Sunday, January 11, 2009

American Obscurantism

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but--more frequently than not --struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God...

Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and know nothing but the word of God...

Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.

But since the devil's bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she's wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil's greatest whore.

-- Martin Luther

Okay, is that custom church sign too provocative with its Martin Luther quote? Maybe so, but I'm sorry. The direction that Protestantism in this country is heading in is scaring the heck out of me.

I saw this graphic in the Boston Pilot a couple of weeks ago, which was culled from a November 2008 Harris Poll.

Belief in God is roughly the same... but I don't know which bothers me the most, the fact that only 32% of Protestants believe in the Theory of Evolution (although the statistic of only 52% of Catholics isn't necessarily something to crow about), that over half of Protestants believe in Creationism, or that over half of Catholics believe in ghosts and nearly half believe in UFOs.

In the 2007 Harris Poll, they made a distinction between Protestants and Born-Again Christians for some strange reason, and only 16% of Born-Again Christians indicated that they believed in evolution.

What accounts for the differences? I suppose most everyone would agree that it boils down to the sola scriptura principle and biblical literalism. The only thing puzzling about that particular explanation is that there are references to ghosts in the Bible.

As for UFOs, I guess people could make the argument based upon numerical probabilities. One thing I'm pretty sure of. If UFOs were mentioned explicitly in the Bible, the percentage of people who believed in them would skyrocket significantly. I've always found this a curious thing about sola scriptura... People who will believe without a shadow of a doubt that a virgin had a baby, that a crucified man rose from the dead, that there are three persons in one Godhead, and that the Son is co-eternal with the Father, all based upon evidence in ancient texts, are vehemently loathe to accept something like the Immaculate Conception because it's "not biblical" and will ridicule the very notion as "man-made superstition."

A priest in my parish is fond of saying that "faith should take us beyond reason but should never take us beneath reason." We could all debate about whether or not all Christian doctrines are beyond or beneath reason, but one thing is certain, and that is that the Catholic Church has a long tradition of at least leaving a place for reason in the dialogue.

The Catholic Church takes a lot of heat over the Galileo affair, sexism, and its supposed retrograde thinking in a whole host of areas, but it's not entirely clear that the reformers offered an improvement in this regard by any means.

In his marvelous book Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages, author Richard Rubenstein tells the fascinating story of how Aristotle was rediscovered in Europe and how after a long struggle, aristotelian philosophy, which underlies the origins of modern secular science, was succesfully integrated with Catholic theology by Thomas Aquinas and others. From the editorial review:
Christian theologians rediscovered Aristotle through the commentaries of the monk Boethius, who argued in the sixth century that reason and understanding were essential elements of faith. There resulted a tremendous ferment in the study of Aristotle in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, culminating in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who used Aristotle's notion of an Unmoved Mover and First Cause to construct his arguments for God's existence. Aquinas, too, argued that reason was a necessary component of faith's ability to understand God and the world.
There was opposition to scholasticism to be found of course, from such quarters as the Dominicans' Franciscan rivals, but the Protestant reformers in particular were utterly contemptuous of Aristotle and the "sophistry" of the schoolmen. In the extended quote below, Rubenstein explains how this represented a step backward from the hard-won achievements of those who championed aristotelianism, and for the synthesis between faith and reason.

With Luther's theological revolution, the separation of faith and reason foreshadowed by William of Ockham's philosophy and Meister Eckhart's religious practice was realized. One is not surprised to discover that Luther and John Calvin opposed Copernicus's sun-centered astronomy as vehemently as did the Catholic Holy Office. The Protestant leaders had determined that the individual's relationship to God need not be mediated by popes and priests; that "Scripture alone," not the authorized interpretations and doctrines of the Roman Church, represented God's unalterable word; and that the papacy was neither authoritative in matters of law nor infallible in matters of doctrine.

