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The Nominalist Church At Year Zero

Why modern Christianity will dissolve, and only sacramental Christianity can endure

If you missed Ross Douthat’s excellent post “Catholicism at Year Zero,” please make sure to read it now. It does a superlative job of explaining why progressive-vs-orthodox dialogue (such as it is) within Catholicism goes nowhere. There are lessons here for all small-o orthodox Christians. Excerpts:

Unfortunately in other ways I fear [a progressive Catholic professor] and I lack some of the common ground that co-religionists should share, and that his essay is illustrative of the real chasm separating the sides of the current Catholic controversy, and the difficulties involved in trying to dialogue across such a wide expanse.

This absence of common ground manifests itself in two ways. First, in discussing how we might assess biblical texts and their implications, Professor Martens seems to skip rather quickly from 50 A.D. to the 20th century, from the first apostles to the most recent pope. By which I mean that while his two models, Jerusalemite and Ratzingerian, are illuminating and important, he largely leaves out what seems like the most traditionally Catholic criteria for determining what is and isn’t “fundamentalism,” what counts as “legalism” as opposed to just fidelity, and how and whether doctrine can develop, namely: What the church has already taught on the matter.

Citing the case of the Council of Jerusalem, he proposes a kind of spiritual/sociological model for discernment of development, involving prayer, dialogue, the experience of mission work and more; citing Ratzinger, he proposes an intellectual model for discernment of development, with particular tests that might be reasonably applied. But these models, for all their potential wisdom, are also ones that any start-up Christian communion might adopt. Whereas part of the point of being Catholic — or so one might hazard — is that the church also has two thousand-odd years of prior argument, prior interpretation, and yes, prior rulings to tell us where the rough boundaries of our tradition lie.

Where matters are clearly unsettled, in other words, Martens is offering reasonable criteria to guide the church. But by only emphasizing those criteria, he seems to imply that no question is ever permanently settled, that one interpretation simply succeeds another as the church’s history unfolds.

This is the core difference between progressive Christians and orthodox ones: the nature of religious truth and authority. Ross continues:

But can you be an orthodox Christian if you believe that Jesus’s teaching was shaped and stamped by all-too-human limitations? Can you be a Roman Catholic Christian?

However they answer the first question, clearly a number of Catholic theologians think the answer to the second question should be “yes.” But then it’s hard not to see the “Roman Catholicism” being envisioned as something that’s basically Anglican except more so, in which you have your semi-Arian or Deist wing over here and your high-Christology wing over there and everybody just assumes that unity matters more than orthodoxy and agrees to muddle through.

Except, again, that Anglicanism isn’t muddling through anymore, and except that a great many Catholics, living as well as dead, would look at the above description and say “that ain’t no Catholicism, bruv.”

And of course I’m one of them. Which is why, as I said in my lecture for First Things, it’s been illuminating in the Francis era for conservatives like myself to see how, well, liberal liberal Catholicism really is — how quickly partisans of reform turn revolutionary, how quickly they move from issues that really are just about discipline, to issues that touch on doctrine, to issues that go to the heart of Catholic tradition and identity, to issues that go to the heart of Jesus’s identity. And by the end of all that movement, a Catholic center that I once thought existed often seems to be crumbling away.

Read the whole thing. 

These are the stakes facing all Christians right now. The modern, progressivist form of Christianity is suicidal, not because progressive Christians are bad people (many of them are surely more genuinely loving than I am), but because it lacks the foundation to hold on to what makes Christians distinctively Christian. If we are perpetually at Year Zero, and each generation gets to interpret Scripture as it wishes to, then what keeps Christianity from being completely assimilated by the post-Christian world? Where are its anchors that keep the faith from being swept downstream and over the falls?

Catholicism, Orthodox, and orthodox forms of Protestantism locate the anchors in somewhat different places, but they all agree that there are definite anchors. As Ross points out, (many?) progressives deny that there are anchors at all. Everything is up for re-negotiation. What was true yesterday is now false; what is true today may be false tomorrow. There is no authority binding our own judgment; it is all up to us.

