water: Jung’s limitation is that he uses a myth to explain a myth(“Psycho-Analysis,” p. 299. ) Barfield feels, more important for this argument, that in Jung the “Spiritual Hierarchies” have withdrawn from the world, and exist, interiorized, within the individual will and too much cut off from the extramental world.

Tolkien and Jung
It is important not to put the words of Lewis and Barfield into Tolkien’s mouth (he was difficult to influence as a bandersnatch (vocab: The Bandersnatch is a fictional creature coined by Lewis Carroll’s in Through the Looking Glass  (1871). The form or size of the creature is not described, nor is it clear whether Bandersnatch is singular, like the Phoenix; it has come to mean an imaginary wild animal of fierce disposition or a person of uncouth or unconventional habits, attitudes, etc., especially one considered a menace, nuisance, or the like), according to Lewis),[Letter to Charles Moorman, 15 May, 1959, ed. W, H. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966), p. 287.] yet Tolkien at least shared the interests and temperament of his friends. Certainly, the reader of his essay on fairy stories cannot easily avoid the Jungian flavor of several of Tolkien’s key theories. Tolkien describes Faery in relation to dream, stating that in both “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked.”  He talks of the encounter in fairy stories with “certain primordial human desires,”  and claims the stories are “plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability.” He talks of a “Cauldron of Story” which waits “for the great figures of Myth and History.” These are added like fresh pieces to a stock which has been simmering from the beginnings of story-telling, that is, of the human mind itself. In the essay on Beowulf, Tolkien especially appreciates the balance and “opposition of ends and beginnings, the progress from youth to old age in the hero, and the satisfaction that comes from perceiving the “rising and setting” of a life.

We can easily enough feel here the typical Jungian insistence on dream and fantasy, the theory of a collective unconscious which (like Tolkien’s cauldron) contains archetypes stirred into activity by the artist, and the theory of transformation in the individual psyche, whereby beginnings and ends are balanced in a successful human life. But more important, Tolkien’s theory finds full embodiment in The Lord of the Rings. The trilogy is set in Faery, in this case the imaginary world of Middle-earth, at a time near the beginnings of man’s ascendancy in the history of the world. Middle-earth is often dreamlike: a world of shifting contours and of magic, of nightmarish fear and exquisite ethereal beauty. Helpful and treacherous animals work for the powers of good and evil, and landscapes become sentient embodiments of human fears and desires. It is a short step to the appearance of nature spirits, like Tom Bombadil, or to the magic of the Elves, and, as we move closer to those who possess more than human wisdom and power, the contours of time and space themselves begin to blur. Although controlled by the narrative art and by basic structural oppositions such as those between light and dark, good and evil, the story moves basically in a world where forms and images blend and flow and interpenetrate, and where the eye of the beholder determines fear and terror, beauty and glory. All this has the very quality of that “interior space” which Barfield names as Jung’s special province.

Jung’s Characteristic Formal Elements Of Dreams And Fairy Stories
For Jung, certainly, fairy stories and dreams are characteristically inhabited by helpful and treacherous animals and monsters, and landscapes, especially when they involve woods and mountains, are favorite representations of the unconscious. (“The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairy Tales,” ed. Sir Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, Gerhard Adier, trans. R. F. C. Hull, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Vol. 9, pt. I, pp. 231, 233, 235. ) Jung also talks of a common figure, the “vegetation numen,” (Ibid The Collected Works of C. G. Jung) king of the forest, who is associated with wood and water in a manner which recalls Tom Bombadil.  

Magic too is important, and Jung explains how “the concentration and tension of psychic forces have something about them which always looks like magic,”(Ibid The Collected Works of C. G. Jung) He stresses also a “contamination” of images, by which he means a tendency to overflowing contours—”a melting down of images.” This, says Jung, may look like distortion and can be terrifying, but can also be a process of assimilation and a source of great beauty and inspiration. His perception applies precisely to the viewpoint technique of The Lord of the Rings: “The melting process is therefore either something very bad or something highly desirable according to the standpoint of the observer.”

Jung also points to certain characteristic formal elements in dreams and fairy stories, such as “duality,” “the opposition of light and dark,” and “rotation (circle, sphere),” but insists that they should not be considered apart from the complex flowing energy of the psyche. Moral choices are not simply a matter of black or white. Jung stresses “the bewildering play of antinomies” which contribute to higher awareness. Good may be produced by evil, and possibly lead to it. This process, which Jung calls “enantiodromia,” is also of central importance in the art of Tolkien: a broad opposition of light and dark, and of good and evil, becomes confused in the trilogy as we enter the minds of individuals in process of finding their way on the quest. Though Gollum bates light and loves shade, Frodo’s relation to Gollum is extremely complex, and throughout the trilogy the minds of the men in particular are continually ambivalent.

That Jung and Tolkien isolate such similar motifs from fairy stories, dreams, fantasy, and myth, need hardly be surprising, but in The Lord of the Rings the inner drama corresponds also with particular fidelity to the details of the psychic process which Jung calls “individuation.” This is, basically, the “realization of the whole man” achieved in a balanced and fulfilled life when “consciousness and the unconscious, are linked together in a living relation.” The process involves a journey to the Self, which Jung describes as “not only the center” of a person’s psyche but also “the circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious.” Characteristically, the Self is represented in dreams and mythology as a mandala—a square within a circle, or circle within a square, or in figures which are spherical or contain the idea of quaternity, representing wholeness.

Jung insists that individuation, or Selfhood, is not mere ego-consciousness. (On the Nature of the Psyche,” Works, vol. 8, p. 266) As the short-sighted ego responds to the demands of inner growth, the way is indicated by representations of archetypes, those primordial and recurring images in human experience which express the basic structures of the psyche, and which become increasingly numinous, impressive, and dangerous as they emerge from the deeper levels of the unconscious. First, and nearest to the surface, so that we can become aware of it by reflection, is the shadow. The shadow is the “personal unconscious” and, among the archetypes, is the “easiest to experience.”  It represents the elements which a person represses as incompatible with his chosen ideal — “for instance, inferior traits of character and other incompatible tendencies.” The shadow is ambiguous — it contains morally reprehensible tendencies, but can also display good qualities, such as normal instincts which have been repressed but “are needed by consciousness.” In dreams, it is represented as a figure of the same sex as the dreamer, and, in accord with its ambiguous status, may be a threat which follows him, or a guide. It turns dangerous when ignored or misunderstood.]

Jung’s Anima/Animus Archetype
Further from consciousness is the anima/animus archetype. These are representations of the feminine side of a man’s unconscious, and the masculine side of a woman’s, respectively. The anima (the more important for Tolkien) is, like the shadow, ambivalent. She is both the nourishing and the destructive mother. On the one hand, she is Dante’s Beatrice, the Virgin Mary, the Muses who inspire man to create, the dream girl of popular fantasy and song. On the other hand she is a witch, poisonous and malevolent, or a Siren who, however beautiful, lures a man to his death and destruction. For Jung, “the animus and the anima should function as a bridge, or a door, leading to the images of the collective unconscious.”

More profound, and often presented with the anima as friend or protector is the archetype of the hero. He is often represented in a dangerous situation or an a difficult quest, which “signifies the potential anticipation of an individuation process which is approaching wholeness.” The hero often has an aura about him of the supernatural, which offsets his vulnerability, another essential trait, for he is both semi-divine and child. “This paradox . . . runs through his whole destiny like a red thread. He can cope with the greatest perils, yet, in the end, something quite insignificant is his undoing.” The hero archetype is often accompanied by strange and numinous events: “dragons, helpful animals, and demons; also the Wise Old Man . . . all things which in no way touch the boundaries of everyday. The reason for this is that they have to do with the realization of a part of the personality which has not yet come into existence but is still in the process of becoming.”

The deepest archetype on the journey towards the Self is the figure Jung mentions above in relation to the hero, namely the Old Wise Man, a helpful figure who, “when the hero is in a hopeless and desperate situation . . . can extricate him.” He is the magician, the Guru, a personification of wisdom. He seems not to be bound with time, and is strongly endowed with numinous power, for instance, of magic. Also, “apart from his cleverness, wisdom, and insight, the old man” is “notable for his moral qualities.” But he, like the other archetypes, is also an ambivalent figure. He is like Merlin, and in him the enantiodromia (vocab: a principle introduced by psychiatrist Carl Jung that the superabundance of any force inevitably produces its opposite.) of good and evil can appear most paradoxically.


On Masters of Suspicion

March 29, 2011

Lorenzo Albacete

Lorenzo Albacete was born in Puerto Rico and is a physicist by training. He holds a degree in Space Science and Applied Physics as well as a Master’s degree in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He further holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome. He has taught at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., and the St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., and from 1996 to 1997 served as President of Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce. He has been advisor on Hispanic Affairs to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. A convert in later life, at twenty seven he read then Joseph Ratzinger’s “Introduction to Christianity” and found himself moved from atheism to faith. He is a columnist for the Italian weekly Tempi, has written for The New Yorker, and has appeared or has been interviewed on CNN, The Charlie Rose Show, PBS, EWTN, Slate, The New Republic, and Godspy, where he is the theological advisor.

He is the author of God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity (Crossroad Publishing Company), a book in which as priest-physicist he talks about science, sex, politics, and religion. He begins with the common enough understanding of the existence of God (of which there are twenty some odd proofs or theories) as being that from desire.  The latter argument from desire really springs from two realizations and one universal experience:  For those fortunate enough to live in the infinite power of God, it is to realize that we need nothing other, that we crave nothing more, that we can let go of everything else. This is yin/yang of experiencing or realizing Augustine’s concupiscentia, or errant desire.

For Augustine, all of us have been wired for God (“you have made us for yourself”) and therefore we are satisfied with nothing less than God (“our hearts are restless until they rest in you”). Thus to become focused on something less than God (anything created, including our own lives) is therefore to place ourselves in spiritual danger and desperately to frustrate our natural will to be in harmony with God’s divine will or to know the freedom and fullness of detachment from the worldly pull of concupiscentia.

The freedom and fullness of detachment is probably no better expressed than in John of the Cross’s beautiful mantra: “To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing; to come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing; to come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing; to arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.” This fourfold nada is not a negation but the deepest affirmation, since it is a “no” to a “no.” Desiring to possess all, desiring to be all is the nonbeing of attachment, the misery of addiction; desiring to possess nothing, desiring to be nothing is, accordingly, freedom and being. It is finally to see the world as it is, and not through the distorting lens of cupidity and egotism. It is the view from the center.
Fr. Robert Barron, The Strangest Way

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete tells us that this longing we have for God has been part of the human heart since the beginning of time, but that it does not flourish without our work to fulfill it. He also points out that that longing has not always been nurtured. In fact quite recently we could point to an entire century (if not modernity itself) where removing the deeply embedded religious impulse from the human heart and killing off the conviction that the meaning of this life lies somewhere beyond it became man’s chief preoccupation. Nurturiing, needless to say, is the work of being Catholic. The alternative is to fall into skepticism and suspicion. He nominates Freud, Marx and Nietzsche as “Masters Of Suspicion, philosophers and thinkers who sought to unmask this inherent religious impulse as merely the expression of some profound alienation such as sexual conflict, or an economic injustice, or just plain fear.

For example, one of Freud’s most influential theories, for example, was that religion is an external projection of an unresolved psychosexual problem. Indeed, the relationship between the religious and sexual drives is obvious. Repressed sexual conflicts touch the very bases of the human experience of the world, especially relationships with other humans. All life is about survival, and given the way we are made, survival requires sexuality. You don’t have to be a Freudian to hold this.
Lorenzo Albacete, God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity

In fact, Albacete notes that Pope John Paul II demonstrates this in his writings:

In his experiential analysis of the creation accounts in Genesis, the pope (John Paul II) argues that human sexuality is inseparable from the human drive to develop the resources of nature. The Bible introduces the subject of gender only after “Adam” — which in the early part of the creation story does not mean the male specifically but more generally the human — is shown exercising his dominion over creation by “naming” the animals; he gives them a place in the human project of self-development.

In this experience of the relation between the self and the universe, Adam is said to be “alone.” He is incomplete. The pope calls this the experience of “original solitude.” It is not that the lonely individual Adam needs others to assist him physically or accompany him psychologically. His solitude is much deeper, much more fundamental. It is a wound in his very experience as a person, a need that must be fulfilled if the human creature is to achieve its potential.

At that moment, God moves to complete the creation of the human creature. Adam falls asleep. This sleep is not an ordinary nap with amazing consequences; it is not the anesthesia necessary for a rib-cage operation. The “sleep” is more precisely a state of stupor, an over whelming ecstasy that accompanies the experience of the power of the sacred. It is a religious experience. When the human awakens, the human creature has become a couple. “Adam” (now meaning specifically the male)) encounters the female, Eve.