By the time they finished stripping away "non-apostolic" customs and doctrines, there would be little left of the Church as a public institution. Moreover, the attack on scholastic theology would tend to put questions of belief beyond the realm of rational argument. Luther "knew" that man is justified by faith alone because, while reading the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, he came upon Paul's quotation from Habakkuk, "He who through faith is righteous shall live," and was illuminated." Suddenly, he understood the relationship of faith to salvation. Because of this experience, his sermons took on a new character. As a classic biography of the Reformer puts it:

It was not an eloquent rhetorician or a pedantic schoolman that spoke, but a Christian who had felt the power of revealed truths, one who drew them forth from the Bible, poured them out from the treasures of his heart, and presented them all full of life to his astonished hearers. It was not the teaching of a man, but of God."
This was all very well if one agreed with Luther's interpretation of the passage from Romans, but many other Christians (including most Catholics) did not. How to determine, in such cases, which interpretation was correct?

Eliminating the Church as the sole authorized interpreter of Scripture opened the door to the fundamentalist approach, which asserts that such-and-such is the literal meaning of the text, not an interpretation at all, or that a particular interpretation is divinely inspired, and therefore unquestionable. In Luther's time and afterward, Christians fed up with fanciful, allegorical interpretations of the Bible that reflected the prejudices of the interpreter were inclined to embrace this type of literalism, especially if it was accompanied by the sort of illumination that Luther himself had experienced.

Fundamentalist literalism, in other words, was not a feature of the medieval worldview from which modern rationalists had to be "liberated." It came into the world as a result of the same attack on Aristotelian-Christian thinking that produced secular science. One can imagine this as a sort of intellectual nuclear fission. Bombarded by its early modernist opponents, Aristotelianism implodes, generating a coldly objectivist science and a passionately subjectivist religion.

Follow one of these links to watch a short video featuring the Vatican Astronomer Fr. George Coyne SJ, discussing evolution (hat tip to Maria at Confessions and Contemplations by way of Busted Halo).


crystal said...

Great post - I like George Coyne and have read some about him. Guy Consolmagno SJ too. I think they are examples, partly, of why more Catholics believe in UFOs :) - Catholics are more science-friendly. Guy Consolmagno has spoken on the UFO things here and there.

But I think not all Protestants are against reason - the Episcopalians seem very ok to me in that regard.

I haven't read much of Luther, but I agree with him about purgatory and indulgences. And I guess I lean more towards dependence on scripture alone than tradition. Tradition is just basically the opinions of some guys - maybe smart guys, maybe inspired guys, but still guys. The gospels instead are the only real representations we have of the words and acts of Jesus. I'm not saying the religious experience of those in the past doesn't matter - it does - but to be told I must believe it is asking too much, imo.

Liam said...

Very good post, Jeff.

As far as ghosts and UFOs go... I wonder if, with the multiplicity of devotions and approaches that exist in Catholicism, Catholics are more willing to entertain the unexplained more easily than the fundamentalists do. I think of Harry Potter. That kind of thing tends to bother fundamentalists more, possibly because their world is reduced to one form of being religious, and everything else is opposed to that. They get just as nervous about Catholic devotions. With the richer Catholic universe, there may be room to say, "Ghosts? UFOs? Why not?"

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal. I have to tell you quite honestly, I haven't heard the word "purgatory" in a Catholic church in over 40 years. I've never heard the word "indulgence" mentioned at all. I don't know a single Catholic who spends their time calculating how many years they're knocking off of purgatory by earning indulgences saying novenas or rosaries or whatever.

As for the 16th century, Luther was certanly right in condemning the abuses concerning the sale and trafficking of indulgences. John Paul II and plenty of other Catholics besides him have pretty much come out and said so.

I guess I lean more towards dependence on scripture alone than tradition.

With all due respect, really? Even though you don't care much for most of the Old Testament and a lot of what St. Paul said about homosexuals and women?

Episcopalians put quite a premium on tradition. So much so that a lot of Lutherans and Calvinists are reluctant to classify them as Protestants.


