A talk given to the Kyoto Zen Symposium, and published in Zen Buddhism Today 13 (1996).
In discussing modernity I feel a constant tension, for the subject is politically laden. Each topic I touch on has been a bone of contention between conservatives and progressives, and on very few of these topics has the controversy reached a point of final rest. My basic orientation is clear: I believe that my church must pursue more whole-heartedly the opening to modernity begun at Vatican II, especially in the intellectual sphere. This entails a critical, revisionist review of its historical tradition, a dialogal opening, in mutual critique, to other traditions, and an honest facing up to the questions which modern critical reason poses to Christian faith. But within this general orientation there is ample room for scruple and nuance as one tries to do equal justice to the claims of tradition and of modernity. The tension of this effort is greater when one makes modernity an explicit theme, situating one's critical thoughts in relation to the long hard struggle that has been going on between the modern world and the Roman church for perhaps as long as seven centuries.
As one traverses this territory one must pick one's steps with gingerly caution, for every inch of the terrain has been fought over again and again. Sometimes one finds that the modern position is now well established, and one is running through an open door; sometimes some resistance will still be felt, and a rearguard defence is still being put up; sometimes one runs into sheer taboo, into questions that may not be asked, sacred cows that cannot be dislodged, - or permanent truths that no modernizing can be allowed to undermine. Sometimes, too, confident positions of modernity, once taken for granted, have come to seem problematic, and one begins to see merit in older approaches. Karl Barth's revulsion against liberal Protestantism or the recent queries of John Milbank illustrate how theological modernity can suddenly come to seem old-fashioned. To remain modern, modernity has to keep on its toes, constantly adjusting itself to the misgivings raised against it. Otherwise it soon ends in a museum, alongside the failed prophecies of Marx and Nietzsche.
Given its complex historical roots and its mandatory reference to the historical figure of Jesus Christ, one would expect Christian theology to have a more sophisticated sense of historicity than most other disciplines. Indeed, the church has always cultivated a vivid consciousness of its own past, whether understanding it as a record of glorious achievement (as in triumphalist Roman Catholic apologetics) or as a history of sin and error (as in Reformation or Pietist polemics). However, from early on a variety of theological methods served to idealize or stylize the church's history and pre-history, creating a series of interlocking myths (essentialist myths of pure origins and unbroken continuity), which the modern critical sense of historicity has had to dismantle piece by piece.
Perhaps the most potent of these theological techniques was the allegorical interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, brought to perfection by Origen of Alexandria in the third century, which reduced the history of Israel to a set of veiled revelations of Christ, leaving no autonomy to the Hebrew world as a challenging other over against Christianity. This repression of Israel's historicity was at the same time a repression of pluralism, an elimination of the interreligious horizon within which Christianity was born (the Greco-Roman religious other was even more effectively integrated and overcome after Constantine: as an independent entity, it disappeared without trace).
Today, as a critical modern consciousness undoes these idealizing myths, they bring to light not only the repressed other (including the often caricatured `heretics' and other groups on the church's margins), but the otherness of previous styles of Christian identity. The church's various pasts present an alien face, relativizing the church's present identity, and revealing that its apparent monolithic identity across time breaks down into a series of disparate formations.
Scriptural scholarship has brought Christians face to face with the otherness of Israel, but also with the otherness of the historical Jesus and of the early church, thus introducing a historical pluralism into the core of Christian self-identity. The figure of Jesus is already to some extent dehistoricized in the New Testament itself, while the Acts of the Apostles projects an idyllic image of the primitive church. The evidence of pluralism and conflicting theologies in the New Testament was ignored by Christians until Luther reactualized Paul's controversy with Peter, and has been excavated in its theological and sociological aspects only by modern scholarship.