Adam’s reaction confirms what has happened. It is not that a male went to sleep and awakened to find a female. If that were so, Adam would not have grasped first his equality with the woman! Surely he would have noticed the physical difference and wondered just what kind of creature she was. Instead, it is the experience of equality — or better, the experience of the equality of difference — that comes first. Adam recognizes that the different creature is “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones.” The author of that creation account therefore did not need Freud to discover a relation between the religious and the sexual experience.
Lorenzo Albacete, God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity

And ditto the same with Marx:

“Neither did the author need Marx to discover a relation between religion and work, or economics. As we saw, the issue of gender emerges while the human is setting up the first economic system, the first arrangement and distribution of resources to meet human needs and desires. The woman is above all presented as the “helper” of the man in this project. The religious experience that serves as the occasion for her creation (the sleep/stupor before the sacred)) is tied to this enterprise, tied to ‘work.’”
Lorenzo Albacete, God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity

And ditto the same with Nietzsche:

As for Nietzsche, traces of his “discovery” can also be found in the Genesis accounts of the “beginning” of human history. Isn’t the big issue upon which everything depends the human’s approach to power? The human future is seen to depend on the “knowledge of good and evil,” and on Adam and Eve’s willingness to trust their religious experience of the Creator, an experience that contains a warning upon which life and death will depend. Adam and Eve had been ignorant about what is good and what is evil, so how did they know what God was talking about? Moreover, death is said to be a consequence of their disobedience, but when they hear God’s warning they haven’t disobeyed yet. How come they don’t ask, as Bill Cosby’s Noah does in his standup routine about Noah’s ark and the flood: “What’s good? What’s evil? What’s death?” They don’t ask because the difference between good and evil as well as the possibility for nonexistence are part of that religious experience — even if they are not consciously aware of it.

Their “innocence” has nothing to do with ignorance or with immaturity. It is not an expression of mental and psychological underdevelopment. If that were so, the serpent would be absolutely correct in his critique of creation, and humans could be free only by disobeying the Creator’s imposed limitations. It is precisely because Adam and Eve see it that way that they are compelled to follow the serpent’s advice. That is, their act follows a change in how they perceive their religious experience, in their perception of the sacred. The stupor is gone. They now see religious experience as an obstacle to the human power for self-development.

We see in Adam and Eve the potent force known as — in the words Nietzsche would use — the “will to power.” It was, then, at the very beginning of human history (instead of much later in the nineteenth century) that religion was first seen as the expression of a slave mentality that fears human power.
Lorenzo Albacete, God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity

As Albacete points out, the consequence of humankind’s decision to disobey the demands of the Holy was a profound alienation in those three areas of sexuality, work (economics), and power — the very alienation that we credit Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche “discovering” is, in fact all part of Genesis, lying there for all with the intelligence to discern it. So these discoveries, while  not totally unfounded, they are useful in understanding our individual and collective situations. But the problem is that each of the “discoverers” made each one of them his insight for the  all-embracing explanation of reality:

“All human experiences were supposed to be evaluated according to only one insight — that of Freud, Marx, or Nietzsche. As good modernists, they held that the human mind creates the only reality we can ever know. Whatever did not fit their mentally constructed theories simply did not exist. Ironically, the failure of the masters of suspicion — these theoreticians and lovers of humankind lies not in the fact that their theories embraced too much, but that they embraced too little.

Each one of these thinkers reduced the religious experience — which really includes everything, since it is the experience of the purpose and possibilities of life in its totality — to a mere projection of deep conflicts in the areas of sexuality, economics, and sociology. Instead, we should look at the religious experience as a thing in itself, as irreducible, as having a deep and meaningful reality of its own.”
Lorenzo Albacete, God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity

Our atheist brothers scorn the religious while not realizing its true scope and import. Sometimes the deepest and truest efforts we can make to understand our natures is to take the lessons of economics, psychology and philosophy back to scripture and finish our search there. It is, after all, the divine word. The least we can do is regard it as the last word.


The Dethronement Of Power — C. S. Lewis

March 27, 2011


C. S. Lewis, 1945


With Tolkien, his Oxford colleague and close friend, C. S. Lewis was a founding member of the Inklings, a congenial group of intellectuals that also included Charles Williams and Owen Barfield. The friends met regularly but quite informally to enjoy good beer, good pipe tobacco, and, best of all, good talk. They often read to one another portions of works they were engaged in writing. At the time that Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis was engaged in writing the masterful Oxford History of English Literature volume The Sixteenth Century and his brilliant critical study The Allegory of Love. Lewis was also a writer of fantasy — or, more precisely, what J. S. Ryan in his essay included in this volume calls “Christian romanticism.” Lewis’s best-known work in this mode is the trilogy Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.


WHEN I REVIEWED THE FIRST VOLUME OF THIS WORK, I hardly dared to hope it would have the success which I was sure it deserved. Happily I am proved wrong. There is, however, one piece of false criticism which had better be answered: the complaint that the characters are all either black or white. Since the climax of volume I was mainly concerned with the struggle between good and evil in the mind of Boromir, it is not easy to see how anyone could have said this. I will hazard a guess. “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” asks someone in volume II. “As he has ever judged,” comes the reply. “Good and ill have not changed … nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men” (II, 40-41).

This is the basis of the whole Tolkienian world. I think some readers, seeing (and disliking) this rigid demarcation of black and white, imagine they have seen a rigid demarcation between black and white people. Looking at the squares, they assume (in defiance of the facts) that all the pieces must be making bishops’ moves which confine them to one color. But even such readers will hardly brazen it out through the two last volumes. Motives, even on the right side, are mixed. Those who are now traitors usually began with comparatively innocent intentions. Heroic Rohan and imperial Gondor are partly diseased. Even the wretched Smeagol, till quite late in the story, has good impulses; and, by a tragic paradox, what finally pushes him over the brink is an unpremeditated speech by the most selfless character of all.

There are two books in each volume, and now that all six are before us the very high architectural quality of the romance is revealed. Book One builds up the main theme. In book Two that theme, enriched with much retrospective material, continues. Then comes the change. In Three and Five the fate of the company, now divided, becomes entangled with a huge complex of forces which are grouping and regrouping themselves in relation to Mordor. The main theme, isolated from this, occupies Four and the early part of Six (the latter part of course giving all the resolutions).

But we are never allowed to forget the intimate connection between it and the rest. On the one hand, the whole world is going to the war; the story rings with galloping hoofs, trumpets, steel on steel. On the other, very far away, two tiny, miserable figures creep (like mice on a slag heap) through the twilight of Mordor. And all the time we know that the fate of the world depends far more on the small movement than on the great. This is a structural invention of the highest order: it adds immensely to the pathos, irony, and grandeur of the tale.

This main theme is not to be treated in those jocular, whimsical tones now generally used by reviewers of “juveniles.” It is entirely serious: the growing anguish, the drag of the Ring on the neck, the ineluctable conversion of hobbit into hero in conditions which exclude all hope of fame or fear of infamy. Without the relief offered by the more crowded and bustling books it would be hardly tolerable.

Yet those books are not in the least inferior. Of picking out great moments, such as the cock-crow at the siege of Gondor, there would be no end; I will mention two general, and totally different, excellences. One, surprisingly, is realism. This war has the very quality of the war my generation knew. It is all here: the endless, unintelligible movement, the sinister quiet of the front when “everything is now ready,” the flying civilians, the lively, vivid friendships, the background of something like despair and the merry foreground, and such heaven-sent windfalls as a cache of choice tobacco “salvaged” from a ruin. The author has told us elsewhere that his taste for fairy tale was wakened into maturity by active service; that, no doubt, is why we can say of his war scenes (quoting Gimli the Dwarf), “There is good rock here. This country has tough bones” (II,137).

The other excellence is that no individual, and no species, seems to exist only for the sake of the plot. All exist in their own right and would have been worth creating for their mere flavor even if they had been irrelevant. Treebeard would have served any other author (if any other could have conceived him) for a whole book. His eyes are “filled up with ages of memory, and long, slow, steady thinking” (II, 66). Through those ages his name has grown with him, so that he cannot now tell it; it would, by now, take too long to pronounce. When he learns that the thing they are standing on is a hill, he complains that this is but “a hasty word” (II, 69) for that which has so much history in it.

How far Treebeard can be regarded as a “portrait of the artist” must remain doubtful; but when he hears that some people want to identify the Ring with the hydrogen bomb, and Mordor with Russia, I think he might call it a “hasty” word. How long do people think a world like his takes to grow? Do they think it can be done as quickly as a modern nation changes its Public Enemy Number One or as modern scientists invent new weapons?

When Tolkien began there was probably no nuclear fission and the contemporary incarnation of Mordor was a good deal nearer our shores. But the text itself teaches us that Sauron is eternal; the war of the Ring is only one of a thousand wars against him. Every time we shall be wise to fear his ultimate victory, after which there will be “no more songs.” Again and again we shall have good evidence that “the wind is setting East, and the withering of all woods may be drawing near” (II, 76). Every time we win we shall know that our victory is impermanent. If we insist on asking for the moral of the story, that is its moral: a recall from facile optimism and wailing pessimism alike, to that hard, yet not quite desperate, insight into man’s unchanging predicament by which heroic ages have lived. It is here that the Norse affinity is strongest: hammer-strokes, but with compassion.

“But why,” some ask, “why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never-land of your own?” Because, I take it, one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality. One can see the principle at work in his characterization. Much that in a realistic work would be done by “character delineation” is here done simply by making the character an elf, a dwarf, or a hobbit. The imagined beings have their insides on the outside; they are visible souls. And man as a whole, man pitted against the universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale? In the book Eomer rashly contrasts “the green earth” with “legends.” Aragorn replies that the green earth itself is “a mighty matter of legend” (II, 37).

The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by “the veil of familiarity.” The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it real meat. If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly. I do not think he could have done it in any other way.

The book is too original and too opulent for any final judgment on a first reading. But we know at once that it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men. And though we must ration ourselves in our re-readings, I have little doubt that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables.


The Eucharistic Theology of Thomas Aquinas – Fr. Robert Barron

March 25, 2011

Called the “common doctor” of the Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century Dominican theologian, born just ten years after the Fourth Lateran Council, wrote extensively and incisively on the Eucharistic mystery. But the Eucharist was, for Aquinas, much more than merely a topic of academic interest; it was the center of his spiritual life. Thomas would typically celebrate Mass every day and would then assist at another Mass immediately afterward. Rarely, his contemporaries report, would he get through the liturgy without tears, so great was his identification with the unfolding of the paschal mystery. When he was wrestling with a particularly thorny intellectual question, he would pray before the Blessed Sacrament, frequently resting his head on the tabernacle itself, begging for inspiration. At the prompting of Pope Urban VIII, Thomas composed a magnificent series of poems and hymns for the newly instituted feast of Corpus Christi, several of which are still in wide use today in the Catholic liturgy.

Finally, one of the most mysterious events in Aquinas’s life centered around the Eucharist. After he had completed his lengthy treatment of the Eucharist in the Summa theologiae, Thomas, still unsure whether he had spoken correctly or even adequately of the sacrament, placed the text at the foot of the crucifix and commenced to pray. According to the well-known legend, a voice came from the cross, “You have written well concerning the sacrament of my body. What would you have as a reward?” To which Aquinas responded, Nil nisi to (nothing but you).

I would like to study in some detail that treatise which Aquinas placed before the Lord, for in many ways it sums up and gives pointed expression to the tradition that we have been surveying, and it became a permanent touchstone for much of the Catholic Eucharistic theology that followed it. It constitutes questions 73-83 of the third part of the Summa theologiae, Thomas’s late-career masterpiece. But in order to understand his treatment of the key sacrament adequately, we have to glance, however briefly, at questions 60-63, which deal with the nature of a sacrament in general.

Sacraments, Aquinas tells us, are types of signs, since they point to something that lies beyond them, namely, the sacred power that flows from the passion of Christ. They are composed of a material element — oil, water, bread, wine, etc. — and a formal element, embodied in the words that accompany them. Thus, baptism is a sacred sign involving the pouring of water and the uttering of the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the words specifying the sacred power of Christ operative in and through the water. We can see, therefore, that sacraments are not only signs of grace, but actually the instrumental causes of grace. In Thomas’s curt language: “They cause what they signify.” The salvific energy of Christ’s cross flows, as it were, through these sacred signs, much in the way that the power of the builder flows through the saw that he employs or the authority of the general is made manifest in the soldiers whom he commands.

With that general background in mind, we can turn now to the questions dealing specifically with the Eucharist. In the first article of question 73, Thomas poses the straightforward query whether the Eucharist should be called a sacrament. His answer situates the Eucharist very much in the context of the sacred banquet. All sacraments, he says, are designed to place the spiritual life within human beings, and the spiritual life is symbolically conformed to bodily life. Thus, just as food and drink are required for the sustenance of biological life, so the Eucharist is necessary for the sustenance of the life of grace. Precisely as spirituale alimentum (spiritual food), the Eucharist is thus placed in the genus of sacrament. By it, the power of Christ’s death and resurrection flows into us like food into the digestive system. Commenting on the use of the term communio (communion) in regard to the Eucharist, Thomas says that through the sacrament we commune with Christ, participating in his flesh and divinity, and inasmuch as we share in Christ, we commune with one another through him. I can’t imagine a more succinct summary of the theme of the sacred meal.

