Notes on sin, death, sacrifice (a brief sketch)

If there is a contradiction between modern evolution and orthodox Christian theology, it goes something like this:

Christianity (the biblical story) says that humans die (and suffer disease) only because of sin (e.g., Rom 8:10). But evolution says that animal and biological death was a necessary condition for the evolutionary emergence of the human being.

This seems like a contradiction (or something like it), because in order for both the biblical story and evolution to be true, one must must hold that without sin, a death-filled process led up to the emergence of a creature who was never going to die, who was never “intended” to die.

Unless. Unless what my friend Nathan Jennings implies in his book Liturgy and Theology is true. For there he suggests that what God has always wanted (and had always wanted) from humanity is sacrifice, including self-sacrifice. Just as Paul in Rom 12 urges Christians to “present your bodies as living sacrifices,” so also Adam (not intended merely literally) was always supposed to lay down his life in sacrifice to God (and others?). Then and only then, could God raise the human up (or resurrect the human) to an even higher kind of life.

(Nathan develops this idea, among other ways, in terms of the significance of the creation of the human on Day 6, and making some connections about eating.)

If this is right, then it means that we can have both evolution and the biblical story, for death has always been part of God’s plan. For lower creatures, it was part of the process leading up to Adam; for Adam (or humans) it was intended to be in the form of pre-resurrection self-sacrifice.

In conclusion, then, we can say that what the Fall (or the entrance of sin into the world) brings about not death, not even human death. Rather, it brings about involuntary human death.

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Hösle on Luther’s post-Reformational Germany

The following lines are so interesting that I cannot but quote them in full:

In his great study Die europäischen Revolutionen[1] Eugen Rosenstock–Huessy (1888–1973), one of the last German universal scholars in the humanities and social sciences, spoke of a “princely revolution” in connection with the Reformation. The formation of religiously autonomous small states with their own local universities (whereas the U. of Paris had been a European university) and an officialdom devoted to the sovereign and enjoying great prestige was one of the most important results of the German Reformation. In the seventeenth century, as in the Middle Ages, England got along with only two universities, but this did not in the least hinder its rise to become the economically and politically most advanced nation in Europe, while German had about forty universities, despite its late adoption of the institution. Princes and professors/pastors/officials were the pillars of the new order, and while the princes disappeared in 1918, Germany is still basically, even in its Catholic areas, a professors-and-officials state such as exists nowhere in the world. Although on most questions Lutheranism occupies a middle position between the Catholic Church and the Reformed denominations that freed themselves from medieval ideas much more decisively than Luther did, there is one issue one which Calvinism stands closer to Catholic doctrine than does Lutheranism, namely the right of resistance, to which both Catholicism and Calvinism cling. Luther, by contrast, radically rejects this right, and however much he believes he is authorized by Scripture to reject the right to resist (Romans 13), seen from the outside it is clear that this rejection is the price he had to pay for the protection of the princes. The peculiar combination of freedom of conscience with an insistence on subservience, even to unjust rule, long remained one of the distinguishing marks of Lutheranism in Germany. —Vittorio Hösle, A Short Hist of German Philosopy, 30.


[1] This is a plural noun.

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Redeeming the Modern Myth of Progress

What if the progress myth of secular modernity is correct, at least in large part?

I’m now wondering if, entertaining the possibility that, after the advent of the Gospel, there is something inevitable about the development of history, about the “rational” unfolding of historical progress.