Roman Catholic teaching sees the institutional decisions of the second century - the apostolic succession; the threefold ministry of bishop, priest, deacon; the canon of Scripture - as matters of divine law, ius divinum, established for all time. The doctrinal definitions of the great councils of the fourth and fifth centuries which defined the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are seen as infallible and unrevisable, and there has been a strong tendancy to see even the language and conceptuality of these councils as having permanent validity. While Catholic thinkers have been realizing since the seventeenth century that a process of historical development preceded the establishment of these pillars of the church's identity, it is only recently that we have begun to suspect that these monoliths mask the differences and discontinuities, the conflict of interpretations, the change and movement, which are the stuff of history and which insinuate pluralism and change into the heart of Christian identity.
If such thinking becomes established within Catholicism it will bring us closer to the Protestant approach when tends to see these past decisions as revisable (at least in theory) in light of a fuller understanding of scriptural revelation. The present crisis of the Roman Catholic priesthood is prompting Catholic thinkers such as Edward Schillebeeckx and Joseph Moingt to explore the variety of ministries in the primitive church before the emergence of what Lutheran exegetes call `early Catholicism.' Such willingness to view Christian ministry as a historical and possibly contingent formation is a modern attitude that generates extreme unease in the Vatican, for the genealogy of ministry, the sacraments and the papacy has been a flashpoint of conflict between historical questioning and Roman orthodoxy ever since Luther.
How Theology Became Historical
Though bearing in every detail of its teaching and organization the marks of a complex historical genesis, medieval Christianity presented itself as a seamless fabric, stamped with eternity. The ecclesiastical hierarchy was modeled on the heavenly hierarchy of angels (as Pseudo-Dionysius had elaborated), and the entirety of the Creed and the sacraments was conceived as coming directly by unbroken transmission from the apostles. Medieval scholasticism inhabited a universe of being in which history had very little importance. Even so acute a thinker as Thomas Aquinas does not advert to the epochal diversity between the thought-forms of the Bible, the Fathers and his own time. Christian truth was transmitted through the ages with such transparency that the words of the Psalms, the Gospels and the early Councils could all be quoted as if their meaning was immediately apparent. Past texts were not yet experienced as foreign and opaque, and so there was no need of hermeneutics in the modern sense.
The crisis of the medieval synthesis begins about 1300. The logical empiricism and anti-Papal politics of William Ockham, who is often seen as a key figure in the genesis of modernity, put in question basic ontological and ecclesiastical ideals. Distinguishing the order of absolute logical possibility and the order factually willed by God, Ockham conveyed a sense of the contingency, even arbitrariness, of the world of Christian revelation.
The ahistorical transparency of medieval theology was undermined more tellingly by the historical researches of Renaissance scholars. Their return to the sources, and to the Greek language, was subtly subversive. Aristotle in Greek breathed a different air from that of scholastic categories such as essentia, substantia, actualitas, potentia. Plato began to emerge, shedding the age-old cocoon of the Neo-Platonic interpretation, as a quirky, questioning thinker. The study of the sources put in question not only their Latin interpretation. It also exposed the ancient texts themselves to a critical gaze. Thus the awesome authority of Dionysius the Areopagite suffered a costly blow with Lorenzo Valla's discovery that the texts were pseudonymous. Plato and Aristotle came to seem archaic, the happy hunting-ground of a scholarly elite, no longer voices of immediate relevance for Christian theology. Due to the labours of Erasmus and his colleagues, the Greek New Testament began to emerge as a sterling source of revelation, to which church tradition had not done justice. Symbolic of the clash between scholasticism and scholarship was the condemnation of the great Hebrew scholar Johannes Reuchlin (1453-1522) by the Dominican inquisitor of Cologne in 1513. Gospel-inspired critiques of the institutional church were common in the middle ages, but now these critiques took a historical turn. For the first time, Christian tradition appeared as a history of interpretation, subject to critical reappraisal.
When Christianity split into opposing religious parties, each claiming the Christian past as its own, the modern sense of historicity was born, along with a sense of pluralism and relativity that could easily lead to scepticism and agnosticism. Luther retold Christian history as a process of forgetting and betraying the gospel message, and thus launched the conflict of interpretations which gave birth to the discipline of church history, as the work of the Centuriators of Magdeburg elicited a Roman response in the Annals of Cardinal Cesare Baronius (1538-1607). But as theologians combed through the past in search of warrants for their claims, the suspicion began to dawn that the past was not homogeneous with the present or easily accessible to it, but was rather `a foreign country' with mentalities that had become oblique to its modern interrogators.