In question 75, Aquinas broaches the issue of the manner of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. The complexity and thoroughness of his treatment shows that this subject, above all, preoccupied the greatest of the medieval theologians. Article 1 of question 75 poses the central issue bluntly enough: “whether in this sacrament the body of Christ is truly present or only according to a figure or as in a sign.” Let us attend to Thomas’s response with some care. He first observes that the true body and blood (verum corpus Christi et sanguinem) are in the Eucharistic sacrament but not in such a way as to be apprehended by the senses; they are “visible” only through faith, which rests upon the divine authority. We recall that many of the church fathers emphasized the importance of Christ’s words in the determination of the real presence.

By stressing our faith in the authority of Jesus, Thomas Aquinas is making much the same point. In his lovely hymn “Adoro Te Devote,” Aquinas expressed this idea in a more poetic vein: “Sight, touch, taste fail to perceive you; by hearing alone are you securely believed.” Next, he tries to show how conveniens (fitting) it is that Christ is present in this sacrament in a qualitatively different way than in the others. The sacrifices of the old law were, he says, prefigurements of the final sacrifice offered on Christ’s cross; therefore, it follows that there should he aliquid plus (something more) in the sacrifice instituted by Jesus. And this something more is that the Eucharist contains ipsum passum (the one himself who suffered) and not simply a sign or indication of him. In other words, if we were to say that Jesus is merely signified in the Eucharist, that sacrament would not be, in a qualitative sense, greater than any of the signs of God’s presence described in the Old Testament or acted out in the rituals of the temple.

Secondly, the dense reality of Christ’s Eucharistic presence is fitting due to the intensity of Jesus’ love. Aristotle said that the supreme sign of friendship is to want to live together with one’s friends, and this is just what Jesus makes possible by giving us his very self in the Eucharist. The night before he died, Jesus told his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” Thomas implies that the real presence in the Eucharist is the seal and guarantee of that friendship with all the Lord’s disciples across the ages.

The third objection to this question is worth examining. The objector states that no body can be simultaneously in many places. But the body of Christ is present at the same time on many altars and in heaven. Therefore, the presence spoken of in the sacramental context must be merely a sign or a figure of the “real” one in heaven. In responding to this dilemma — which goes right back to Berengarius — Thomas makes a decisive distinction between Christ’s bodily presence “according to his proper species” and that same bodily presence “according to a species appropriate to the sacrament.” “Proper species” is technical jargon for the ordinary appearance of something. Thus, in his proper species, Christ is an embodied person of a particular height, weight, and color, existing “in” heaven, though we’re not quite sure what this existence is like in a transcendent dimensional system.

But this same embodied Christ can also become present according to a species, or appearance, that is alien to him, that is to say, according to a sacramental mode. In light of this distinction, Aquinas clarifies that the body of Christ is not in the sacrament of the Eucharist the way a body is ordinarily in a place, measured by its own dimensions and circumscribed by the contours of the space that it occupies. And thus, though we can say that Christ’s body is on various altars at the same time, we shouldn’t say that he is in various places at the same time, for this would be to confuse proper and sacramental modes of appearance. In a similar vein, Aquinas specifies that we shouldn’t speak of carrying around the body of Christ when we process with the Eucharist or of imprisoning Jesus when we put the sacramental elements in the tabernacle. To do so would be to conflate these two basic modes of presence. And this is why Thomas Aquinas and the mainstream of the Catholic tradition remain uneasy with that section of the anti-Berengarian oath that speaks of crunching Christ’s body with one’s teeth. In Aquinas’s more precise language, when one consumes the Eucharist, one crunches the accidents of the bread with the teeth, not the body of Christ, since Christ is being received substantially but according to his sacramental species, not his proper species.

This distinction helps to clear up a perhaps lingering doubt. At the outset of his analysis, Thomas said that sacraments are found in the genus of sign. So then, if the Eucharist is a sacrament, why should he balk at characterizing it as a sign or figure of the body of Christ? As we saw, a sign is that which points beyond itself to something else. This is true of the Eucharist inasmuch as the sacramental species of Christ indicates Christ in his proper species; there is still therefore a play of presence and absence in the Eucharist. Nevertheless, this particular sign has the unique capacity to contain perfectly (though hiddenly) that toward which it points. Whereas the other sacraments contain only the power of Christ (as we saw), the Eucharist uniquely contains Christ himself, in the full reality of his presence. And thus it is the chief of the sacramental signs.

Now I realize that my reader might still be wondering how these distinctions really explain anything. Do they tell us how Christ is really present, when all the sensible evidence is that bread and wine are still rather massively there. Aquinas realized the pertinence of such questions, and this is why, in article 4 of question 75, he took up the language of the Fourth Lateran Council and attempted to articulate the Eucharistic change in terms of substance and accident. The specific question that he posed was the following: whether bread can be changed into the body of Christ. Having denied, for obvious reasons, that the change could he through some sort of ordinary local motion (the bread leaving and the body of Christ arriving), Thomas claims that the change takes place at the level of substance, that underlying and essentially invisible substrate that constitutes the deepest identity of a given thing.

The substances of the bread and wine change into the substances of the body and blood of Jesus, even while the accidents (appearances) of bread and wine remain. This change, unlike anything that occurs in nature, is due to the extraordinary intensity of the divine power, which can reach, as it does in the act of creation, to the very roots of reality. The same God who made bread and wine from nothing and sustains them in existence from moment to moment, can transform the deepest ontological centers of those things into something else.

Then how do we explain the perdurance of the accidents, once their proper substances have been changed? Once again, Thomas invokes the divine power. Though God customarily sustains accidents through their proper substances, he can, for his own purposes, suspend the secondary causality and sustain them directly himself. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) said that, at the Eucharistic change, the bread and wine lose their independence as creatures and become, through God’s power, pure signs of Christ’s presence. They no longer point to themselves in any relevant sense, for they have become utterly transparent to the Christ who makes himself manifest through them.

If this talk of substance and accident still seems puzzling, I would suggest that we translate the terms into the more straightforward “reality” and “appearance.” Practically every major philosopher of both the classical and modern periods makes some sort of distinction between what appears and what is. And we are familiar with this demarcation in our ordinary experience. For the most part, appearance and reality coincide (“if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck. .. “); but there are many exceptions to that rule, times when we feel compelled to say, “I know it looks that way, but appearances are deceptive.”

When one gazes at the moon from the vantage point of a speeding car, it can certainly appear as though the moon is moving rapidly across the sky, though we know that this is not in fact the case. Although it certainly looks as though the sun traverses the sky in the course of the day, we know that this is not true, in substance. Or when we look into the distant heavens on a clear night, and we see the tiny lights of the stars, it certainly seems that we are seeing something that is substantially there, but we know that this is false. In point of fact, we are looking into the distant past, for the light from those stars has reached our eyes only after traveling across many years.

Or sometimes we make a judgment about someone’s character based upon one encounter with him, only to discover, after coming to know him much better, that our original impression was quite false. We might subsequently tell a friend, “I know he can seem that way, but he’s really not.” What these ordinary examples demonstrate is that reality is never simply reducible to appearance and that, at times, the deepest truth of things is revealed, not through what we see, but by what we hear from authoritative voices: a scientist, an astronomer, an experienced friend. Thomas Aquinas is arguing that, at the Eucharist, the appearances of bread and wine do not tell the deepest truth about what is really present and that, in point of fact, the authoritative word of Christ does.

Let us return to Ratzinger’s point. In light of his clarification, we can appreciate the eschatological significance of the doctrine of transubstantiation. The Eucharistic elements, fruit of the earth and the work of human hands, are not destroyed or annihilated through the power of Christ; rather, they are transfigured, elevated into vehicles for Christ’s self-communication. In the letters of Paul, we find the mysterious observations that, at the culmination of the present age, Christ “will be all in all” and that all people will come together in forming “that perfect man who is Christ come to full stature.”

Could it be that the Eucharistic elements, transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus, are proleptic signs even now of what Christ intends for the whole of the universe? Could it be that, in them, we can see, however indistinctly, God’s purpose in regard to even the humblest features of his creation? Perhaps, in light of this doctrine, we can begin to understand the mysterious words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist signals the eschatological transsubstantiation du monde (the transubstantiation of the world).

Having explored the nature of the Eucharist, Thomas finally endeavors to explain its effects. The principal consequence of the Eucharist is grace, or a share in the divine life. Since it contains ipse Christus (Christ himself) and since Christ came into the world as the bearer of God’s life, the Eucharist, above any other sacrament or sign, contains and causes grace. This is powerfully symbolized, Thomas suggests, in the appearances of bread and wine that remain after the transubstantiation. Just as food sustains, repairs, and delights the body, so the Eucharist sustains, repairs, and delights the soul. Without the body and blood of Christ, in other words, the spiritual life in us would be compromised by sin, become atrophied and flattened out, and finally would fade away altogether. In article 4 of question 79, Thomas asks whether the Eucharist remits venial sin, and he answers in terms of this master metaphor of food and drink.

Just as food restores to the body that which is lost through everyday effort, so the Eucharist restores that which is drained away from us spiritually through ordinary, day-to-day sins. “Spiritually, on a daily basis, something is lost in us from the heat of concupiscence, through venial sins which diminish the fervor of love.” Since it is Christ himself, who is nothing but the divine love, the Eucharist reignites in us that lost fervor; in short, it remits venial sin. We recall here the story of the conversion of Matthew. To the sacred banquet Jesus invited the sinful Matthew, and then in his wake there arrived a whole crowd of Matthew’s partners in crime.

The Eucharistic meal is the place where sinners are especially welcome, for it is the place where they will find precisely what they need. Why then, we might wonder, does Thomas contend that the Eucharist ought not to be received by someone in the state of mortal sin? By definition, mortal sin is a wrong that has so radically compromised one’s relation to God that it has effectively killed the divine life in the one who commits it. Therefore, just as it would be foolish to give medicine to a dead person, it would be counter-indicated, Thomas concludes, to offer the healing power of the Eucharist to one who is spiritually dead. In saying this, of course, he is only reiterating what St. Paul said to the Christians at Corinth. Commenting on those who receive the Eucharist unworthily, Paul said that they “eat and drink their own condemnation.”

I would like to say a word about the properly delightful quality of the Eucharist of which Thomas speaks. Even the dullest and least appetizing fare would suffice for the maintenance of life; but who among us doesn’t enjoy a tasty and sensually appealing meal? So the Eucharist — in its sumptuous liturgical setting, surrounded by music, art, the word of God, and the prayer of the community– does more than sustain the divine life in us. It delights us, as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. And doesn’t Babette’s feast  come to mind in this context?


Christians and Postmoderns by Joseph Bottum

March 24, 2011


Joseph Bottum


Joseph Bottum is the Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard. A native of South Dakota, he is a graduate of Georgetown University, with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston College. His essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly, Nineteenth-Century Literature, First Things, Commentary, National Review, Philosophy & Literature, and elsewhere. In addition to duties at The Weekly Standard, he is poetry editor of First Things, and host of Book Talk, a nationally syndicated radio program. He has probably gone on to greater things since this writing but the lesson here is undeniable: pay attention to him. VICG (Very Important Catholic Guy).

At A Time Near The End Of The World
We are living at a time near the end of the world. Not that our age is apocalyptic: apocalypse means an uncovering, a revelation, and revelation is what we lack. And not that our age is eschatological: eschatology means the discourse, reason, science, the logos of last things, and all that kind of scientific discourse is coming to an end now. All we have left is the eschaton itself and the disquietude of decline.

The atom bomb, I think, hid this from us for a while, for the atom bomb was such a modern thing. I do not mean just that it was expensive, technologically elegant, and an overwhelming demonstration of mathematical physics; or just that it was bound up with “wargasms” and all the strange destructive sexuality of modern times; or even just that it was modernity’s last sick attempt to master nature. I mean that the atom bomb hid from us the ending going on all around us, and that far from destroying modern times, the atom bomb kept modern times alive for nearly fifty years.

The threat of global nuclear destruction made the eschaton intelligible. All those good-hearted people who demonstrated outside nuclear bases, who signed petitions and held parades-all of them knew why they felt so close to the edge, and all of them knew why their dreams were filled with visions of the world’s end. They had someone to blame; they had an explanation-the sort of explanation modernity had always promised we would have: rational, true, and morally convincing.

The Eschaton Has Slipped Its Leash
But with the diminished threat of nuclear destruction, the eschaton has slipped its leash. The ending all around us has no logos and no science. There is no one to blame, no explanation, and no knowledge. Modern times is collapsing, and all we have left are ironic juxtapositions: looters with cellular telephones, Van Gogh paintings in insurance company boardrooms, crucifixes in vials of urine.