I think that's probably true, and consistent with a more sacramental worldview

crystal said...

Jeff, I only really like the gospels. As for indulgences being old stuff, check this out :)

Garpu said...

Did you read the interview with the head astronomer at the Vatican? He talked about how aliens would in no way contradict the teachings of the Church, and that they'd be just as much a part of Creation as we are.

I really think the lack of reason is a low-church thing, though. Look at their clergy: almost none of them have M.Divs or any degree in theology. If they don't value scholasticism in their clergy, you aren't going to see it among them.

Remind me to hug a Dominican next Sunday. They think of study as a kind of prayer. (I believe that's one of the only things they can be excused from the Divine Office for.)

Garpu said...

Here we go. I really like being Catholic sometimes. :)

Jeff said...


You know Benedict... Can't ever admit the hierarchy's been wrong about anything. That's his way of saying that the sale of indulgences was wrong but the idea of indulgences wasn't. As far as I can tell, even the staunchest radtrads pay no attention to that stuff. Anyhow, they're there for people who feel comforted by them. If nobody feels a need for them (which nobody does anymore), fine.

I only really like the gospels.

I don't think 4 out of 72 (or even 66) books will cut it for Sola Scriptura. The Crystal Tradition - Sola Evangelium!! I like it. :)


The Brother From Another Planet!

cowboyangel said...

As the title of your post suggests, this is really about the state of our whole country and the obscurantism that's so strong right now. I'm not convinced that it's essentially a Catholic-Protestant issue, despite difference shown in the statistics. For one thing, there's really no such thing as a "Protestant." There are numerous strains of Lutherans who are very different from each other; Baptists of many stripes, from fairly radical American Baptists to the conservative Southern Baptists, though I've been to a charismatic Southern Baptist church that met in a Catholic church, so there are even degrees within that small sliver of Protestantism. There are Mennonites and the Amish. There are myriads of Methodists and Presbyterians. Basically, anything that's not Catholic is considered Protestant. So how much can you read into any statistic that separates Catholics and Protestants? If you enjoy the categorizations, then, sure, you can reach all kinds of conclusions, but my own experience tells me that the real divisions run across denominations - conservative and evangelical Catholics are more like some Protestants, and liberal Catholics are often very similar to liberal Protestants.

My point being, that this American Obscurantism has its roots elsewhere, IMHO. It gets intertwined with religion, but I think it's driven by something else - mainly culture (which, admittedly includes religion, but is not restricted to it) and politics.

The tension between reason and faith has always been an interesting one for me. It's very similar to the tension between inspiration and technique in the arts. I think balance is the key. The Greek word poiesis, which gives us "poetry," means to make, create, produce - and included technique. And the balance changes from time to time, depending on what's going on in one's own life, in the culture around you, etc. If there's too much reason, we wouldn't have any mystics or surrealist poets and painters. The creative imagination is vital to the survival and growth of the species, and it can be imprisoned by reason and logic. On the other hand, not enough reason and you get excess and cults and self-indulgence on one hand and the Bush-Cheney administration invading Iraq on the other.

We do need more reason right now in our country. But I don't really want to go back to some utilitarian, scientific enlightenment thinking that we had plenty of in the 20th century. That leads to its own horrors.

Ironically, I don't fully believe in Evolution. It's just a theory. And theories are usually, down the road, found to be true in some aspects and not true in others. Imagine if we still fully believed in all of the scientific theories from 1809. Where would we be? I imagine at some point in the future, people will look at Darwin and evolution and say, "Well, he got a lot right, but boy, what an idiot when it came to X."

Humans, in their own era, always seem to think they've figured everything out. They don't make the mistakes of those poor, uneducated people in the past. Until, of course, we become the past, and the later generations look at us and say, "Wow, what a bunch of stupid dweebs. And they dressed so funny."