Roman Catholicism saw itself as the fundamentally unchanged Great Church existing since the earliest times, while Protestantism saw itself as recovering an unchanging Gospel that the church had forgotten or compromised. Protestant idealization of the apostolic age (or of the pre-Constantinian centuries in some cases) yielded grudgingly to the realization that the early era was as diverse, problematic, impure as any succeeding one. And even if its were possible to find some ideal embodiment of Christianity in the past, the past framework of thought (expectation of the imminent end of the world, for example) would remain so remote from the modern world as to make the rediscovery of this golden age useless for Christianity now. A growing sense of the strangeness, opacity and irrecoverability of the past, and of the modern, innovatory character of the Christian identities emerging from Reformation and Counter-Reformation, led gradually to the formation in the milieu of Lutheran theology of a new reflective discipline, hermeneutics, which had the task of mediating between the obscurity of past texts and the urgency of present questions. History thus became a school of pluralism and relativity. At the opposite pole from hermeneutic liberalism (whose patron saint, Friedrich Schleiermacher, 1768-1834, has only recently been discovered by Roman Catholics), the discovery of the unreliability of history can lead to Kierkegaardian fideism or to Fundamentalism, which instead of idealizing tradition simply dispenses with history altogether, in order to fashion an ideal Christianity from privileged religious experiences and a literalistic reading of the scriptural sources. Catholic integralism treasures tradition; but this form of reaction has been ceding in recent years to the new phenomenon of Catholic fundamentalism, based on charismatic experiences and a raw, immediate relation to the biblical text; a sub-species is the phenomenon of papalist fundamentalism, with its concentration on the figure of the Pope at the expense of all other mediations of Christian truth.
An interesting example of the devastating effects of historical consciousness is the career of Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623), state theologian to the Venetian Republic, who brought the critical finesse of a Machiavelli or a Guicciardini to bear on recent church history in his History of the Council of Trent, a subtle, ironic, disillusioned and bitter work, which the Vatican attempted to refute through the more richly documented counter-history of Sforzo Pallavicini. Sarpi's sceptical cast of mind throve on a hatred of Rome which had both public and personal grounds: excommunicated in 1607, tailed by Vatican spies, and survivor of three assassination attempts, he might well have been burned at the stake had the Inquisition been able to get their hands on him, for this was a shameful age of such burnings; even in Goa and Manila Jews and ‘sodomites’ were burned at the stake. Sarpi came to see church history as unprotected by any Providence from the human folly and the meaningless accidents that characterize ordinary secular history. He tells no Reformation tale of some original purity preceding a long process of decline and corruption. Rather he finds in every age a pluralistic and ambiguous state of affairs. No age in Christian history can be idealized, nor can there be any retrieval of the past. Sarpi anticipates the sceptical mood of Gibbon (the fifteenth chapter of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) or even of Franz Overbeck, Nietzsche's friend, who felt that Christianity has reached its exhausted old age.
Another historical controversy which would echo down through the centuries was the Jesuit Denis Petau's (1583-1652) demonstration that the early Fathers had held subordinationist views on the Son of God. This body blow to the idealization of the pre-Constantinian church was countered by a Defense of the Nicene Creed (1685) from Anglican Bishop George Bull (1634-1710), for which Bossuet thanked him. Bossuet was also responsible for the burning of almost all copies of an essay on the authorship of the Old Testament, by Richard Simon (1638-1712), the founder of Old Testament criticism. The great flowering of critical historical study of Scripture and critical history of dogma in the nineteenth century was to be a predominantly German Lutheran achievement. Catholic theology had maintained a cut-and-dried attitude to its sources, which often served merely as an arsenal of proof-texts for the edifice of dogmatic theology. Historical study of the doctrinal tradition served only the apologetic purpose of refuting Protestant or Jansenist claims, while historical study of Scripture was non-existent.