Or, rather, for the modern man and modern woman there is no explanation (though perhaps environmental pollution now replaces the atom bomb in the fully modern eschatology). But to be a Christian is always to have known, in some way, that it would come to this: that there must be a retribution, that the modern atheistic project was corrupt from its beginning, that the godless present age embraces self-destruction and is doomed to be destroyed.

We Cannot Revert To The Premodern Or Age Of Faith
We were all of us raised as moderns, however, and even as I write these words, my own modernness rises up to make me blush. To speak about doom and retribution, about the godless present age, is to sound distinctly premodern, distinctly dated, distinctly benighted and reactionary. It is to sound like the anti-humanistic enemy against whom modernity has campaigned for three hundred years. And I ought to blush, for I profit fully from the modern. I drive my car, keep iced tea in my refrigerator, get my vaccinations, use my computer, turn on my air conditioner in the summer heat.

Suppose, however, that we were nonetheless to declare ourselves against modernity. Suppose we were with wild eyes to denounce the present age, and trumpet doom and retribution through the streets of our cities: brand-new Savonarolas burning brand-new vanities. The state would send armored tanks to take our children, and we would seem no more than madmen filmed by TV crews for the evening news. Or suppose we were to withdraw from the irony of being Christians in these late times and build our medieval communes in the woods. Still the state would come to vaccinate our children, and tourists would come for photographs. No, these are distasteful options, and ineffective anyway. Rebels are bound to that against which they rebel, and were we to rebel against the modern we would find in our anachronisms no positive past, but only a negated present. More, it is in rebellion against the modern that we would find ourselves most truly modern-extra-modern, hyper-modern. Modernity is shaped by its deliberate rejection of the past, and modernity itself is our past. We cannot revert to the premodern, we cannot return to the age of faith, for we were all of us raised as moderns.

And yet, though we cannot revert, we nonetheless have resources that may help us to advance beyond these late times. The modern project that attacked the Middle Ages has itself been under attack for some time. For some time, hyper-modern writers have brought to bear against their modern past the same sort of scarifying analysis that earlier modern writers brought against the premodern past. These later writers, supposing the modern destruction of God to be complete, have turned their postmodern attacks upon the modern project of Enlightenment rationality.

Premodern, Modern, And Postmodern
In some sense, of course, these words premodern, modern, and postmodern are too slippery to mean much. Taken to refer to the history of ideas, they seem to name the periods before, during, and after the Enlightenment; but taken to refer to the history of events, they seem to name the period from creation to the rise of science, the period from the rise of science until World War II, and the period since the war. It is tempting to define the categories philosophically, rather than historically, around the recognition that knowledge depends upon the existence of God. But the better modern philosophers (e.g., Descartes and Kant, as opposed to, say, Voltaire) recognize that dependence in some way or another. Perhaps, though definitions based on intent are always weak, the best definition nonetheless involves intent: it is premodern to seek beyond rational knowledge for God; it is modern to desire to hold knowledge in the structures of human rationality (with or without God); it is postmodern to see the impossibility of such knowledge.

There is thus a curious parallel of thought between premodern thinkers and postmodern prophets of modernity’s destruction. This parallel could be drawn precisely, I think, between the medieval Christian neoplatonists (Dionysius, Eriugena, St. Bonaventure, Eckhart, Cusa) and certain contemporary critics of systematic rationality (Derrida, Foucault, Jameson). But all medievals, even such “rational” philosophers as Averroes, Moses Maimonides, and St. Thomas Aquinas, share certain philosophical ideas that are closer to the postmodern than the modern.

The premoderns said that without God, there would be no knowledge, and the postmoderns say we have no God and have no knowledge. The premoderns said that without the purposefulness of final causation, all things would be equally valueless, and the postmoderns say there is no purpose and no value. The premoderns said that without an identity of reality and the Good, there would be no right and wrong, and the postmoderns say there is neither Good nor right and wrong. Though they disagree on whether God exists, premoderns and postmoderns share the major premise that knowing requires His existence. Only for a brief period in the history of the West-the period of modern times-did anyone seriously suppose that human beings could hold knowledge without God.

By itself, this parallel between premodern and postmodern does us no good, for we cannot use it to return to the age of faith. Postmodernity is still in the line of modernity, as rebellion against rebellion is still rebellion, as an attack on the constraints of grammar must still be written in grammatical sentences, as a skeptical argument against the structures of rationality must still be put rationally. Our conceptions of the premodern and the postmodern turn equally on the modern project. Though the postmodern attack on modernity may move our historical imagination to a periphery from which to view the center, it does not remove us from the circle. The failure of the present age is not cured by recognizing it as failing. We need, rather, a different center in order to hold knowledge.

I choose the phrase “to hold knowledge” deliberately, for the massive scientific advance of modernity reveals how easy it is to discover facts, and modernity’s collapse reveals how hard it is to hold knowledge. We have an apparatus for discovery unrivaled by the ages, yet every new fact means less than the previously discovered one, for we lack what turns facts to knowledge: the information of what the facts are for.

Epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies how we know, gives us a technical vocabulary with which to describe this missing piece of information. Aristotle originally describes knowledge as a grasp of cause and essence: to know a thing, we must know the four causes of its existence and the essential genus and difference of its species. He discovers, however, that the fourth of the causes-the final cause, “that for the sake of which”-is already enfolded in the essence itself. The fullest knowledge of a being is thus, in Aristotle’s description, a grasp of what that being is for. When Francis Bacon and all the other founders of modern science reject final causation, they reject the entire idea of essence: the “beingness” of knowable things.

Yet while epistemology may give us a name for the missing information, it fails to give us a way to demonstrate the necessity for this information. The technical reason for epistemology’s failure is the impossibility of forming a strict genus-and-difference definition of knowledge. Certainly we can define the psychology of knowing, but a definition of the logical content of that knowing soon becomes circular: the act of knowing may belong to the genus of mental acts, but we have no genus for the knowledge thereby known.

It might seem, however, that we do not need to enter into the technicalities of epistemology in order to see the necessity of final causation for knowledge, but we could discover this necessity by examining history instead. As Etienne Gilson once observed, history is the only laboratory we have in which to see the consequences of thought. The empty pit into which the modern project has fallen may well reveal Bacon’s failure far more convincingly than any purely epistemological argument ever could. This is the reason, as I understand it, that Michel Foucault pressed his postmodern attack on modernity by writing histories. The Foucault by whom we are first moved to question modernity, the Foucault by whom we are first shown the absurdity of the modern project from its beginning, is not the Foucault of the epistemological Order of Things and Archaeology of Knowledge, but the Foucault of the historical Discipline and Punish, Madness and Civilization, and Birth of the Clinic. To read these histories is to see the evil of the systematic, the cruelty of impersonal human ingenuity, and the prison of the Enlightenment’s constraining rationality.

The Failure Of The Modern Project
But the history of thought is finally about thought rather than history. The failure of the modern project is a failure of theory, not just practice, and so Foucault wrote epistemology, not just history. Historical studies may point us towards the source of modernity’s collapse, but they do not prove it. We would need, of course, a large book to cover accurately and fairly the thousand shades of modern epistemology, and another large book to demonstrate their failure, and yet another to propose an alternative. Once historical studies have pointed us in the right direction, however, it is actually quite easy to sketch (in a very loose and general way) the epistemological absurdity of the attempt to found knowledge without the transcendental final cause that is God.

To the medieval eye, beings disclose their purposes precisely as they imitate God. God moves things as their final cause: the aim of their growth and motion, the object of their desire. Everything is thus an image of God, for the perfection of a thing would be to be God. “He is Himself the proper type of each,” writes St. Thomas. “The divine essence contains in itself the excellences of all beings, not indeed by way of composition, but by way of perfection.” Even in their imperfections things reveal the hidden Exemplar of their being.

The consequence of this medieval view is that objects of knowledge seem simultaneously real and unreal. They have, enfolded in their presence, an absence that makes them knowable. When we see a face reflected in a mirror, we recognize not only that the reflection is a real reflection, but also that it is not a real face. Similarly, images are real as images, but not real as that of which they are the image. For medieval men and women, knowable things have the strange dual status of being really existing images. But this is what allows them to be known: insofar as they are images, there is something knowable there; insofar as they really exist, there is something knowable there.

We Must Learn To Live After Truth
Francis Bacon’s rejection of purpose, however, is also a rejection of lack. The modern scientist sees the objects of investigation as complete, lacking nothing, wholly what they are. Things are real here before us, and have no absence that requires God. The imagination as an image-former (rather than an image-reader) is the proper faculty of human knowing. Facing fully real things, we render them knowable in the images of language, art, and mathematical science. As an attempt to found an epistemology, this is bizarre.

The logic of knowing tells us that we must abandon any claim to have complete knowledge of whatever it is we have taken as fully real. Between us and whatever is real, a gap opens up. We may discern, perhaps, that the real is, but what it is (its essential “beingness”) retreats behind the impossibility of knowing its purpose. The consequence of this modern view is that things are not what they are said to be. Any time a modern tells us what something is, we are told more about language and its speaker than about the thing of which that speaker speaks, and we ought to recognize the speaker’s hunger for power and desire for domination. Any modern use of essences is philosophically unjustifiable: an attempt to force a unique unknowable individual into a controlled category of knowledge.

And so “we must learn to live after truth,” as a group of European academics wrote in After Truth: A Postmodern Manifesto. “Nothing is certain, not even this. . . . The modern age opened with the destruction of God and religion. It is ending with the threatened destruction of all coherent thought.” Nietzsche may have been the first to see this clearly, though the Marquis de Sade came close in Philosophy in the Bedroom. But, even in the fundamental thinkers of high modernity, hints can be found that knowledge requires God: Descartes uses God in the Meditations in order to escape from the interiority where the cogito has stranded him; Kant uses God as a postulate of pure practical reason in order to hold on to the possibility of morality.

God Is Discovered By Thought To Be Beyond Thought
And yet I am convinced that any attempt to “use” God is self-defeating, and that the very appearance of an epistemologically useful God in the writings of Descartes and Kant contributes to the Death of God described by Nietzsche, and thus to the collapse of knowledge. (This point is made brilliantly by Jean-Luc Marion in God Without Being.) Thanks to the postmodern critique, we can see this collapse with historical clarity; but the fact of our seeing it does not give us God. In the real psychology of conversion, no one comes to believe merely for the sake of guaranteeing knowledge. This has an analogue in the theological realization that God is not mastered by the thought of Him, but discovered by thought to be beyond thought: He is silent where thought most needs Him to speak. And it has an analogue in the epistemological realization that the Divine defeats knowledge for the sake of which we suppose the Divine: God (posited as a transcendental condition for the possibility of knowing) must Himself be unknowable-else we would need to posit some further God as the condition for the possibility of knowing Him. And it has its most accurate analogue in the historical realization that we are not premoderns: we cannot cease to be moderns by rebelling against modernity.

A Distrust Of Modern Claims To Knowledge
But this leaves us in a perilous position. On the one hand, without an unthinkable God who illuminates thinking, we cannot maintain knowledge. On the other hand, the desire to maintain knowledge will not conjure the God who reveals Himself only to faith. The ceremonies of suspicion, in which we have all been trained since Descartes, make falling to a postmodern denial of knowledge easier than climbing to an un-modern belief.

What believers have in common with postmoderns is a distrust of modern claims to knowledge. To be a believer, however, is to be subject to an attack that postmoderns, holding truthlessness to themselves like a lover, never have to face. The history of modernity in the West is in many ways nothing more than the effort to destroy medieval faith. It is a three-hundred-year attempt to demolish medieval (especially Catholic) claims to authority, and to substitute a structure of science and ethics based solely on human rationality. But with the failure to discover any such rational structure-seen by the postmoderns-the only portion of the modern project still available to a modern is the destruction of faith. It should not surprise us that, in very recent times, attacks on what little is left of medieval belief have become more outrageous: resurgent anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic broadsides, vicious mockery of evangelical preaching, desecrations of the Host in Catholic masses. For modern men and women, nothing else remains of the high moral project of modernity: these attacks are the only good thing left to do. The attackers are convinced of the morality of their attack not by the certainty of their aims-who’s to say what’s right or wrong?-but by opposition from believers.

Three hundred years of this attack have created in believers an attitude both deeply defensive and deeply conservative. But the defensiveness springs from the attempt by believers to defend their belief against a “progressive” philosophy that is already rejected intellectually by nearly all cultural commentators, and, I suspect, despised intuitively by nearly all young people in America. Believers should not become entangled in the defense of modern times. This is the key-the postmodern attack on modernity is right: without God, essences are the will to power. Without God, every attempt to call something true or beautiful or good is actually an attempt to compel other people to agree.

