Posted on: July 4th, 2020 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 for 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 the latter 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 for 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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Posted on: December 28th, 2016 Thomas, Eternal World, & Comps

Geek alert: this post is intended only for theology / philosophy nerds!

I have various motives for blogging; any particular blog post might be motivated by any number of things. Sometimes, as in the current case, I am motivated to blog by the urgent need to remember something, especially in its details and with textual evidence. The need to remember it, and the desire to discuss it with others, partly in order to remember it.

I turn my attention to the issue of the eternity (or the infinite temporal duration) of the world, an urgent issue in the medieval context of thought–the very phase of the history of philosophy in which my comps study partner and I are engaged–because of the intersection in this period  between religions (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) on the one hand, and the (re)discovery of Aristotle on the other.

Clearly, as attested in _De Caelo_ II.1, Aristotle believed in the infinite temporal duration of the cosmos (both past and future), in particular of the heavenly bodies and their circular motion.

How do the religious thinkers of the medieval period respond to this philosophical position, presumably held to be based on reason alone? I will focus only on two: Averroes and Aquinas.

Averroes’ position is that, since philosophy trumps other modes of knowledge (namely, religion / “dialectic” and rhetoric / poetry), it is true, based on demonstrative knowledge, that the universe has always existed. (In fact in his _Incoherence of the Incoherence_ he argues that the matter of the celestial bodies is co-eternal with God, and that infinite temporal duration in the past is amenable to reason due to the circular nature of the celestial motion which it measures or with which it is coextensive: for Averroes nothing is pernicious about an infinite regress as long as it is “circular,” as long as it contains elements in the “chain” which precede and follow themselves.)

As Marquette philosopher Richard Taylor explains in this podcast, Averroes does not quite hold to the “double truth” theory that used to be the accusation leveled against 13th century members of the University of Paris Arts Faculty such as Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia, but, still, he somehow manages to “affirm” both the eternality of the world and the Muslim version of the doctrine of the creation of the world, at “time zero.” He affirms the former as a philosopher and for philosophers, and the latter as a religious / legal scholar for religious folks and the people for whom he legislates.

Although, technically, this might not be a version of “double truth,” thanks be to God that this is not the approach which St. Thomas takes on this perennial issue. Rather, assuming (as he elsewhere argues) that we know some things by faith and other things by reason, he maintains that, although there is, based on reason alone, nothing irrational about Aristotle’s view, nevertheless it is an article of faith (or an object of faith), that the world as created by God has an absolute beginning in time, before which point it (along with everything else, including time) did not exist. (See Summa I.46.2.)

A few additional points about Thomas’ stance in all of this.

  1. Near the end of his “On the Eternality of the World,” Thomas does clarify that “nothing can be co-eternal with God, because nothing can be immutable save God alone,” thus indicating that, apparently on the basis of reason alone, the celestial bodies are not eternal. (Yes, apparent contradictions abound in such thorny issues.)
  2. This is also the context in which he clarifies that ex nihilo–as in, creatio ex nihilo–is simply a negation: “not created out of anything.”
  3. In the Summa Contra Gentiles II.37 he clarifies that “one could conceive of the universe as always existing yet totally dependent upon its creator: if the act of creating is inherently instantaneous, then there is no need that God temporally precede the universe to be its creator.” See David Burrell, “Aquinas and Islamic and Jewish Thinkers,”in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, ed. Norman Kretzmann and Eleanor Stump (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1193), 72-3.
  4. In the above context of the Summa Theologiae (I.46.2), Thomas is at pains to make it clear why we Christians must state plainly that the temporal beginning of the world is an “article of faith,” and not an object of reason:

And it is useful to consider this, lest anyone, presuming to demonstrate the what is of faith, should bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith.

An admonition applicable to fundamentalists of all ages!

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Posted on: October 10th, 2013 Charles Taylor & the “Two Speeds”

In A Secular Age Charles Taylor discusses the issue of the “two speeds” in the church. That is, at least since the rise of monasticism & St. Benedict, there has been in the church a kind of distinction between the ordinary “lay people” (Lat. laicus) and the more “spiritually advanced” members of holy orders, religious and “secular.”

What Taylor is doing in this book is (among other things) giving a kind of genealogical account of what intellectual and cultural developments led to the kind of secular world in which we live, in which (for example) atheism seems more obvious to people than historic Christian faith. The question is “How did the secular world come to be?”

One of the developments which Taylor points to is the attempt on the part of various and sundry reform movements, particularly throughout the medieval period, to “flatten out” the various distinctions among “religious” people and the ordinary secular folk. Of course, a primary movement like this is the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

Now anyone familiar with Taylor will know that he is not given to brash, unqualified positions. Rather, especially in a work like this one, he tries to be descriptive and nuanced. Thus it is at times a challenge to discern the precise role he imputes to such movements, let alone to detect his final evaluation of them.

And yet, it is difficult to resist the c0nclusion that such reform movements played a complicit role in the rise of the modern world, and to the extent, then, that this book is a subtle and complex critique of modern secularism, such movements are viewed with suspicion.

This account resonates with me. It is easy for me to lay much blame for the contemporary marginalization of theology and church at the feet of the Reformation in particular, although for many years I subscribed to the opposite view that the original Protestant movements (and subsequent communities which were loyal to them, such as British Presbyterianism) could be viewed as a kind of “counter-Enlightenment,” almost like a reformed & renewed version of medieval Christendom.

Yet this has not been my position for several years now, at least since my conversion to Anglicanism. I cannot now resist the temptation to view the 16th century Reformation as an essential ingredient of the rise of western modernity, and Taylor’s point about the Reformation’s attempt to flatten out the “two speeds” makes a lot of sense to me.

And yet, I do agree with John Milbank and others in Radical Orthodoxy that this is an example of a movement which – however destructive and ill-conducted – was in fact reaction against a real problem in the Catholic Church. That is, the ultimate cause or problem is, as always, within the Church’s “own house.” (Note that RO and similar movements are, when at their best, not just a critique of modern secularism but also of the conditions within the church and within Christendom which gave rise to modern secularism.)

In other words, even if Taylor is right to criticize the flattening out of the two speeds, it does not follow from this that the “dual speed arrangement” was legitimate in medieval Christian culture. Rather, the resources were always there in the Church, perhaps, to overcome this false dichotomy and to empower all the faithful to live the life of Christ to the fullest, in the deepest possible ways. (Two possible counterpoints would be what some would regard as the failure of halakhic Judaism, and Paul’s injunction to celibacy in I Cor 7.)

To this end, I appeal to Scripture, namely the Psalms and the “new covenant” which is described in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10.

The psalms are replete with a celebration of delighting in the law of the LORD, and this certainly does not seem to be limited to some “higher class.” Rather, all people chanted such Psalms as Psalms 19 and 119 in the gathered assembly of the Temple (note that it is the simple who are made wise by the law in Ps 19:7):

Psa. 19:7       The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;

Psa. 119:1     Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD!
Psa. 119:18     Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law.
Psa. 119:29     Put false ways far from me
and graciously teach me your law!
Psa. 119:34     Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Psa. 119:44     I will keep your law continually,
forever and ever…. (ESV)

In addition it is difficult for me to envision some kind of “remedial level” of spirituality as compatible with the “new covenant” language of Jeremiah 31, which implies a full penetration of intimate “cutting” in covenant with the Spirit of God.

“And they will not teach each other or say to one another ‘know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Heb 8:11, quoting Jer 31:34, NRSV)

Seems like “one speed” to me.





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