Besieged by Modernity
Roman Catholicism was closely associated with modern monarchical absolutism (such figures as Philip II or the Rex Christianissimus Louis XIV), whereas democracy originated in Protestant circles (the seventeenth century Puritans, William III) or among deists and free-thinkers (the philosophes). Though Pius VI (1774-1799) condemned the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the liberal Pius VII (1800-1823) had ‘startled conservatives at Christmas 1797 by declaring in a sermon that there was no necessary conflict between Christianity and democracy’ (JND Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, p. 303). However, the church hardened into a reactionary posture after 1815, and saw the Revolution was nothing less than the work of satanic forces. Bitter experiences made it hard to cut through appearances and see that the bloody downfall of a political order was not intrinsically equivalent to the destruction of religion (just as the downfall of a scientific order in Galileo's time did not intrinsically compromise religious truth). Secularization had been conducted in a spirit of hostility to the church, reducing its status to that of a private body whose claims could be contested and dismissed; the restoration of church property and the various concordats between the Vatican and European states throughout the century did not close the secularized perspectives the Revolution had thrown open. Yet it was also a cleansing and liberating process. Clear perception of the positive values of democracy and liberalism was impeded not only by the appalling prospect of a godless society, which the Revolution had opened up, but by nostalgia for lost power and privilege; the old caesaro-papist system of Christendom was refurbished on cheaper terms as the alliance of throne and altar in France; the defence of the Papal States remained a major preoccupation down to 1870, and their loss a major trauma for long afterwards. The church set its face against the current of history, in the belief that in doing so it was following the Gospel and standing up for transcendent truth in a world that had lost its bearings. In such circumstances a free critical revision of its own history was an impossibility. To the degree that it clung to outmoded futurologies which did not link up with what was afoot in contemporary history, the church's sense of itself and its mission became rather fanatical and fantastical. The Fatima crusade for the conversion of Russia, by means of the consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, or the vision of a new Christian Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals, both promoted by John Paul II, represent a dangerous clothing of historical perception in inappropriate mythological dress. More wholesome languages are available, but they have been repressed for their use would entail too radical a conversion of the church. If the world had lost its bearings, the church had also, as its poor performance in Europe's darkest hour showed.
Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Gibbon has taken malicious delight in the underside of history and the relativizing impact of cultural pluralism, in which they found much ammunition against Christian dogmatism. I am not aware of any strong intellectual response to this from eighteenth century Catholics. Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) raised eyebrows by carrying on a correspondence with Voltaire. The theology of the period was a lean scholasticism, relieved only by small injections of Cartesian and Leibnizian rationalism, a few minor skirmishes with Kant towards the end of the century, and some solid historical scholarship.
Eventually the Catholic response to the Enlightenment took the form of an overturning of Enlightenment premises with help from Romanticism, in the post-Napoleonic Catholic restoration. Then the middle ages were glorified as an antidote to the evils of the modern world, and the Catholic past was recovered as a treasure-house of culture over against the desiccation of modern rationalism (Chateaubriand's Le Genie du christianisme). The Catholic aesthetic was a seductive cocoon, which made the church backward-looking and may well have favoured its flirtations with Fascism in the twentieth century (much as traditional Japanese aesthetics favoured dangerous ideologies of ‘overcoming modernity’).
A central thrust of the Catholic restoration was ultramontanism, based on mystic glorification of the papacy, simplistic arguments on the need for unity and strong leadership, and aversion to the Gallicanism of the pre-revolutionary church with its abbes de cour. The ardour of Joseph de Maistre (Du Pape, 1819) and especially Felicite de Lamennais (1782-1854) helped build up the papacy as the supreme bulwark against the evils of modernity. The primacy and infallibility of the Pope were proclaimed as infallible dogmas at Vatican I (1870), perhaps the church's supreme act of defiance to the modern world.