Not inevitably in the sense of the absolutely necessary, but rather in the sense of an implicit logic. If one were to develop this claim, one would need to articulate an appropriate understanding of the following three dynamics:

  • The propaedeutic of the Gospel, or the legacy of classical Greek thought as the handmaiden (ancilla) of philosophy. The idea here is that the relationship between Greek philosophy (especially that of the logos) and the early (that is, apostolic and patristic) interpretation of the events of Jesus of Nazareth is not random or aleatory. Rather the former sets the stage for the latter; the latter fulfills the former in an analogous way that it fulfills the Hebrew scriptures of (what Christians call) the Old Testament, to wit:
  • The nature of the progress from Old Covenant (in Israel) to New Covenant (in Christ). Of course, this is what the New Testament is about in its fundamental nature. It grapples with the question, “How can we, members of the community constituted by Jesus Christ, remain in continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures, or the religious traditions of our ancestors (the Torah, circumcision, Temple worship, etc.)? How can we follow Jesus of Nazareth, and, at the same time, maintain our identity as faithful Jews? In the teachings of Jesus (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel), in Paul’s letters (his privileging of spirit over letter), and in the book of Hebrews we find a clear insistence that, while the New is faithful to the Old, it is, at the same time and in some sense, better.
  • The outgrowth of (what I will call) universal spirit from the seeds of Christian theology/culture. This is the most difficult claim to develop of the three, and yet it is nonnegotiable. For when it comes to the rise of modern science, the distinction between church and state, the ideal of self-governance rooted in individual freedom, and the respect of human rights, in every case it is clear that these developments grow out of the soil of Christianity. Not, admittedly, Christianity in the abstract or in pristine isolation. We should fully concede that in the West Christianity is “corrupted”: by influences of the Roman empire, by pagan thought, by heresies, etc. And yet, the soil is Christian soil. The growth of these institutions and ideals would not exist but for the prior historical condition of Christianity. Christianity implies modern science, for creation links up with our rational minds (given the imago dei). It leads to the ideal of a state which is not simply identical to or a container for the church, for it is born from the soil of martyrdom at the hands of coercive power. It leads to self-rule, for the Holy Spirit leads God’s people into all truth, baptism is the great equalizer, and the Gospel is “no respecter of persons.” It implies the respect of human rights, because each person has dignity, being created in the image of God, as well as being the object of the sacrificial love of Christ in his crucifixion.

The point is that, in light of these three dymanics (perhaps there are additional ones), one can affirm a kind of intelligible development in the history of Western civilization, given the advent of the Gospel. This is the fundamentally valid insight of Hegel (and Joachim of Fiori), and it has led to the modern notion of the myth of progress.

Yet while I’m arguing that the myth of progress is (in some sense) correct and valid, nevertheless it must be drastically emended in one particular regard: the relationship between Christianity and secular modernity. For centuries the common assumption has been that secularism will win out over Christianity. This, precisely, is the one false tenant of the modern progress myth, for what has become evident in our time is that secular modernity (in its current iteration) cannot resist the temptation to eat itself, to self-destruct. One need only to point to the incommensurate agendas of identity politics (the outgrowth of liberal political theory cum late capitalism), to the destruction of our natural habitat globally, to the futility of technological innovation devoid of meaning. Of course, this self-destructive tendency, too, grows out of Christian soil. Indeed it may be the case that Christianity also eats itself; but if so it does so in a fecund way that is ultimately life-giving.

Yet what is far from clear is that secular modernity will, in the end, triumphantly root out the Christian religion or the Eucharistic community. While the counter claim is beyond the scope of this present essay, at the very least one can see that Christianity’s demise at the hands of secularism is far less certain than the three developments sketched above. (Appeal to the owl of Minerva here might be an appropriate riposte.) The claim, in the end, relies upon the self-destruction of secular modernity: who can possibly doubt that? And after its demise? What then? Surely the continued presence of the Christian church in its wake does not unduly tax the imagination.

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Premodern Human “Perfection”

I grew up in a wonderful family with a mom and a dad who loved each other, loved Christ, and were healthy in the sense that they were always repenting, always striving to be more faithful to Christ and to each other.

And yet … it was, in truth, a fundamentalist family. So some of the thematics would frequently emerge were, well, distinctive to that culture.