As Charles Taylor has said, there is no escaping awareness of the power of choice all modern people have. This is a tremendous burden. It can be quite difficult to accept some things as given. I know this intimately, given my own unsettled religious pilgrimage. I do believe, however, that there is a fundamental and irreconcilable difference between Christians who believe that Truth exists independent of ourselves, and can be known (however imperfectly), and those who do not share that confidence. At the risk of offending philosophers, I would say that the difference is between Realist Christians and Nominalist Ones.

This distinction has nothing to do with the depth of their commitment. It has to more to do with their metaphysics. Here’s an interesting (I hope) way to demonstrate what I mean. Bear with me, this is a bit convoluted, but I want to get at this in a different way than the usual method, a juridical argument about authority.

Here’s a great new review of the novel Laurus; the reviewer is Justin Ryan Lonas. Excerpts:

The way time moves (or doesn’t) in Laurus is reminiscent of Slaughterhouse-Five, with Arseny “unstuck” in time. Whereas Vonnegut’s clock-play evokes an underlying banality to life, what Vodolazkin achieves is more akin to prophecy—unfolding reality with a rising spiral of metaphysics.

Events and themes seem to reverberate through the book and beyond. What occurs is never in isolation from everything else in the story, but reaches across time and space to give significance to what comes before and after. Like biblical prophecies, which so often have immediate, intermediate, and ultimate fulfillments as they ripple out from their proclamation, the phases of Arseny’s story rhyme, often with repeated phrases and mirrored scenes. For example, early in the book, Arseny sees his older self staring back at him through a fire; the same few paragraphs are retold from the perspective of the old man some 200 pages later, as they behold one another and weep together.

In Laurus, time is sacramental. What does this mean? As you know, I’ve been reading Evangelical theologian Hans Boersma’s terrific book on sacramental ontology, Heavenly Participation. Citing the Catholic nouvelle theologian Fr. Yves Congar, Boersma says that in “sacramental time

past, present, and future can coincide. As a result, people from different historical eras can participate or share in the same event. Congar maintains that it was the Holy Spirit who effected this transcending of ordinary temporal limits: ‘It is the characteristic work of the Holy Spirit to effect a communication between realities despite their limits and the distances separation them …” When chronological time opens up, as it were, eschatological realities themselves are able to enter into it.

More Boersma:

Perhaps the most important reason modernity has made it difficult for us to acknowledge any kind of authoritative role for tradition is the fact that we look at history rather differently from the way people interpreted it throughout the millennium of the Platonist-Christian synthesis [the first thousand years of Christianity — RD]. In nominalist fashion, we tend to look at time as a simple succession of distinct moments, unrelated to one another; we regard event X, which took place ten years ago, as no longer present, and thus in principle as unconnected to event Y, which is taking place today. This is not to say that we deny historical cause and effect. We realize quite well that, through a number of traceable historical causes, event X gives rise to event Y. The point, however, is that we regard the two events as separate. Going back to our discussion about analogy and univocity, we could say that we view the two events as univocal moments in time: they have the same kind of reality or being, and are not intertwined in any real sense. As Charles Taylor puts it: “We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done.” Univocal time gives us the control that we desire in the secularity of modernity.

… Augustine’s conception of time was sacramental: time participates in the eternity of God’s life, and it is this participation that is able to gather past, present, and future together into one.

Boersma says that the entering of the eternal, infinite God into time and finitude, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, allows “time to participate sacramentally in eternity.”

What does this have to do with the impasse between the orthodox Catholic Douthat and his progressive Catholic interlocutors? Boersma is on it, saying that both Protestants and many Catholics have come to accept nominalist metaphysics, which occasion a loss of the sacramental dimension of time:

Evangelicals have largely abandoned a sacramental view of time (as have many Catholics), and this desacramentalizing has impacted the way we have decided on doctrinal issues. Because we tend to regard the time period of the biblical author and our own small moment under the sun as two distinct or separate moments, (univocally) identical in kind, we believe that it is our job simply to find out what exactly the biblical author meant in any given biblical text in order then to proclaim it as authoritative. ..