The Catholic restoration created ‘the peak of ghetto mentality within Catholic church history.’ (Jedin/Dolan, History of the Church, VII, p. 113). Communication with non-Roman churches and with the secular world dwindled away, and Popes Gregory XVI (1831-1846) and Pius IX (1846-1878) devoted themselves to stamping out signs of liberalism within the Roman Catholic world. Lamennais had argued that the church had nothing to gain from its association with the throne, and that freedom of religion and freedom of the press could only benefit its spiritual mission. In 1832, Gregory XVI denounced ‘this false and absurd maxim – or better, this madness – that everyone should have and practise freedom of conscience' and described freedom of the press as ‘this loathsome freedom which one cannot despise too strongly’. (Curiously, Goethe, a professed liberal, who had died a few months earlier, had similar sentiments.)
Meanwhile, intellectual prowess was united with priestly piety in the labours of the drily Kantian Georg Hermes (1775-1831) and the speculative Hegelian Anton Guenther (1783-1863). These were condemned as rationalists, while Louis Eugene Bautain (1796-1867) was condemned for fideism; Vatican I issued a valuable clarification of the relations of faith and reason, but the regime of condemnations has greatly cramped the exercise of both.
Romantic medievalism added its charms to the Oxford Movement, too, but its deeper strength lay in its sense of history. The organic and developmental model of the church's vitality which was promoted by the Catholic Tuebingen school, especially Johannes Moehler (d. 1836), is found also in John Henry Newman's (1801-1890) University Sermons and Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845), in a homelier, empirical form, based on his patristic studies, his struggle with the historical warrants of Anglicanism, and the influence of such scholars as Petau. Through these thinkers a critical sense of historicity began to permeate the Catholic mind, under the auspices of growth, progress and optimism, in opposition to the Reformation rhetoric of Catholic corruptions and to the cynicism of Gibbon. Newman's sense that the church did and should grow and change through the embrace of new insights provided the platform for the emergence and acceptance of modern historical consciousness within mainstream Catholic theology and teaching, though most of the models of development of dogma presented in theological textbooks attempted to confine Newman's intuitions within a reassuring logical framework. Meanwhile, critical, questioning historians such as Ignaz von Doellinger (1799-1890), who were either too scholarly or too impatient to square their historical insight with Roman claims, still ran afoul of Vatican authoritarianism.
The pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903), who aimed to reconcile the church with modern civilisation, was in some respects a liberal oasis. He elevated Newman to the Cardinalate, tried to reopen ecumenical dialogue, tackled the social problem in Rerum Novarum (1891), declared a moderate democracy compatible with Catholic teaching, launched an intellectual revival on the basis of Neo-Thomism, and encouraged, with great caution, the critical study of Scripture (Providentissimus Deus, 1893). This must have done much to generate the climate within which the Modernist movement emerged. But the Modernists' radical theories of historical change ran into a stone wall when the narrow, ultra-reactionary St. Pius X, speaking from the vantage-point of unchanging truth, launched a witch-hunt to purge the church of such heresy (Lamentabili and Pascendi dominici gregis, 1907), even at the cost of stamping out its intellectual life.
The rather shocking rediscovery of the historical Jesus as an eschatological prophet by Johannes Weiss (1892) lies behind Alfred Loisy's (1857-1940) L'Evangile et l'Eglise (1902), whose title suggested a critical gulf between Gospel and church. Loisy was excommunicated and declared vitandus (to be shunned by all Catholics), and there was no further talk of encouraging critical study of Scripture; the Pontifical Biblical Commission acted rather as a watchdog, emitting the most restrictive responsa to the dubia submitted to it. (Compare the recent revival of this dubium and responsum format in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1995 declaration that the impossibility of women becoming priests has been infallibly taught by the church's universal magisterium).
An optimistic ideology of progress underpins the eloquent writings of the Irish Jesuit George Tyrrell (1861-1909), who expanded on Newman's ideas to call for a development of Christian thought beyond a stifling ‘Medievalism’ and for a development of Christianity to a larger interreligious vision. Tyrrell was refused Catholic burial.