Of course believers are tempted, when they hear postmodern deconstructions of modernity, to argue in support of modernity. After all, believers share with modern nonbelievers a trust in the reality of truth. They affirm the efficacy of human action, the movement of history towards a goal, the possibility of moral and aesthetic judgments. But believers share with postmoderns the recognition that truth rests on a faith that has itself been the sole subject of the long attack of modern times. The most foolish thing believers could do is to make concessions now to a modernity that is already bankrupt (and that despises them anyway) and thus to make themselves subject to a second attack-the attack of the postmodern on the modern. Faithful believers are not responsible for the emptiness of modernity. They struggled against it for as long as they could, and they must not give in now. They must not, at this late date, become scientific, bureaucratic, and technological; skeptical, self-conscious, and self-mocking.

Simultaneously Historical And Ahistorical
At the same time we ought to be wary of the immediate practical effect of making common cause with the postmodern. For instance, an attempt to root out modern elements in the church ought to be viewed with the same suspicion we should have for any systematic program of destruction. Nothing in the rejection of modernity tells us how we ought to view the ecumenical movement or the ordination of women. A postmodern critique of the Catholic Church would find less grist in current controversies than in modern elements already present in the Church: the substituted vernacular mass, or the presence of national flags on church daises.

The problem for the Catholic believer in particular is precisely the claim of the Catholic Church to be a catholic church-not a culture or a heritage, but the mystical bride of Christ-a universal and eternal possibility for conversion. It cannot relegate itself to a self- consciously historical role as some gracefully surviving anachronism, some museum of dead forms. The Church militant must somehow be simultaneously historical and ahistorical. However, the problem for every believer, Catholic or not, is the impossibility of choosing to cease being modern. We cannot decide to revert to a community of faith, because the decision requires a self-consciousness that contradicts the unself-consciousness of such community. Any rejection of modernity must step gingerly around this contradiction.

Similarly, we ought to be wary of the theological effect of the postmodern. Certainly no one actually believes for the sake of knowing, or holds irrational faith for the sake of holding rational thought. But the postmodern critique of modernity tempts us to reject rationality rather than surpass it. The relation of Christianity to rationality is, at one extreme, St. Justin Martyr’s claim, “Whatever things are rightly said among all men are the property of us Christians,” and, at the other extreme, Tertullian’s question, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” If the tendency of contemporary theology is to give too much to Justin and the efficacy of rational thought, the tendency of postmodern theology is to give too much to Tertullian and the irrational.

But there is perhaps a use we might make of the postmodern in apologetics, for the collapse of modernity may allow believers to speak once again about God without defensiveness or self-consciousness, may allow believers both to escape political categorization as liberal or conservative and to escape the modern view that sees political categories as fundamental. And there is certainly a use for the postmodern in catechetics. The critique of modernity offers the possibility of reclaiming the long history of belief, the possibility of critically reading medieval authors without supposing them to be involved in the attempt to master God.

St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Anselm, for instance, puts in his Proslogion what a typically modern reading takes as the “ontological argument”: an attempt to prove, by examining the meaning of the word “God,” the existence of a useful transcendental guarantor of thought, whose existence is itself guaranteed by thought. And Anselm seems to invite this sort of separation of the logical argument from its place in his text. He had long sought, he writes, an argument that “would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists” and grant understanding superior to faith: “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.” Indeed, Anselm gave the title Faith Seeking Understanding to early drafts of the Proslogion. Many thinkers-Gaunilo, St. Thomas, Caterus, Kant, Russell-have pointed to certain logical difficulties with Anselm’s demonstration. But we are not committed to resolving these logical difficulties merely by asserting that the modern reading is wrong. Rather, there is opened for us a different way of reading Anselm. The Proslogion has more the structure of prayer than the structure of proof: it begins in the blind depths of unilluminated incomprehension; it ends in worship of the blinding Light. Anselm does not seek as a modern to guarantee knowledge, he seeks as a premodern for the God beyond the guarantee.

Similarly, St. Thomas Aquinas puts in the Summa Theologica his famous Five Ways. A typically modern reading, whether by a believer or a nonbeliever, takes these Ways as five separable attempts to demonstrate the existence of God. St. Thomas sets out, according to this sort of reading, to prove the “God of the Philosophers”: a transcendental guarantor of thought, onto Whose demonstrable features (Prime Mover, Most Necessary Being, Designer of the Universe, etc.) may be super-added the additional features held by faith (appearing in the Burning Bush, descending in the flesh, speaking to Muhammad, etc.).

For the modern believer and nonbeliever alike, there is an unconvincingness about such demonstrations that has little to do with their logic. We know that the existence of God cannot be proven. We come prejudiced against the possibility of demonstration, and are suspicious even where we find no flaw. And we are right to be suspicious. Modern debates about the existence of God are primarily about whether or not a “useful” God is necessary to guarantee the possibility of ethical action. Both sides in the debate take as fundamental that the moral order stands outside of God, and that the God about Whom they argue would operate as a guarantor of that order if He existed. To such debates St. Thomas contributes nothing. A world of interpretation is opened to us when we consider instead that Thomas is not concerned with God’s guarantee of knowledge (though he notices it in passing), but with moving through thought to the unthinkable. The purpose of the premodern Five Ways is not to settle us in modern knowledge, but to move us toward God.

This, of course, is the greatest use for the postmodern. Though we cannot revert to the premodern community of faith, we can reestablish our communion with that community. Modernity was the effort to destroy the claims of the medieval church to authority in order to put its own conceptions of human rationality at the center of human thought. And it is the mocking deconstructive critique of the postmoderns that shows the bankruptcy and the will to power of modern times. Freed from modernity, we can resume faith’s interrupted search for understanding.


Truth and the Consequences of Evolutionary Naturalism — John F. Haught

March 23, 2011

John F. Haught

Evolutionary naturalists, as a rule, do not seem to notice the logical inconsistency between their Darwinian accounts of value, truth and meaning on the one hand and their minds’ actual performance on the other. They instinctively glorify the value of truth, especially scientific truth, as something to which the mind must bend. But their ultimately evolutionary explanations should lead them to doubt their minds’ capacity to put them in touch with truth, as both Darwin and Rorty rightly point out. Assuming that their minds are a product of evolution, after all, there is nothing in the Darwinian recipe alone that would justify their trust that these same minds can reliably lead them to the truth rather than a state of deception. And if they took Darwinian naturalism as ultimate explanation they would have every reason to doubt that they have the capacity to know truth at all.

Even the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who was not a strict adaptationist, could not overcome the naturalistic inconsistency. For Gould, no less than for Flanagan, Dennett, E. O. Wilson and Dawkins, the ultimate explanation of every living phenomenon, including our capacity for truth, is evolution. Life’s diversity and versatility is based on three general features of nature: accidents (undirected events), the law of selection (along with the laws of physics and chemistry) and lots of time. Gould gives more explanatory weight to contingency (especially accidents of natural history) than Dawkins and Dennett do, but the ultimate explanation of organic phenomena, including the brain, is still a combination of blind chance, impersonal necessity and deep time. As far as the present inquiry into the deepest ground of intelligence is concerned, it matters little what proportion is given to each ingredient. The point is that Gould’s evolutionary naturalism views the ultimate explanation of mind — and this would have to include its tendency to value truth — as itself mindless and valueless.

Before Darwin, Gould says, we easily fell into the trap of thinking that nature was inherently valuable and that values and meanings had a reality independent of us. But after Darwin,

we finally become free to detach our search for ethical truth and spiritual meaning from our scientific quest to understand the facts and mechanisms of nature. Darwin liberated us from asking too much of nature, thus leaving us free to comprehend whatever fearful fascination may reside out there, in full confidence that our quest for decency and meaning cannot be threatened thereby, and can emerge only from our own moral consciousness.
[Stephen J. Gould, "Introduction," in Carl Zimmer, Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea from Darwin to DNA (London: Arrow Books, 2003), pp. xvi-xvii (emphasis added).]

According to naturalism, there is nothing beyond nature that could conceivably give any value to the world. So it is left to our own human creativity to give value to things. But does this mean that it is also entirely up to us to decide that truth is a value? According to Gould, values and meaning have no objective status, either in nature or God. The ultimate ground of value is not nature, evolution or God but our own “moral consciousness.” And since there are no values “out there” in the real world, their existence can only be the result of human creativity solidified by cultural consensus.

To be consistent, Gould would also have to claim that the value that naturalists accord to truth is dictated not by nature or God, since nature is valueless and God (probably) does not exist. And yet Gould’s own life and work give evidence of a mind that in fact takes truth to be an intrinsic good. In his actual cognitional performance, both truth and his valuing of truth are irreducible to evolutionary or human creations. The unconditional value Gould finds in pursuing truth cannot be fully explained naturalistically or culturally without rendering that pursuit groundless.

Product of modernity that he was, Gould would probably respond that the naturalist’s sense of human inventiveness allows us to recapture some of the self-esteem that our ancestors gave away to the gods. We can now take back what humans had forfeited during all those millennia when they naively assumed, in keeping with religions, that nature is intrinsically purposeful and that truth, value and purpose are not our own inventions. For Gould, the modern impression of a teleological void is an opportunity to fill the cosmos with our own values and meanings.[Gould, Ever since Darwin, p. 12.]

Once again, however, if we were fully convinced that the value we attach to truthfulness were no more than our own, apparently groundless, creation, then devotion to truth could no longer function as the source of meaning for our lives. Truth would be subordinate to the discretion of our own inventiveness rather than a torch that guides our minds more deeply into the marrow of the real. If evolutionary naturalists took their own doctrines seriously this would only have a corrosive effect on the trust they place instinctively in their own minds’ imperatives to be open, intelligent and critical. As a way of driving home this point, I shall ask you, the reader, to suppose once again that you subscribe to the tenets of evolutionary naturalism. Then I shall ask you whether the facts associated with the actual performance of your own mind are logically compatible with this naturalistic view of reality.

If you are an evolutionary naturalist, you will most probably account for living phenomena, including your own mind, ultimately in terms of the mindless Darwinian recipe for life. As an evolutionary naturalist you will also agree that the ultimate explanation of your various organs — your nose, mouth, eyes, ears and everything else functionally adaptive about you — is Darwinian natural selection. [Gary Cziko, Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution (Cambridge. Mass.: MIT Press, 1995), p. 121.] And, to be completely consistent, you will be compelled to admit that your critical intelligence, which to the pure Darwinian is not a blank slate but has been molded to think the way it does by natural selection, can be explained ultimately also in terms of Darwin’s recipe.[ Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).]

If you follow Gould, you may appeal too to the role of accidents in natural history, and not solely to selective adaptation, in explaining why you have a mind and why it works the way it does. But if you follow ultra-adaptationists such as Dawkins, then the ultimate explanation of your mind and all its features is the (mindless) natural selection of adaptive populations of related genes. In either case, whether by Darwinian adaptation or by sheer accident (or a combination of the two), the ultimate explanation of your capacity to think is itself a set of mindless and unintelligent factors. But if this is right, then on what basis can you trust your critical intelligence, the outcome of an unintelligent process, to lead you to right understanding and knowledge of the truth at this instant? Darwin himself, as we have seen earlier, raised this troublingly subversive question, but he did not follow it up carefully.

Evolution produced intelligence, declares Owen Flanagan, but evolution does not require intelligence to produce intelligence. “Evolution demonstrates how intelligence arose from totally insensate origins.[ Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, p. 11 (emphasis added).] But how then do you and Flanagan justify the confidence you now place in your mental functioning, especially if the ultimate ground of your intelligence is not only unintelligent but even insensate. If not by magic, then how did your dazzling intellectual prowess and the trust you place in it ever pop into this universe from a state of unutterable cosmic dumbness? It would appear, to me at least, that something momentous in the way of explanation has been left out here. A simplistic appeal to deep time and gradualism alone cannot bridge this explanatory gap since the passage of time itself does nothing to cure the fundamental blindness of the process.

If either aimless evolutionary selection or sheer contingency is the deepest possible explanation of your own mental endowment, then why should I pay any attention to you? How do I know — if I follow your own premises — that your mind is not just taking part in one more adaptive (and possibly fictitious) exercise rather than leading you and me to the truth? In company with Dawkins, Gould, Flanagan and others, you are telling me that a mindless evolutionary process along with physical and chemical laws) is the ultimate explanation of your mind and its properties.

Darwinism, you say, is true. I can agree with you scientifically speaking, but what I need to find out is how your mind’s capacity for truth-telling slipped into the fundamentally unintelligent Darwinian universe that you started with. Although evolutionary explanation is essential, any attempt to answer this question in Darwinian terms alone will be circular and magical. In order to justify the assumption that your own mind is of such stature as to be able to understand and know truth, you will need to look for a kind of explanation that evolutionary science, at least by itself, cannot provide.

If you resort only to the idea of adaptation this will not work, since mindless adaptations, as you know well, can be illusory and deceptive. Perhaps then you will tell me that your highly prized human capacity for truth-telling is an incidental, unplanned byproduct of evolution. Perhaps it is something like what Stephen Jay Gould calls a “spandrel.” That is, perhaps your cognitional talent is analogous to the arched surfaces (spandrels) that appear incidentally around the tops of columns whose main function is to hold up the roofs of cathedrals like San Marco in Venice. Such features are not the main architectural objective, but instead they simply appear, unintended in themselves, as the basilica is being erected.

