08 September 2013

Have we surrendered our catechesis to the Enlightenment?

Caution: this post is a bit of a Ramble. . .I'm thinking something through.

In a post below I wrote: "All of this means that we need a workable apologetics; that is, a means of teaching, defending, and living the faith that doesn't adopt modernist assumptions about truth, beauty, and goodness; or simply concede to the Enlightenment its definition of reason."

The idea expressed in that sentence was prompted by a book I've been reading titled, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context by Myron B. Penner.

Penner argues that most contemporary Christian apologetics fails in teaching, defending, and living the faith by adopting an Enlightenment understanding of reason, a move which logically requires conceding to modernist epistemological standards of evidence/truth.

What does this mean? Basically, it means that (for the most part) we have surrendered the public presentation and defense of the faith to the 20th/21st century heirs of our 16th/17th century enemies.  We're playing on their home field by their rules.

It means that we've conceded that Christian truth is largely a matter of propositional statements that can and should be vetted by natural reason according to the rules of logic and empirical method.

Penner points out a number of unfavorable consequences of our surrender. Chief among these is the loss of mystery, properly understood. Another loss: the ability to translate biblical teaching into our daily lives. How are we supposed to live the Gospel when it has been reduced to a set of logically defensible propositions? 

Penner's solution is problematic for a Catholic. He suggests that we abandon the Enlightenment Project of rational justification and its monstrous offspring, empirical evidence gathering, and choose instead to teach, defend, and live out our faith as a matter of hermeneutics; that is, we approach scripture, doctrine/dogma, etc. as meaning-making narratives that tell Our Christian Story. 

He suggests that we replace the Enlightenment model of truth -- "propositions corresponding with reality" -- with a uniquely Christian model of truth: "existential edification." Rather than defending the Incarnation as a logically consistent description of reality, we live out the Incarnation as way of making sense of our belief that we are human creatures destined for union with God. 

I am sympathetic with Penner's critique of modern apologetics b/c too often we concede to empirical science its standards for evidence and reason; for example, 20th century attempts to defend transubstantiation using scientific methods and tools, which always end with our surrender to the modernist idea that reality is basically physical and only physical. 

In a recent blog post, Msgr Charles Pope reports on his efforts to restore a living catechesis to his parish.  He calls his approach "Whole Family Catechesis." I'm not sure if he knows that he's challenging modernist standards of truth and evidence, but the way he describes what he's doing seems to indicate that he has intuitively grasped that the propositional approach is largely fruitless. 

When leading a Bible study or teaching a scripture class, I tell the students that all facts are true but not all truths are factual. Some truths can be told and understood outside the limits of facts.
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  1. By coincidence I am half-way through your confrere Aidan Nichols' 'A Grammar of Consent', which has some fruitful lines of thought on these issues and others, building on Newman's illative sense. And (although I suspect you'd disagree with his politics), Herbert McCabe's assault onthe fact-value distinction is excellent.

  2. Anil Wang7:53 AM

    I agree to an extent. I left the faith before confirmation due to bad catechesis that was more deistic than even Arian. Several decades later I entered the highly rationalistic Presbyterians (through marriage). Although Christianity from that perspective "made sense", some specific Calvinistic doctrines seemed like "just so stories" that covered up deeper problems. I looked throughout Protestantism and saw problems everywhere.

    I looked at Catholicism and saw several apologetics such as the "proof" that "Mary is our mother" (Behold your mother. Behold your son...) just didn't follow logically. Superficially much Catholic apologetics tried to appear rationalistic to compete but failed. It was only when I looked at the Orthodox that the Catholic position was acceptable, since they don't even try to rely purely on reason. Their approach is best summed up by Psalm 34:8 "Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him." and Job 42 5-6 "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.". It's not necessary to know every single detail how own things work, and we could not live if we wanted all things (i.e. relationships) to have scientific "certainity". That being said, Orthodox apologetics tends to go overboard on rejecting reason, even attacking transubstantiation because it relies on Greek rationalistic categories (which the early Church had no qualms about using to define the Trinity).

    So yes, I agree with you. An extensive Barna survey of religious beliefs per religious group a few years confirmed this rationalistic/nonrationalistic bias. The biggest Catholic heresy tended to be Arianism. The biggest Orthodox heresy tended to be the mysticism of "God is a force, not a person". A critical balance was lost in both Catholics and Orthodox catechesis.

    That being said, some apologists like Scott Hahn have been successful precisely because they are not purely rationalistic and relies on family analogies (especially the "Trustee Family" understanding of family, which is foreign to the modern "Nuclear Family" understanding of family) and reflective of Jewish piety (especially Jewish reverence). His apologetics make sense without being rationalistic or attacking rationalism.

  3. It is not just catechesis that has been infected. In order to cope with the social upheavals of the 19th century in Europe --all of 1789's children-- and to maintain "dialogue with the modern world" after WWII -the Church has so deeply inhaled the egalitarian myths that it now thinks of them as her own, calling them by "the dignity of the human person" and "justice and peace."

    I mean by this all the isms and phobias of modern UN-style and EuroAmerican Liberalism which the Church (appropriately cleansed, it thinks) now tries to appease: sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia and yes, even the most sacred and untouchable of them all, "racism." They are all of a piece, turning a very particular spectrum of ordinary and often very rational reactions to certain groups (and only certain groups) into thought disorders and moral crimes. All in the service of an Enlightenment Marxism more thorough than Karl's. In America, Thomas Jefferson's most regrettable phrase, "all men are created equal", is the driving text.