The anti-modernist crackdown channelled Catholic intellectual energies away from critical history to the construction of a Christian philosophy within the framework of the Neo-Thomist revival. But even here, as an immense army of Dominicans and Jesuits worked over the Thomist synthesis, history would raise its ugly head. The plurality of medieval systems was brought to light by Etienne Gilson and other historically minded Thomists; the plurality of interpretations of Thomas became more and more evident; and finally Thomists who wanted to open Thomism up to the thought of Immanuel Kant or Maurice Blondel (Joseph Marechal, Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan) gradually discovered the necessity of moving from what Lonergan called ‘classical consciousness’ to modern historically differentiated consciousness.
As to religious pluralism, despite the vast missionary experience the Roman church had now acquired, and despite the flowering of Oriental scholarship in Europe, the church still continued to view non-Christian religions under the rubric of heathenism or at best natural theology. The eventual suppression of the inculturation of Christianity in China begun by Matteo Ricci bespeaks a rejection of insight coming from that quarter. It may well be that Ricci's bold initiatives could have found their logical consummation only in a Christian reception of the relaxed syncretistic Chinese perception of religions as skilful means; as it was, his presentation of the Gospel in Confucian dress could seem a deceptive apologetic. Today such conceptions are attractive, but problematic, to liberal Catholics; up to recently they were simply abhorrent. Neither did the pluralism within Christianity impinge on Roman Catholic awareness, since the Protestant churches were written off as heretical and schismatic.
In 1969, Karl Rahner summarized the state of Catholic theology thirty years previously as that of a closed system developing according to securely identified laws. Philosophy since Descartes and Protestant theology were poorly understood and were regarded not as sources of challenges and questions to be taken seriously, but as the work of outsiders or enemies, whose errors demanded only to be refuted. Theologians of that generation could not imagine that the central substance of faith could again, on new premises, become a topic of theological questioning.
This petrified situation began to thaw with the rise of the ‘nouvelle theologie’, based on historical study of the Fathers (Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar). The discovery of the richer, warmer and more open-ended theology of the patristic period implied a critique of the dominant scholasticism and of the Catholic Church's self-understanding. Pius XII's Humani Generis of 1950 was directed against the attractive modernity of this theological vision. ‘We see the very principles of Christian culture everywhere attacked’, lamented the Pope. Teilhard de Chardin is aimed at in the criticism of ‘those who, having imprudently and indiscreetly subscribed to the system of evolution, as they call it, a system not yet securely proved even in the realm of the natural sciences, go on to claim that it applies to the origin of all things’. ‘Historicism’ which leads to ‘dogmatic relativism’ is the second target of papal censure. If the modernizers only meant to adapt theology to current conditions and necessities, there would be no cause for alarm, but in their zeal for ecumenical understanding and openness to the modern mind, they are pulling down essential pillars of the edifice of faith. Their readiness to jettison scholastic language in favour of that of Scripture or the Fathers rests on the idea that ‘the mysteries of faith can never be signified by categories which are adequate to the truth but only by what they call "approximative" categories, always mutable, by which the truth can to a certain extent be indicated, but by which it is also necessarily distorted’. The Pope proscribes departures from the categories used by the Ecumenical Councils, and the neglect, rejection or devaluation of the labours of centuries of Catholic theologians whose work was inspired by the Holy Spirit and supervised by the church's Magisterium.
Only twelve years later Pope John XXIII gave the green light to a more critical evaluation of Christian tradition in his speech at the opening of Vatican II, which differentiates between the truth of doctrine and the culture-bound language in which it is expressed. In this and many other respects, Vatican II marks a dramatic turn-about in the relation of Roman Catholicism to modernity. The violent wrench brought by the turn to vernacular languages has made the modern church a less beautiful but more biblical place. The eurocentric aesthetics of the older Catholic world is now seen as highly particularist, and as committing cultural violence when it pretends to an inclusivist universality. A Catholic aesthetic today would be distinguished by a strong Latin American and African component.