Saul and the Witch of Endor is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. That wasn't just any ghost - that was a Shakespearean or Homeric ghost. Saul, Samuel and David - the great Shakespearean tragedy of the OT.

But there are UFOs in the Bible. what about the first chapter of Ezekial?!?!?

4 And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.

5 Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.

6 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.

7 And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.

8 And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.

9 Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.

10 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.

11 Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.

12 And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.

13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.

14 And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.

15 Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.

16 The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.

17 When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went.

18 As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.

19 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.

20 Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.

21 When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.

22 And the likeness of the firmament upon the heads of the living creature was as the colour of the terrible crystal, stretched forth over their heads above.

23 And under the firmament were their wings straight, the one toward the other: every one had two, which covered on this side, and every one had two, which covered on that side, their bodies.

24 And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters, as the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of an host: when they stood, they let down their wings.

Liam said...

William's said a lot of great stuff, most of which I heartily agree with. It is true that a Catholic/Protestant divide is not the most helpful thing in the world, because both categories contains multitudes of approaches and temperaments. At the same time, I do think there are some attitudes I've noticed that I think do come from the Protestant tradition (though not all Protestants share them and not all Catholics are immune to them). One is a terrible fear of falling into idolatry. I've heard Protestants interacting with Catholics, or even ones who've converted to Catholicism, who get noticeably anxious when considering things such as images, Marian devotion, rosaries, relics, etc. They take the "I am a jealous God" thing very much to heart. For fundamentalists, this extends to what they consider more subtle interpretations of the Word of God or also to the promises of reason. Now Catholicism has had its struggles between reason and faith as well (thin Bernard's fight's with Abelard), but the stark universe of corrupted humankind imagined by Luther and Calvin seems to offer a greater platform of mistrust for anything that is not scripture and an abstract God.

This is not meant as a criticism of Protestantism in general, just a comment on a strain of it. There are also fundamentalist Catholics, of course -- though they tend more to be fundamentalists about liturgy or authority than about scripture.

Did anyone see the article in the Times this weekend about a hip indie megachurch with a terrifying Calvinist theology?

Garpu said...

Mars Hill? They're a bunch of whackjobs, who border on a cult.

Jeff said...

It's not the point of this blog to go off on anti-Protestant rants. I just have some concerns. It's certainly true that there is a spectrum that runs across Protestantism, but there is actually quite a bit of diversity within Catholicism too.

A Congregationalist from Massachusetts is bound to be quite different in outlook from a Southern Baptist in Mississippi (or a certain feline Presbyterian we know who's visited Liam's blog), but I do think the rightward drift of Protestantism over the last couple of decades has been real and persistent. The liberal mainline Protestant churches are vanishing. I reserve the right to find it troubling that less than 1/3 of the people who identify themselves as Protestants in this country don't believe in evolution.

To William's point, there have been commentators like Jay Davison Hunter who've pointed out since the 80s or so that the traditional vertical divisions by religion in this country (Catholic|Protestant|Jew) have been largely replaced by horizontal divisions that cut across those towers (liberal vs conservative), but I think that's being offset now by certain neo-Calvinist and Pentecostal movements. Not only do we see it with megachurch groups like Mars Hill, but this is a very hot theological issue right now in the Southern Baptist Convention, and there are a lot of young turks out there attracted to the no-compromise types like John MacArthur, James White, and R.C. Sproul.


Ironically, I don't fully believe in Evolution. It's just a theory.

You understand, of course, that the term "theory" carries a lot more weight in scientific discourse than it does in everyday conversation. It has a lot more proof behind it than a hypothesis, and there are very few scientists out there now who seriously challenge it. As George Coyne puts it, it's the best theory we have unless someone can come up with a better one. Your points about history are certainly valid and well-taken. Stephen Jay Gould wrote a lot about it in The Mismeasure of Man. Darwin's theory has been used to underpin a lot of junk science along the notions of racial superiority and eugenics, and that always has to be watched closely. Darwinism, si, Social Darwinism, no.... Fortunately, a lot of evolutionary scientists are well aware now that evolution speaks to how much we are all alike as a human family rather than how different we are across races. Still, there are the odd few dangerous guys out there like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

We had some people in our parish who left for a local megachurch. We are still friends with them. A lot of it had to do with a kind of "one-stop-shopping" that caters to them and makes everything easy and available to them, but mostly I think it came down to their secular politics.

cowboyangel said...