The spandrels, though unintended as such, may be taken as opportunities for great artists to cover them with frescoes or mosaics. And it may be the spandrels and the works of art, rather than the columns, that attract our focal interest as we enter the building. [J. Gould and R. C. Lewontin, "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: a Critique of the Adaptationist Programme," Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, vol. 205, no. 1161 1979, 581-98.] Perhaps, in a similar way, your mind’s capacity for truth-telling is a spandrel that just happened to show up as a contingent side-effect of the adaptive (and otherwise often deceptive and deluded)) human brain.

Or, again, perhaps your critical intelligence is essentially the consequence of cultural conditioning that has little to do with natural selection. In any case, whether you interpret your capacity for truth-telling as a Darwinian adaptation, a spandrel, an accident of nature, or the consequence of enculturation, you will still have failed to justify the trust you are now placing — at this very moment — in your own intellectual activity. Both naturalistic and culturally relativistic explanations of mind provide too shallow a soil to ground the inevitable confidence that underlies your actual cognitional performance. Consequently, if up to this point you have professed official allegiance to evolutionary naturalism, you must now roam outside the circle of that creed in order to find a more solid reason for why your mind can be trusted to know and communicate the truth.  

If you are a Darwinian naturalist you will be given to making claims such as this one by biologist David Sloan Wilson: “Rationality is not the gold standard against which all other forms of thought are to be judged. Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged, along with all other forms of thought.”[ David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)]

I wonder, however, if Wilson is aware of how thoroughly his subordination of rationality to evolutionary adaptation logically undermines not only his claim but also the confidence with which his own mind makes such a claim. Assuming that the statement just quoted is one that comes from Wilson’s own brain, and assuming also that his brain is the outcome of an adaptive evolutionary process, on what grounds can Wilson justify his assumption that readers should take his claim to be rational and true rather than simply an attempt to adapt? If a proposition contrary to Wilson’s assertion had been the one to survive adaptively, then would it not have to be judged rational and true according to Wilson’s proposal? If so, truth would have no stable meaning whatsoever, and pursuit of it could scarcely function to give purpose to one’s life.

Are Darwinian selection, sheer contingency and the vicissitudes of enculturation, therefore, the best we can come up with by way of an ultimate account of intelligence? In particular, can evolutionary science, in any of its expressions, be the ultimate explanation of the spontaneous trust that all of us place in our rational faculties? Or is not Darwinism at best just one of several levels of explanation needed to understand critical intelligence? If the critical (truth-telling) aspect of our cognitional life could be explained ultimately in Darwinian terms, on what grounds can we trust it? We do not have to deny that physics, chemistry and evolutionary biology are all essential layers in the explanation of mind. But in order to account fully for the mind’s natural longing for truth we have to move beyond naturalistic explanation.

Purpose As Anticipation Of Truth
Is it time then to call on theology? By no means, answers Richard Dawkins. Theology only complicates matters, doing nothing really to explain intelligence. After all, theology begins by assuming that there was already a creative intelligence operative in the scheme of things, namely, God. But, Dawkins insists, it is precisely creative intelligence that needs to be explained, not just taken for granted. And to the scientific mind any explanation of intelligence has to be in terms of what is unintelligent. Otherwise it is not an explanation. To explain anything scientifically means to simplify it. Before Darwin, Dawkins says, we had no simple and elegant explanation for intelligence, but now we do. “Darwinian evolution provides an explanation, the only workable explanation so far suggested, for the existence of intelligence. Creative intelligence comes into the world late, as the derived product of a long process of gradual change .. . After Darwin we at last have a universe in which creative intelligence is explained as emerging after millions of years of evolution.[ Richard Dawkins, "The Science of Religion and the Religion of Science," Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Harvard University November 20, 2003). Cited on the Science and Theology website: archives/ 2004_february/ web x richard.html]

What I want to know, however, is how the evolutionary naturalist’s own critical intelligence emerged with such pristine purity from utterly insensate origins. Dawkins’ habitual appeal to gradualism here is no explanation. No matter how much time was available for intelligence to be cobbled together gradually (with the help of blind random variation and aimless natural selection, the question remains as to how naturalists’ own minds acquired just those qualities that allow them to assume that they are in an especially advantageous position to contact what is.

No matter how long it takes to bring intelligence into being out of absolute unintelligence, logically speaking this is still pulling a rabbit out of a hat. By appealing to time’s fathomless depth — as though time itself were causal — Dawkins has not avoided magic either. His assumption is that an enormous amount of time is explanatory, whereas a lesser amount is not. [Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996), pp. 3-37] But then where is the cut-off point? How many millions or billions of years of gradual change does it take before time ceases being a framework and becomes an efficient cause? And, again, how is magic to be avoided?

There is no denying, I must hasten to add, that evolutionary biology and the appeal to deep time can contribute much to an explanation of the origin and nature of the human mind. It is just that it cannot fully explain why the mind can know truth or why we should value truth-telling. I have no difficulty in accepting evolutionary accounts of mind, and I am willing to have the sciences push these as far as they can take us. However, I am questioning whether evolutionary accounts are enough to account ultimately for the trust that you, Gould, Flanagan, D. Wilson and Dawkins spontaneously place in your own minds to lead you (and me) to the truth.

Darwinians, as I have already pointed out, even suspect that deception is one of life’s most adaptive characteristics [See Rue, By the Grace of Guile, pp. 82-127, for a convenient summary.] So if adaptive evolution, or accidents of nature, or social conditioning — or any other random or blindly material happenings underlying life — constitute the ultimate explanation of your own mental functioning, then why are you not suspicious right now that you may be deceiving me and yourself by claiming that naturalism is true?

What strikes me here especially is the degree of disconnection between the evolutionary naturalist’s picture of nature’s inherent unintelligence on the one hand, and, on the other, the especially prized scientific mind that has emerged from this foggy background already equipped with an amazing aptitude to understand and know the truth about things, including the truth of Darwinism. Something really big is missing from the evolutionary naturalist’s account. The degree of separateness — between the primordial dumbness of nature as depicted by naturalism, and the trustworthiness of critical intelligence as it is functioning now — is so severe that the very dualism of mind and universe that naturalism is supposed to have conquered has reasserted itself.

Evolutionary naturalism — as distinct from evolutionary science — must be rejected, therefore, because its method and claims are logically inconsistent with the trust that underlies the naturalist’s own critical intelligence and the sense of purpose that comes with the pursuit of truth. On the other hand, a worldview in which truth is known by anticipation can explain this trust and sense of purpose, and it can do so without in any way contradicting the results of evolutionary science. It is because intelligent subjects can be grasped by truth that the surrender to this noblest of values – one that beckons the mind through the sacramental mediation of the natural and cultural worlds — can function to give our lives a purpose. Truth lights up everything and gives meaning to our lives not because it is created but because it is anticipated. And anticipation, in turn, entails a worldview in which the present state of nature is not only the sunset of the past, but the sunrise of an indeterminate future.


Purpose by John F. Haught

March 21, 2011

 I sing the goodness of the Lord
That filled the earth with food;
He formed the creatures with his word And then pronounced them good.
Isaac Watts, 1715

Is it the goodness of the Lord That fills the earth with food? Selection has the final word And what survives is good.
Kenneth E. Boulding, 1975 [Kenneth Boulding, "Toward an Evolutionary Theology," in The Spirit of the Earth: a Teilhard Centennial Celebration, edited by Jerome Perlinski (New York: The Seabury Press, 1981), pp. 112-13]

IN CONTEMPORARY CONVERSATIONS ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP OF RELIGION TO SCIENCE two questions stand out: is nature all there is? And does the universe have a purpose? The two issues are inseparable. For if nature is all there is, there could be no overall purpose to the universe. That is, there could be no goal beyond nature toward which the long cosmic journey would be winding its way. But if the logic here is correct, then the detection of an overarching purpose in nature would imply that nature is not all there is. In the broadest sense purpose means “directed toward a goal or telos.” The question before us, then, is whether the cosmos as a whole is teleological, that is, goal-directed. Is there perhaps a transcendent goodness luring it toward more intense modes of being and ultimately toward an unimaginable fulfillment? How can we find out?

If cosmic purpose were to manifest itself palpably anywhere in nature, would it not be in the life-world? Yet contemporary biology finds there only an apparent purpose. Scientists, for the most part, seem to agree that there is indeed a kind of purposiveness, or teleonomy, in living phenomena.[Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, translated by Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Vintage Books, 1972).] The heart has the purpose of pumping blood, eyes of seeing, brains of thinking, and so on. Purposiveness in this sense is an indisputable fact of nature. However, the orientation toward specific goals in the life of organisms is not enough to demonstrate that there is an across-the-board purpose to the universe itself. Darwin’s impersonal recipe for evolution now seems to be enough to account for what scientists used to think were signs in living organisms of a divine intelligence that orders all events toward a meaningful end. The adaptive complexity that gave earlier generations of biologists reason to believe in an intelligent deity now only seems to have been purposefully intended.[ Michael Ruse, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 324-28.] Blind evolutionary mechanisms are the ultimate explanation of purposive design.

In a recent interview the famous evolutionist Richard Dawkins states: “I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe. So purpose, at least in the guise of design, has apparently been fully naturalized by evolutionary science. Natural phenomena that formerly seemed to bear the direct imprint of divine intelligence are now exposed as outcomes of a completely mindless process. The adaptive design of organisms gives only the illusion of being deliberately intended. Purpose, at least in any theologically significant sense of the term, simply does not exist.

Dawkins is willing to grant that we humans have “purpose on the brain, [Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 96] and many other naturalists allow that we need a sense of purpose to live happy lives. But this does not mean that life at large or the universe as a whole is in fact purposeful. Viewed from the perspective of evolutionary biology, the old human habit of looking for meaning in nature may be adaptive, but it is illusory. Nature itself has no goals in mind, and the purposiveness of organisms is no signal of an eternal divine plan. It is natural — even for naturalists — to seek purpose, but whatever purpose people seem to find in nature as a whole is in fact a purely human construct, not a reflection of the world as it exists “out there.”

Biologically speaking, evolutionary naturalists emphasize, there is no significant difference between our own brains and those of our ancestors who sought purpose through religion. Our brains and nervous systems are built to look for meaning in things. But in an age of science the personal search for purpose can no longer presume the backing of the universe in the way that religions did in the past. After Darwin the ancient spiritual assumption that purpose is inherent in the natural world has been exposed as nothing more than an evolutionary adaptation.[ Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 262; Walter Burkert, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 20.]

 Maybe the illusion of purpose was invented by our genes as a way to get themselves passed on to subsequent generations. Or, if not directly rooted in our genes, the human passion for purpose is a freeloading complex, parasitic on brains fashioned by natural selection ages ago for more mundane tasks. [Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: the Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 78-79; Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: the Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 145.]

By either account, the penchant for purpose is ultimately explainable in a purely naturalistic way. All human yearning for lasting purpose, whether in the universe or in our personal lives, is groundless. At best, religious myths about purpose are noble lies, perhaps convincing enough to help humans adapt, but too imaginative to be taken seriously in an age of science. [Loyal Rue, By the Grace of Guile: the Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 261-306.]. There is not the slightest evidence that the whole scheme of things makes any sense ultimately.

Can Purpose Be Fully Naturalized?
However, it is necessary to make two points here. First, it is not evolutionary biology, but evolutionary naturalism that rules out purpose. Dawkins himself, as we have just seen, admits that he believes — but cannot scientifically demonstrate — that evolution undermines any theological sense of purpose. Science as such, even the naturalist must agree, has nothing to say one way or the other about any overarching purpose in nature. Science, strictly speaking, is not preoccupied with questions about values, meanings or goals. Teleology is not its concern.

My second point is that evolutionary naturalists, along with some religious believers, tend to confuse purpose with “divine intelligent design.” And since Darwinism can explain local organic “design” naturalistically some claim there is no need any longer to look for purpose in the universe as a whole. To the pure Darwinian, organisms may seem to be designed, but divine intelligence is not the ultimate cause of their “apparently” purposive features. [Dawkins, River out of Eden; Ruse, Darwin and Design, pp. 268-70, 325] Design is the outcome of an evolutionary recipe consisting of three unintelligent ingredients: random genetic mutations along with other accidents in nature, aimless natural selection, and eons of cosmic duration. This simple formula has apparently banished purpose once and for all from the cosmos.

However, the idea of purpose is not reducible to intelligent design. Design is too frail a notion to convey all that religions and theologies mean when they speak of purpose in the universe. Purpose does not have to mean design in the adaptive Darwinian sense at all. Rather, purpose simply means the actualizing of value. What makes any series of events purposive is that it is aiming toward, or actually bringing about, something that is undeniably good. Is it possible that the actualizing of value is what is really going on in the universe? And is not critical intelligence, with its capacity to know truth, direct evidence of it?