Perhaps the most fruitful of Vatican II's openings to modernity, both theologically and pastorally, was the promotion of Scripture as `the soul of theology' and the encouragement of historical critical exegesis. An encyclical of 1943 had already broken the ice in this area. The church still tries to prevent radical demythologization of such sensitive doctrines as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, and a fairly cautious and balanced tone is set by leading exegetes such as Rudolf Schnackenburg, Joseph Fitzmeyer, Raymond Brown. Nonetheless, biblical studies have now become the strongest branch of Catholic theology, and have an autonomous momentum that cannot be stopped.
Vatican II's recognition of history occurred under optimistic auspices; an ideology of progress and evolution, headily exemplified in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, was in the air. The revolutionary impact of John XXIII's talk of aggiornamento (updating) can be grasped only if we place it against the background of centuries of papal oscillation between lofty condemnation of modern error and very timid opening to some modern values. The church had defined its role over against the world; now, throughout the early 60s, a dramatic shift in consciousness occurred. The church found itself placed with the world, and for the world, pointing forward to the Kingdom of God, which in turn was no longer conceived as a purely transcendent heaven but as the goal of human history. The Council taught the church to see itself in open-ended, dynamic historical terms, as a pilgrim people seeking its path in the real world in dialogue with all people of good will. Now all the `others' held at a distance for so long became cherished dialogue-partners, not only the `separated brethren' but Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and modern secular culture. Despite the climate of mistrust that has since replaced this happy mood, the opening of Vatican II provides the basic context of contemporary Roman Catholic thought, and is the principal reason why Catholic thinkers, when they do not fall prey to narrowing ecclesiastical obsessions, show a vibrant sensitivity to cultural and political realities and a robust concern for liberation. `Liberation' is probably the key word in post-Vatican II theology (much as `Logos' was in the theology of the 2nd to 4th centuries), despite neo-conservative efforts to promote such topics as `communion' instead.
The Continuing Unease
In a global church speaking all the world's languages, an epochal shift into modernity seems to have definitively occurred. But this acceptance of modernity, and especially of a critical sense of historicity, is a very recent event. It was only early in the last century that the Spanish Inquisition was discontinued (it was reopened for a few more years in response to Vatican pressure); `democracy' has been a fully positive word on papal lips only since 1943, when World War II had lit up the horror of its alternatives; the freedom of conscience of non-Christians has been recognized only since 1965.
As the world's most powerful religious organization, long entrenched in a defensive posture, the Catholic Church cannot easily change. Vatican II did not alter the hierarchical structure in which all power is ultimately concentrated in the hands of a single man. The Council's stress on episcopal collegiality, which Paul VI intended to put into practice through the Synod of Bishops held every three years in Rome, has been thwarted by a Vatican dedicated to strengthening the old centralized structure instead of diversifying or loosening it. The Synod has beecome a pawn of this policy, completely failing to serve its intended purpose (as Cardinal Franz Koenig, one of the pillars of Vatican II, pointed out in a recent interview).
On the intellectual level the resistance to modern pressure is no less stubborn. The tradition of denouncing modernity since Descartes as a mass of errors has been boosted by the neo-conservative perception that because modernity can now be historically defined it must be drawing to its close, while the church remains what it has always been, a sign of contradiction over against the world, whether it call itself modern or postmodern.
Though centuries of critical history have set in place an alternative story of Christian origins and development, the theological implications of this have not yet been drawn. Moreover, at a popular level, in preaching and catechesis, the old idealized images continue to be reinforced. Historical consciousness seems still to be suspected as `protestantizing' or `modernism' in Vatican circles, to judge from the Catechism of the Catholic Church with its literalistic account not only of the resurrection narratives but of the Genesis story of the Fall: ‘Even though man's nature is mortal, God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator, and entered the world as a consequence of sin’. Here we see the capacity of pious myth to make people oblivious to massive evidence telling against it. A work attributed to all Roman Catholic bishops advertises their ignorance of biblical and dogmatic hermeneutics and even of the reality of evolution. Historical critique is still seen as a bad thing, and pious ignorance rewarded, with the danger that the church will shrink into a sect-like formation.