One example. A frequent tirade on the part of my father against “sinless perfection.” Apparently some Christians believed that it was possible to live a life in total utter obedience to God, with not a single shred of sin in one’s life. (Frequently my dad identified the precise target of his ire as followers of John Wesley and the occasional Baptist “Arminian.”) One interesting case study in this context was C. S. Lewis: while my family in general revered him with awestruck admiration (which, to this day, I still do), at times he seemed to imply a high view of “Christian perfection.”

What?!? Did he not get Luther’s point about semper justus et peccator?

It turns out—or so I’d argue these several decades later—that here as elsewhere Lewis was actually faithfully channeling a deep current of Catholic sensibility.

For premodern thinkers of the kind that Lewis strove to represent—thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas—”perfection” has a connotation somewhat different from my dad’s apparent grasp of it. It really begins with the notion of telos, since in Greek “perfect” is teleotês. It really just means a substance (in Aristotle’s technical language) doing its “work” so as to fulfill its purpose. When an acorn successfully becomes an oak tree, it is teleotês; it is fulfilling its purpose. Same for when a car gets you from point A to point B.

Yet no one in the premodern world would say that that acorn or the car is “perfect” in every respect. After all, the air conditioner in the car might be broken. Yet, if it gets you to point B, it is fulfilling its telos, and in that sense is “perfect.”

Now for most premodern thinkers after Aristotle, human beings are like acorns and automobiles: they have an objective purpose. (This is what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “functional concept.”) Aristotle calls it eudaimonia, or “happiness.” He thinks, and Aquinas and C. S. Lewis agree, that humans are able to achieve happiness (in some sense).

One example of many would be St. Thomas’ Summae Theologiae, I-II, Q. 71 A. 1. There he states that

Virtue implies … a disposition whereby the subject is well disposed according to the mode of its nature: wherefore the Philosopher says (Phys. VII.17) that virtue is a disposition of a perfect thing to that which is best, and by “perfect” I mean that which is disposed according to its nature.

Note the way he speaks of perfection in this passage.

Does this make them “Arminian”? Not at all: it just means that the imagined something different from what we do when they thought of perfection.

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Theology Necessary for Philosophy

In an insightful article on Bonaventure’s Hexaëmeron, Junius Johnson writes:

Bonaventure believes that human understanding in its natural state ought to be able to arrive at the contemplation of God as the first principle. This is Bonaventure’s version of natural theology. Yet philosophy recognizes that to attain this [ultimate] science the virtues are necessary. And so natural reason must be exercised in the exemplary and Cardinal virtues. At this point it looks as if the text is progressing directly to understanding elevated by contemplation, and yet this is the 4th vision, not the second. The problem is that, because of the fall, the virtues are not able to reach their end apart from grace. But the knowledge that the human soul is fallen and the consequent knowledge that the effect must be healed and satisfaction made before the virtues can be truly exercised cannot be reached by reason, but requires faith. Understanding endowed by nature thus naturally arrives at the second vision, understanding elevated by faith.[1]  

This is a clear and succinct argument for how and why philosophy needs theology. If the emergence of something like contemplation (I’m thinking here of Bk. X, ch. 7 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) is native to the very endeavor of philosophy, then theology is required. Why? Because contemplation requires virtue (as even the philosophers admit), which is why this topic appears only at the end of the Ethics. And yet, for someone like Bonaventure, after the fall full virtue (or the virtue required for the purposes of this discussion, at least) is off-limits to the human being, apart from “theological givens/gifts” such as grace, revelation, and faith.

By the way, I see an analogy in St. Thomas with this line of Bonaventurian thinking, in the Angelic Doctor’s treatment of sapientia in the Summa Theologiae. There he treats wisdom twice, in two different contexts: not only is it an intellectual virtue (in line with Ethics VI) that applies science or scientific thinking to the highest causes/realities (I-II, 57.2), but it is also a divine gift (II-II, 45.3). The upshot here is that full sapientia—surely part and parcel with ultimate contemplation—requires grace.

[1] Junius Johnson, ““Unlocking Bonaventure: the Collationes in Hexaëmeron as Interpretive Key,” The Thomist 83 (2019): 277–94, at 286.

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