There is a close connection between purpose and value. Naturalists would agree with this point, but they doubt that values really exist anywhere independently of our human valuations. Obviously, most of them would agree, we humans have a sense of values that gives purpose to our lives. For example, I take my writing this book to be purposive since its intended goal is that of achieving something I consider good or worthwhile. Likewise, scientific naturalists consider their own intellectual efforts to be purposeful. They tacitly surrender their minds and hearts to the value of truth-telling, a cause they expect to outlive them and give significance to their work even after they are gone.

If they did not consider truth-telling to be an enduring value worthy of the deepest reverence, they would scarcely care whether readers took them seriously, nor would they write books so earnestly instructing us that religions lead human minds away from the truth. Obviously evolutionary naturalists care about truth, and their lives are made meaningful only because truth functions for them as a value worth pursuing. So, in seeking what is unquestionably good, they too have “purpose on the brain.” Were they to deny it, they would eviscerate their own intellectual achievements.

Naturalists maintain that there is a fully natural explanation for everything. But what about the value of truth itself, the value that gives meaning to their own lives? Can that too be explained naturalistically — as a purely human invention? If we really believed that truth is merely a human construct, then the pursuit of truth could no longer function to give purpose or meaning to our lives. To experience meaning in life, after all, requires the humble submission of our minds and lives to a value that pulls us out of ourselves and gives us something noble to live for. [This is a point made emphatically by Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning (New York: Pocket Books, 1959)] It entails a commitment to something greater than ourselves. Having a sense of meaning is the consequence of being grasped by a value or values that we did not invent and that will outlive us. If we sincerely thought that we were the sole creators of truth then truth could no longer function to give purpose to our lives, nor would it allow our intelligence to function critically. If evolutionary naturalists consistently thought that truth — along with other values — were nothing more than the products of genes, minds or cultures, then such a fabrication could no longer function to give meaning to their own lives either.

For a value to be the source of meaning it has to function as more than an arbitrary human invention. If I thought of truth as the product of human creativity alone, then there would be nothing to prevent me from deciding that deception rather than truth-telling should guide my life and actions. The naturalist of course will instinctively reject such a proposal. But why? What is it in the naturalist worldview that makes truth-telling an unconditional value, the absolute good that everyone is obliged to revere? If all the ideals that give purpose to one’s life were seriously taken to be contingent concoctions of the human brain or cultural convention, it would seem inconsistent for naturalists to tell me in effect that I must treat the values of truth and truth-telling as though these were not also pure inventions.

In fact, however, naturalists are not consistent. Typically they deny in their philosophy of nature what they implicitly affirm in their actual ethical and intellectual performance. For example, evolutionary naturalists clearly treat truth as a value that judges their own work, and therefore as something they did not invent. Some of them even devote their whole lives to its pursuit. It is what gets them up every morning. In effect they are serving a cause that they tacitly know will outlast them. Their implicit sense of the lastingness of truth gives continuity to their efforts and satisfaction to their careers. Like the rest of us they are grasped by truth and have submitted their minds to it. At the same time, however, some of their own writings portray truth and other values as pure creations of human minds and, ultimately, of genes. They generally fail to see the logical contradiction between their almost religious obedience to truth-telling on the one hand and their evolutionary debunking of it on the other.

Since the universe itself is inherently valueless, their argument runs, people can all the more easily see that values and meanings must spring from their own creativity.’[E. D. Klemke, "Living without Appeal," in The Meaning of Life, edited by E. D. Klemke (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 169-72; Stephen Jay Gould, Ever since Darwin (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), pp. 12-13.] Owen Flanagan, for instance, says that “we have to find and make our meanings and not have them created and given to us by a supernatural being or force.” Then he adds, “It seems like good news that meaning and purpose are generated and enjoyed by me and the members of my species and tribe, rather than imposed by an inexplicable and indefinable alien being.[ Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 12.]

However, Flanagan clearly performs professionally as though the truth-telling to which he apparently bows in writing his books, including the excerpt I have just quoted, is not simply “generated” by his or his tribe’s inventive minds. If he seriously thought that he was the inventor of all the values he follows, among which truth-telling would have to take a prominent place, then it would seem unlikely that truth could function as a standard against which he could measure critically the content of his mind, or as something that could give his life significance.

Once again, then, naturalism proves to be too restrictive a worldview to contain the minds that thought it up. While Darwinian science can go a long way toward laying out the natural history that led up to the existence of our minds, it is too undersized to function as a worldview that accounts fully for why we are purpose-driven, meaning-seeking and truth-oriented beings. Darwinian explanations by themselves, after all, do not rule out the possibility that nature can create a kind of conscious organism that finds illusions more adaptive than truth. In fact, since truth can often be unsettling, and obedience to it demanding, the flight into fiction could conceivably be much more adaptive than facing up to facts. Some Darwinian naturalists understand religion in precisely this way. Religion is adaptive, they claim, because it allows people to avoid facing reality even while it is giving purpose to their lives.

Such a view, however, makes it all the more difficult to state in purely Darwinian terms how the naturalist’s own mind came to be guided by an exceptionally pure passion for truth. What special events occurred in nature’s normal course of making adaptive minds that allows one now to assume that the naturalistic belief system is not just one more way of adapting, no less illusory than all our other adaptive belief systems? As philosopher Richard Rorty admits, “the idea that one species of organism is, unlike all the others, oriented not just toward its own increased prosperity but toward Truth, is as un-Darwinian as the idea that every human being has a built-in moral compass — a conscience that swings free of both social history and individual luck. [Richard Rorty, "Untruth and Consequences," The New Republic, July 31, 1995, pp. 32-36. Cited by Alvin Plantinga: html]

But perhaps, the naturalist might suggest, the passion for truth does not need to be explained in evolutionary terms after all. Maybe the naturalist’s exceptional flair for truth-telling is the product not of natural, but of cultural evolution. Perhaps when humans came along in evolution they could learn to contradict what their genes dictate and thus elevate themselves to a new level of truthfulness and morality. Richard Dawkins insists that “we have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth. [Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2nd edn. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 200.]However, it is fundamental to the naturalist creed to insist that humans and their cultural creations are all ultimately part of nature. So it would be more consistent with evolutionary naturalism to insist that there has to be a purely natural explanation of everything, including the urge to create culture.

But let us suppose that the move by humans from nature into culture is so abrupt as to render evolutionary understanding irrelevant at a certain point. Perhaps, in other words, the naturalist’s special ability to value truth is a skill that has been inherited through cultural influence rather than natural selection, since in the human arena Darwinism no longer works to explain everything very well. If so, however, this shift of ground only moves my question sideways. Can cultural influences, which we know to be riddled with relativity and historical contingency, explain any more substantially why the naturalist should have developed an exceptional talent for truth-telling? Dawkins, for example, does not provide a non-Darwinian explanation of why truth-telling is morally superior to deception either.

I doubt that moving over to the historico-cultural setting will make it any easier for the naturalist to say why truth-telling is an unconditional good. In any case, if truth were consistently thought of exclusively as either an evolutionary or a cultural invention it could no longer function as a beacon that arouses the imperatives of the mind or gives purpose to lives. Thus we need to consider another possibility: truth, in order to function as a value that gives meaning, must have its foundation in a region of being that transcends both nature and culture. Truth is best thought of as neither a natural nor a cultural creation, but as the anticipated goal of the desire to know. This is how truth functions in fact for naturalists whenever truth-telling gives zest to their lives.

Truth is not something they possess, but something they anticipate. It is not something they concoct, but something that invites a surrender. What remains to be done, then, is for naturalists to bring their formal belief system into harmony with the way their minds actually work. What they tacitly affirm in every commitment of their minds to truth must no longer be denied when they articulate their worldview.

Truth, to reiterate my point, can function to give purpose to human lives only if it is encountered as a value distinct from or transcending our minds. Of course, human creativity enters into all our finite construal of truth, including this sentence. But even such constructs are responses to something like an invitation. We are addressed by truth even as we participate in its representation. There is no understanding of the world that is not in some measure a human construct, including those of both theology and naturalism. Every proposition can be subjected to layered explanation. At one level what I am saying now can be explained as a product of my own brain. At another level it can be explained as the result of my will to understand. But at still another it can be explained as my response to the attractive power of what is, that is, of being, reality, truth. By focusing only on the creative side of the mind’s meeting with truth, naturalistic explanations fail to articulate what it is about truth that compels, persuades, makes us alive with excitement and gives purpose to our lives. To explain ultimately why truth has the power to attract and give purpose to our lives will require moving beyond the naturalistic worldview.


A reading selection: An Entry from The Original Catholic Encyclopedia on Natural Law

March 18, 2011


The Catholic Encyclopedia  was published in 15 volumes between 1907 and 1912 by the Robert Appleton Company. In 1913 the publisher, renamed as Encyclopedia Press, Inc., released a new edition. A year later (1914) a comprehensive Index was released as Volume 16. This entry by James J. Fox.

In English this term is frequently employed as equivalent to the laws of nature, meaning the order which governs the activities of the material universe. Among the Roman jurists natural law designated those instincts and emotions common to man and the lower animals, such as the instinct of self-preservation and love of offspring. In its strictly ethical application — the sense in which this article treats it — the natural law is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.

According to St. Thomas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” (I-II, Q. xciv). The eternal law is God’s wisdom, inasmuch as it is the directive norm of all movement and action. When God willed to give existence to creatures, He willed to ordain and direct them to an end. In the case of inanimate things, this Divine direction is provided for in the nature which God has given to each; in them determinism reigns.

Like all the rest of creation, man is destined by God to an end, and receives from Him a direction towards this end. This ordination is of a character in harmony with his free intelligent nature. In virtue of his intelligence and free will, man is master of his conduct. Unlike the things of the mere material world he can vary his action, act, or abstain from action, as he pleases. Yet he is not a lawless being in an ordered universe. In the very constitution of his nature; he too has a law laid down for him, reflecting that ordination and direction of all things, which is the eternal law. The rule, then, which God has prescribed for our conduct, is found in our nature itself. Those actions which conform with its tendencies, lead to our destined end, and are thereby constituted right and morally good; those at variance with our nature are wrong and immoral.

The norm, however, of conduct is not some particular element or aspect of our nature. The standard is our whole human nature with its manifold relationships, considered as a creature destined to a special end. Actions are wrong if, though subserving the satisfaction of some particular need or tendency, they are at the same time incompatible with that rational harmonious subordination of the lower to the higher which reason should maintain among our conflicting tendencies and desires.

For example, to nourish our bodies is right; but to indulge our appetite for food to the detriment of our corporal or spiritual life is wrong. Self-preservation is right, but to refuse to expose our life when the well-being of society requires it, is wrong. It is wrong to drink to intoxication, for, besides being injurious to health, such indulgence deprives one of the use of reason, which is intended by God to be the guide and dictator of conduct. Theft is wrong, because it subverts the basis of social life; and man’s nature requires for its proper development that he live in a state of society.

There is, then, a double reason for calling this law of conduct natural: first, because it is set up concretely in our very nature itself, and second, because it is manifested to us by the purely natural medium of reason. In both respects it is distinguished from the Divine positive law, which contains precepts not arising from the nature of things as God has constituted them by the creative act, but from the arbitrary will of God. This law we learn, not through the unaided operation of reason, but through the light of supernatural revelation.

We may now analyze the natural law into three constituents: the discriminating norm, the binding norm (norma obligans), and the manifesting norm. The discriminating norm is, as we have just seen, human nature itself, objectively considered. It is, so to speak, the book in which is written the text of the law, and the classification of human actions into good and bad. Strictly speaking, our nature is the proximate discriminating norm or standard. The remote and ultimate norm, of which it is the partial reflection and application, is “the Divine nature itself, the ultimate groundwork of the created order. The binding or obligatory norm is the Divine authority, imposing upon the rational creature the obligation of living in conformity with his nature, and thus with the universal order established by the Creator.

Contrary to the Kantian theory that we must not acknowledge any other lawgiver than conscience, the truth is that reason as conscience is only immediate moral authority which we are called upon to obey, and conscience itself owes its authority to the fact that it is the mouthpiece of the Divine will and imperium.

The manifesting norm (norma denuntians), which determines the moral quality of actions tried by the discriminating norm, is reason. Through this faculty we perceive what is the moral constitution of our nature, what kind of action it calls for, and whether a particular action possesses this requisite character.

Radically, the natural law consists of one supreme and universal principle, from which are derived all our natural moral obligations or duties. We cannot discuss here the many erroneous opinions regarding the fundamental rule of life. Some of them are utterly false — for instance, that of Bentham, who made the pursuit of utility or temporal pleasure the foundation of the moral code, and that of Fichte, who taught that the supreme obligation is to love self above everything and all others on account of self. Others present the true idea in an imperfect or one-sided fashion. Epicurus, for example, held the supreme principle to be, `Follow nature”; the Stoics inculcated living according to reason.