The sacramental understanding of the Platonist-Christian synthesis shakes up this modern evangelical model. If the various historical moments of the church’s tradition sacramentally participate in each other in and through the Christ event, theological or doctrinal convictions of the Christian past are much more than interesting ways Christians throughout history have dealt with the biblical text. If the church today shares, by means of a real participation, in the church’s earlier tradition, that earlier tradition genuinely lives on in us and we have a sacred responsibility to it Earlier periods of the Christian tradition and our present time are connected via a common sacramental participation in the eternal Word of God.

A desacramentalized view of time tends to place the entire burden of doctrinal decision on the present moment: I, in the small moment of time allotted to me, am responsible to make the right theological (and moral) choice before God. The imposition of such a burden is so huge as to be pastorally disastrous. Furthermore, to the extent that as Christians we are captive to our secular Western culture, it is likely that this secular culture will get to set the church’s agenda. If we do not see ourselves sacramentally connected to the tradition (and thus to Christ), we sense no accountability to the tradition, and we are are likely to accommodate whatever demands our culture places on us and capitulate them. By contrast, when we are faced with a theological and moral conundrum, a participatory approach to tradition will always ask how the catholic, or universal, church throughout time and place has dealt with the issue. The widespread assumption that Christian beliefs and morals are to a significant degree malleable has its roots in a modern, desacralized view of time.

Thus, Catholicism Year Zero — and Christianity Year Zero. This goes a long way to explain why regaining a traditional Christian sacramental view (or, as Boersma puts it, “sacramental ontology”) is key to the Benedict Option. We will be completely shattered and washed down the river of time and over the falls if we do not. I’m convinced of it.

To that end, let me share with you a column from the Catholic website Crux, sent to me by a reader. The author is Kathleen Hirsch, and she’s writing about a crisis of anxiety among the young:

Two years ago, Psychology Today published an article describing what the author deemed a mental health “crisis” facing today’s college students. “Evidence suggests that this group has greater levels of stress and psychopathology than any time in the nation’s history,” wrote Gregg Henriques. Stress, anxiety, and depression top the list.

To those who spend time in close contact with young adults, this came as no news. College counseling offices are overwhelmed. Today’s students are gifted, well-educated — and worried sick. They are dogged by the demands of achievement that often feels disconnected to meaning. They experience a vertiginous gap between their hopes and ambitions, and a belief that they can make a difference. Few of the young go to church. Few can name flesh-and-blood role models. Creatively self-destructive, they fill their schedules to the breaking point, over-eating or starving, over-exercising, cutting, over-committing. In a pinch, they overmedicate.

The young may be our harbingers. We see them more clearly than we see ourselves because they are the last cohort observable in aggregate by a bevy of adults on the lookout for their well-being. In truth, those who come to me for spiritual direction, a decade or more out from college, battle the same worry and self-doubt, the sense of being suspended somewhere in mid-journey with an insufficient grasp of where they have come from or where they are going — literally or metaphysically. In free floating, angst-driven flight.

I believe that they can find what they’re looking for in the Christianity of the Great Tradition (to use another Boersma phrase, referring to the Platonic-Christian synthesis of the first millennium). I intend to show how in my Benedict Option book. Hirsch writes:

Irenaeus, the 2nd-century Church Father, in a commentary on the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel, writes that the work of Jesus was not to save us from our nature, but rather, to restore us to our nature, and in the process of doing so, to bring us back into relationship with the deep interconnectedness of all things. [Emphasis mine — RD]

It may well be that this is the consciousness we must work to restore today. To offer communities of return as an alternative to flight, giving our young and one another experiences that suggest that there is far more that is trustworthy and good beyond one’s well-fortified self.

As the reader who sent me this suggests, this is a great way to articulate the goal of the Benedict Option: to leave the anxious, fluid world of Christianity Year Zero, embrace a way of living and worshiping that restores our understanding and our participation in the sacramental reality of life in Christ, and return into the world to bear witness to it.