I should clarify... I don't disbelieve in the theory of evolution. To be frank, I don't even know what evolution as a theory entails, as I've never studied it. For whatever reason, I've never been interested in the religious/philosophical/cultural debate about evolution.

I believe there is some kind of Creator. How he/she/it came up with our planet and its creatures is beyond me.

I'm just skeptical of scientific "truths" in general. For the reasons I mentioned before. What we think are proofs now may not be proofs in the future. Or the proofs may point to something entirely different. Things change. Our concepts of gravity have changed over time. And in each era, the scientific theories for gravity and what it was, where it came from, etc. were considered pretty much absolute. No?

I reserve the right to find it troubling that less than 1/3 of the people who identify themselves as Protestants in this country don't believe in evolution.

Sure. And I think what you're talking about is basically correct, and is quite interesting - and disturbing. I just think it may be broader than Protestantism, per se. I think it would be really interesting to see that figure broken down by various denominations and by regions. As you say, "A Congregationalist from Massachusetts is bound to be quite different in outlook from a Southern Baptist in Mississippi."

I agree with you about the diversity within Catholicism. Do you know of any studies of various sub-groups within American Catholicism? Protestantism is easier to break into pieces, because they broke themselves into pieces. Catholics are harder, I think, to categorize. (Good for them.)

Because even liberal vs. conservative doesn't really do justice to the complexity of Catholics. You being a prime example!

Liam said...

William -- I think most scientists would agree with you. Science at its best is a process, not a truth set in stone, although it is true that some people regard "science" as something that can explain everything (I'm talking to you Richard Dawkins) and that can be as problematic as any other fundamentalism.

Catholics are usually divided into conservative and liberal, but that only works with those who are eager to define themselves. I am very liberal in many ways, but (for example), I hate guitar masses. I don't mind their existence, but they don't make me feel very worshipful.

Jeff said...


What, you being skeptical of pronouncements made by authority figures? I can't believe it. ;-)

You being a prime example!

Well, I may be complex, or I may just be schizophrenic.

Or... I may be struggling to stay consistent despite being such a hound.

I think it would be really interesting to see that figure broken down by various denominations and by regions.

I think that has a bit to do with why they took a run at separating out Born-Agains as a distinct group in the 2007 study. I'm not sure why they didn't show a table for that in the 2008 study. One thing seemed to trend consistently, though. The more frequent the church attendance, the less buying-in on evolution.

A long time ago I put up a quiz post. Beliefnet has a What Kind of Catholic Are You? quiz, but the categories seem wholly inadequate to me. It doesn't allow for the kind of situation that Liam makes reference to, where someone may be liturgically conservative, but more liberal on doctrinal issues.

Andrew Greeley (who is on the mend, btw) is a pretty good statistician and sociologist. He might have some good studies out there. I'll try to see if I can find some.

Rather than a liberal vs conservative split, I'm more inclined to see the main divisions falling between what Timothy Radcliffe OP calls "Kingdom Catholics" and "Communion Catholics."

Lee Faber said...

Um, slightly off topic, but the medieval Franciscans were not a pack of obscurantists opposed to the "scholastic" dominicans. They had many more theologians than anyone else in the middle ages, and wrote a lot about Aristotle (although it was aristotle's principle that everything that is moved is moved by another that held the scholastics back from developing modern science themselves). Some of them even rejected aristotle on certain points and came close to developing modern mathematical theories (Nicolas de orbellis) or impetus/momentum theories (francis of marchia)