But these philosophers interpreted their principles in a manner less in conformity with our doctrine than the tenor of their words suggests. Catholic moralists, though agreeing upon the underlying conception of the Natural Law, have differed more or less in their expression of its fundamental formulae. Among many others we find the following: “Love God as the end and everything on account of Him”; “Live conformably to human nature considered in all its essential respects”; “Observe the rational order established and sanctioned by God”; “Manifest in your life the image of God impressed on your rational nature.”

The exposition of St. Thomas is at once the most simple and philosophic. Starting from the premise that good is what primarily falls under the apprehension of the practical reason — that is of reason acting as the dictator of conduct — and that, consequently, the supreme principle of moral action must have the good as its central idea, he holds that the supreme principle, from which all the other principles and precepts are derived, is that good is to be done, and evil avoided (I-II, Q. xciv, a. 2).

Passing from the primary principle to the subordinate principles and conclusions, moralists divide these into two classes: (I) those dictates of reason which flow so directly from the primary principle that they hold in practical reason the same place as evident propositions in the speculative sphere, or are at least easily deducible from the primary principle. Such, for instance, are: “Adore God”; “Honor your parents”; “Do not steal”; (2) those other conclusions and precepts, which are reached only through a more or less complex course of inference. It is this difficulty and uncertainty that requires the natural law to be supplemented by positive law, human and Divine.

As regards the vigor and binding force of these precepts and conclusions, theologians divide them into two classes, primary and secondary. To the first class belong those which must, under all circumstances, be observed if the essential moral order is to be maintained. The secondary precepts are those whose observance contributes to the public and private good and is required for the perfection of moral development, but is not so absolutely necessary to the rationality of conduct that it may not be lawfully omitted under some special conditions. For example, under no circumstances is polyandry compatible with the moral order, while polygamy, though inconsistent with human relations in their proper moral and social development, is not absolutely incompatible with them under less civilized conditions.

(a) The natural law is universal, that is to say, it applies to the entire human race, and is in itself the same for all. Every man, because he is a man, is bound, if he will conform to the universal order willed by the Creator, to live conformably to his own rational nature, and to be guided by his reason. However, infants and insane persons, who have not the actual use of their reason and cannot therefore know the law, are not responsible for their failure to comply with its demands.

(b) The natural law is immutable in itself and also extrinsically. Since it is founded in the very nature of man and his destination to his end — two bases which rest upon the immutable ground of the eternal law — it follows that, assuming the continued existence of human nature, it cannot cease to exist. The natural law commands and forbids in the same tenor everywhere and always. We must, however, remember that this immutability pertains not to those abstract imperfect formulae in which the law is commonly expressed, but to the moral standard as it applies to action in the concrete, surrounded with all its determinate conditions. We enunciate, for instance, one of the leading precepts in the words: “Thou shalt not kill”; yet the taking of human life is sometimes a lawful, and even an obligatory act. Herein exists no variation in the law; what the law forbids is not all taking of life, but all unjust taking of life.

With regard to the possibility of any change by abrogation or dispensation, there can be no question of such being introduced by any authority except that of God Himself. But reason forbids us to think that even He could exercise such power; because, given the hypothesis that He wills man to exist, He wills him necessarily to live conformably to the eternal law, by observing in his conduct the law of reason. The Almighty, then, cannot be conceived as willing this and simultaneously willing the contradictory, that man should be set free from the law entirely through its abrogation, or partially through dispensation from it.

It is true that some of the older theologians, followed or copied by some later ones, hold that God can dispense, and, in fact in some instances, has dispensed from the secondary precepts of the natural law, while others maintain that the bearing of the natural law is changed by the operation of positive law. However, an examination of the arguments offered in support of these opinions shows that the alleged examples of dispensation are: (a) cases where a change of conditions modifies the application of the law, or (b) cases concerning obligations not imposed as absolutely essential to the moral order, though their fulfilment is necessary for the full perfection of conduct, or (c) instances of addition made to the law.

As examples of the first category are cited God’s permission to the Hebrews to despoil the Egyptians, and His command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But it is not necessary to see in these cases a dispensation from the precepts forbidding theft and murder. As the Sovereign Lord of all things, He Could withdraw from Isaac his right to life, and from the Egyptians their right of ownership, with the result that neither would the killing of Isaac be an unjust destruction of life, nor the appropriation of the Egyptians’ goods the unjust taking of another ‘s property. The classic instance alleged as an example of (b) is the legalization of polygamy among the Hebrews. Polygamy, however, is not under all circumstances incompatible with the essential principles of a rationally ordered life, since the chief ends prescribed by nature for the marital union — the propagation of the race and the due care and education of offspring — may, in certain states of society, be attained in a polygamous union.

The theory that God can dispense from any part of the law, even from the secondary precepts, is scarcely compatible with the doctrine, which is the common teaching of the School, that the natural law is founded on the eternal law, and, therefore, has for its ultimate ground the immutable essence of God himself. As regards (c), when positive law, human or Divine, imposes obligations which only modify the bearing of the natural law, it cannot correctly be said to change it. Positive law may not ordain anything contrary to the natural law, from which it draws its authority; but it may — and this is one of its functions — determine with more precision the bearing of the natural law, and for good reasons, supplement its conclusions. For example, in the eyes of the natural law mutual verbal agreement to a contract is sufficient; yet, in many kinds of contract, the civil law declares that no agreement shall be valid, unless it be expressed in writing and signed by the parties before witnesses.

In establishing this rule the civil authority merely exercises the power which it derives from the natural law to add to the operation of the natural law such conditions as the common good may call for. Contrary to the almost universally received doctrine, a few theologians held erroneously that the natural law depends not on the essential necessary will of God, but upon His arbitrary positive will, and taught consistently with this view, that the natural law may be dispensed from or even abrogated by God. The conception, however, that the moral law is but an arbitrary enactment of the Creator, involves the denial of any absolute distinction between right and wrong — a denial which, of course, sweeps away the very foundation of the entire moral order.

Founded in our nature and revealed to us by our reason, the moral law is known to us in the measure that reason brings a knowledge of it home to our understanding. The question arises: How far can man be ignorant of the natural law, which, as St. Paul says, is written in the human heart (Rom., ii, 14)? The general teaching of theologians is that the supreme and primary principles are necessarily known to everyone having the actual use of reason. These principles are really reducible to the primary principle which is expressed by St. Thomas in the form: “Do good and avoid evil”. Wherever we find man we find him with a moral code, which is founded on the first principle that good is to be done and evil avoided. When we pass from the universal to more particular conclusions, the ease is different.

Some follow immediately from the primary, and are so self-evident that they are reached without any complex course of reasoning. Such are, for example: “Do not commit adultery”; “Honor your parents”. No person whose reason and moral nature is ever so little developed can remain in ignorance of such precepts except through his own fault. Another class of conclusions comprises those which are reached only by a more or less complex course of reasoning. These may remain unknown to, or be misinterpreted even. by persons whose intellectual development is considerable. To reach these more remote precepts, many facts and minor conclusions must be correctly appreciated, and, in estimating their value, a person may easily err, and consequently, without moral fault, come to a false conclusion.

A few theologians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, following some older ones, maintained that there cannot exist in anyone practical ignorance of the natural law. This opinion however has no weight (for the controversy see Bouquillon, “Theologia Fundamentalis”, n. 74). Theoretically speaking, man is capable of acquiring a full knowledge of the moral law, which is, as we have seen, nothing but the dictates of reason properly exercised. Actually, taking into consideration the power of passion, prejudice, and other influences which cloud the understanding or pervert the will, one can safely say that man, unaided by supernatural revelation, would not acquire a full and correct knowledge of the contents of the natural law (cf. Vatican Council, Sess. III, cap. ii). In proof we need but recall that the noblest ethical teaching of pagans, such as the systems of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, was disfigured by its approbation of shockingly immoral actions and practices.

As the fundamental and all-embracing obligation imposed upon man by the Creator, the natural law is the one to which all his other obligations are attached. The duties imposed on us in the supernatural law come home to us, because the natural law and its exponent, conscience, tell us that, if God has vouchsafed to us a supernatural revelation with a series of precepts, we are bound to accept and obey it. The natural law is the foundation of all human law inasmuch as it ordains that man shall live in society, and society for its constitution requires the existence of an authority, which shall possess the moral power necessary to control the members and direct them to the common good. Human laws are valid and equitable only in so far as they correspond with, and enforce or supplement the natural law; they are null and void when they conflict with it.

The United States system of equity courts, as distinguished from those engaged in the administration of the common law, are founded on the principle that, when the law of the legislator is not in harmony with the dictates of the natural law, equity (aequitas, epikeia) demands that it be set aside or corrected. St. Thomas explains the lawfulness of this procedure. Because human actions, which are the subject of laws, are individual and innumerable, it is not possible to establish any law that may not sometimes work out unjustly. Legislators, however, in passing laws, attend to what commonly happens, though to apply the common rule will sometimes work injustice and defeat the intention of the law itself. In such cases it is bad to follow the law; it is good to set aside its letter and follow the dictates of justice and the common good (II-II, Q. cxx, a. 1).

Logically, chronologically, and ontologically antecedent to all human society for which it provides the indispensable basis, the natural or moral law is neither — as Hobbes, in anticipation of the modern positivistic school, taught — a product of social agreement or convention, nor a mere congeries of the actions, customs, and ways of men, as claimed by the ethicists who, refusing to acknowledge the First Cause as a Personality with whom one entertains personal relations, deprive the law of its obligatory basis. It is a true law, for through it the Divine Mind imposes on the subject minds of His rational creatures their obligations and prescribes their duties.


The Temptation Of The Saint by Ranier Maria Rilke

March 17, 2011

A longer stay in Paris in 1902/03 inspired Rilke to write an account about his experiences gained in the French capital. He finished his work several years and working interruptions later in 1910. But by then, he hadn’t any longer written a simple account about his impressions of everyday life in Paris, he had written a novel which reflected also his ways of thinking changed over the course of years.

The Notebooks consist of 71 fragments, being the notes of the young Danish writer Malte Laurids Brigge. Arranged in the form of a diary, Malte’s notes consist, roughly speaking, of three parts: his experiences in Paris, reminiscences of his childhood and reflections about historical personalities. — The first part is dominated by his intense impressions of everyday life in Paris, a life full of stench, dirt, illness, and death, but also a life full of technological change and increasing anonymity. The second part becomes somewhat quieter in tone, as Malte remembers his childhood on Danish castles, his encounters with the supernatural and his difficult family life. The last part is the most demanding one, as there are reflections about kings, saints and medieval women poets (which reflect clearly Rilke’s own opinion).

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge are a varied collection of impressions, reminiscences, thoughts, fears and reflections. They are the authentic and moving description of a sensitive life, whose acts and thoughts are influenced by non-existing family ties and a feeling of social estrangement. It is a story of the (unconscious) search for something which might be able to provide the lonely protagonist what he had been forced to do without and always longed for stability and security. Written in a beautiful language full of deep emotions and moving descriptions, we recognize in Malte the Uprooted, the Insecure, the Seeker, someone who hasn’t found yet the meaning of his life. If you decide to let yourself in for the story, you will be rewarded with a profound and thoughtful novel about the difficult search for one’s own identity.
A Review by “Gretchen”
at Http://


HOW WELL I UNDERSTAND those strange pictures in which Things meant for limited and ordinary uses stretch out and stroke one another, lewd and curious, quivering in the random lechery of distraction. Those kettles that walk around steaming, those pistons that start to think, and the indolent funnel that squeezes into a hole for its pleasure. And already, tossed up by the jealous void, and among them, there are arms and legs, and faces that warmly vomit onto them, and windy buttocks that offer them satisfaction.

And the saint writhes and pulls back into himself; yet in his eyes there was still a look which thought this was possible: he had glimpsed it. And already his senses are precipitating out of the clear solution of his soul. His prayer is already losing its leaves and stands up out of his mouth like a withered shrub. His heart has fallen over and poured out into the muck. His whip strikes him as weakly as a tail flicking away flies. His sex is once again in one place only, and when a woman comes toward him, upright through the huddle, with her naked bosom full of breasts, it points at her like a finger.

There was a time when I considered these pictures obsolete. Not that I doubted their reality. I could imagine that long ago such things had happened to saints, those overhasty zealots, who wanted to begin with God, right away, whatever the cost. We no longer make such demands on ourselves. We suspect that he is too difficult for us, that we must postpone him, so that we can slowly do the long work that separates us from him. Now, however, I know that this work leads to combats just as dangerous as the combats of the saint; that such difficulties appear around everyone who is solitary for the sake of that work, as they took form around God’s solitaries in their caves and empty shelters, long ago.

The Song Of The Beggar

I am always going from door to door,
whether in rain or heat,
and sometimes I will lay my right ear in
the palm of my right hand.
And as I speak my voice seems strange as if
it were alien to me,

for I’m not certain whose voice is crying:
mine or someone else’s.
I cry for a pittance to sustain me.
The poets cry for more.

In the end I conceal my entire face
and cover both my eyes;
there it lies in my hands with all its weight
and looks as if at rest,
so no one may think I had no place where-
upon to lay my head.

Luke 9:58
And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”


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