    The apparent rejection of hierarchy --in order to create a new one-- marbles the whole discourse. And once you buy into it --even to deny that you are sinning against it-- it has you by the intellectual and moral short hairs.

    Aside from rank self interest, this mindset justifies to the American church and hierarchy their treasonous complicity in mass illegal immigration, with all its attendant evils.

    Here endeth the rant.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hmmm. . .well, I'm going to disagree you just a bit here. "Human dignity" (as such) was taught by Dominicans in Spain as early as the 16th century. . .long before the first Frenchie took up a pitchfork against his king. Bartolome de la Casas, OP successfully argued before the Spanish king that the indigenous peoples of the New World were in fact people and not animals. The canon law faculty of Salamanca (an OP university) was prominent in pushing this line of thought. Of course, popes had already hinted at this approach by decreeing against human slavery two centuries earlier w/o employing the term "human dignity."

      Justice and peace, properly understood, is not egalitarian in the secular sense. The term refers to the justice and peace of Christ, which is available to all but not received by all.

      Insofar as any "ism" (racism, sexism, etc.) tries to reduce the human person to a group identity, it is a sin precisely b/c the Church recognizes the worth of the individual. Totalitarian ideologies are particularly good at this kind of reduction. . .feminism, Marxism, etc. thrive on the violent existential reduction of the individual to that one essential trait that allows them to manipulate whole populations into victimhood.

      One are we will agree on: the Church -- esp the N.European/American branches -- adopted the UN style goverance model after VC2 and it has been disastrous. Process, process, process. Where did that get us?

  4. Anonymous12:19 PM

    Makes sense...

    Just this week perusing the Internet I came across someone's comment: "These Christians that live a meek life and want to convert others just with "reason" pretty much look like the madmen that, according to Chesterton, lost everything, except reason"

    And reading this post made me remember reading that nowadays nobody can seriously talk about faith matters without obligatory puerile pop culture/Star Wars references...

  5. Anonymous2:35 PM

    The Power of Myth?

    Now, I'm not as articulate as the other commentators here, but would this be a case of bringing about the age old Catholic approach of both/and instead of either/or? By this I mean that engaging the culture using the terms in the sense familiar to it, to show that some aspects of the Faith are reasonable, in order to bring it to the mystery of the Faith? Breathing with both lungs of the Church.

    Perhaps this would be a fruitful approach for the poorly or uncatechised adults, whilet for the children it should start with the mystery of the Faith, since they are familiar with mystery in their lives, and then its reasons when they are teenagers.

  6. "doesn't adopt modernist assumptions about truth, beauty, and goodness; or simply concede to the Enlightenment its definition of reason."

    What are the modernist assumptions about truth, beauty and goodness and what is the Enlightenment definition of reason?

    Could you please tell me the name of a book or provide a link which will give me a non academic explication of the Enlightenment?

  7. Off topic a little: I read self-published detective stories on Kindle. In almost every one of these stories I come across anti-Catholicism, inaccurate understanding of Catholicism and main characters who used to be Catholics until they "wised up." These books are read by thousands of people who probably believe the picture of the Catholic Church contained in these pages. Is there anything I can do other that attempt to correct the most egregious errors in my review of a book? Does it serve any purpose to evangelise in this way?

  8. I've held off on commenting because I don't feel qualified to offer a relevant opinion and I am working through some similar thoughts since I agreed somewhat reluctantly to assist in religious education this year. It seems that we should be able to have both aspects, but I have found that children, at least here, have little appreciation for the concept of "mystery" as it relates to their faith (they see it as a cop out). How much true/real mystery is left in their lives? So much is evaluated using a scientific-method approach, and discarded if it does not measure up. Without delving further into that topic, I think a good place to start is with the Liturgy - our Pastor tells my son (the only altar server): lead us into the mystery. But where is the mystery? We have simplified and banalized the "Mystery of the Liturgy". How to bring this concept back into lives jaded by the current society? I find I have many, many more questions than answers. But I keep coming back to the Liturgy as my answer, my starting point - but if we teach and get children (and adults) interested in and excited by the idea of the "Heavenly Liturgy" (Jean Corbon, OP) and all we have available for them is this "common" Liturgy, aren't we defeating the purpose of our teaching and setting people up for disappointment? Sorry, that was somewhat off-topic . . . I'm rambling, too! :-)

    1. Anonymous8:02 PM

      Lex orandi, lex credendi.

      Indeed, if the prayer of the Church is banal, the belief will likewise be banal. It all comes back to the Eicharistic liturgy, the most important moment in the life of the Church, which deserves our true worship and awe.

      If the liturgy is banal, there's no religious education that'll be capable of forming disciples.

      Pax Christi

    2. Augustine, agreed. I mis-spoke somewhat. I didn't mean to imply that the Liturgy itself is banal, but rather that our worship here at this parish is quite "common" - and the majority here have no easy means to attend the Mass elsewhere. The Novus Ordo can be beautiful, reverent, "awe"some . . . But here the altar is called and treated like a table, we are invited to join in the meal and not the sacrifice, etc.... How to change hearts when one of the best ways to do that is dumbed-down and stripped of its essence?

      Lex orandi, lex credendi. Yes! But where to begin? If I could pack everybody up and ship them to the parish I appreciate on the mainland, I would do so. I was able to get my older son to Holy Mass there, and afterward he turned to me and excitedly said: "Now, that raised the bar!"