In such a climate there is little encouragement for an alternative, critical view of theological history, that would see it not as the unchanging transmission of unambiguously defined teachings, or as a process of organic development in which truth unfailingly unfolds, but rather as a hit-and-miss affair, a ramshackle construction, full of blind alleys and erroneous turnings, open to critique at every point and entirely revisable. Such a vision is not negative, for it frees us to see the development of doctrine a creative, ongoing quest comparable to the adventures of the mind in science and philosophy.
Perhaps the most elaborate theological challenge to the legitimacy of the modern age comes from the Anglican theologian John Milbank, who presents ‘secular reason’ as a Christian heresy or relapse into paganism: ‘The secular episteme is a post-Christian paganism, something in the last analysis only defined, negatively, as a refusal of Christianity and the invention of an "Anti-Christianity"’. Aquinas's partial recognition of an autonomous integrity of nature, the political order and human reason is already tainted by this heresy: ‘Because he speaks, even in the abstract, of a natural and a supernatural virtue, he is unable, like Augustine, to think instead of a true single virtue, now transformed by Christianity, through a critique of its antique form’. Modernity is to be overcome by a return to the integrated vision of Augustine, Bonaventure and Maurice Blondel, who knew that it is impossible to abstract a realm of pure nature or a purely secular social order from the concrete story of the supernatural relationships in which humans are de facto caught up. ‘Sociology must efface itself before theology’. Milbank cannot accept a pluralism between the Enlightenment interpretation of history and the Christian one: ‘Not to embrace [the Christian] “metanarrative”, or to ascribe to it a merely partial interpretative power, would undo the logic of incarnation. For why would we claim to recognize the divine logos in a particular life [= the life of Jesus], unless we had the sense that everything else was to be located here, despite the fact that this life is but one more life, itself situated along the historical continuum? Thus if the Enlightenment makes this sort of thing impossible, it also rules out salvation through the Church as traditionally understood’ (John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, Oxford, 1990), pp. 280, 409, 225, 246). ‘The logic of Christianity involves the claim that the “interruption” of history by Christ and his bride, the Church, is the most fundamental of events, interpreting all other events. And it is most especially a social event, able to interpret other social formations, because it compares them with its own new social practice... A re-reading of the Civitas Dei will allow us to realize that political theology can take its critique both of secular theology and of the Church, directly out of the developing Biblical tradition, without recourse to any external supplementation. For within Augustine's text we discover the original possibility of critique that marks the western tradition, of which later Enlightenment versions are, in certain respects, abridgements and foundationalist parodies’ (pp. 388-9).
This appears to reject the experience of pluralism, in which the Christian narrative finds itself as one narrative among others and in which the Enlightenment metanarrative forces itself on Christian attention, not only as a supplementation but as a correction. Christians have had to enlarge and reinterpret the Christian story accordingly. Neither narrative has absorbed the other, and the relation between them is an open dialogue. For Milbank, theology does not need the mediation of the social sciences; but precisely what the church has learned in the last two centuries is that the Christian message remains incomplete unless it listens to and learns from the insights of modernity. A narrative theology that would bring all the perspectives of Enlightenment human sciences safely back within its own ken would no longer have a real other with which to dialogue, it would be incestuous or autistic.
Most Catholic thinkers continue to embrace modernity, in principle, as an autonomous other over against Christian tradition (however much its genesis may owe to Christianity). If a critique or overcoming of some aspects of modernity is pursued, it is on the basis of this prior acceptance, and in collaboration with the traditions of critique and overcoming that are so much a part of modernity itself. One might find neo-conservative efforts to uncover the blind spots of modernity more convincing if they were accompanied by an equal willingness to expose the blind spots of the church to the critique of modernity. Modernity can be overcome only when its rational and ethical constraints have been fully accepted.
But one may query the depth of the liberal Catholic theologians’ response to modernity. They have appropriated the jargon of the Enlightenment, but they do not come from a tradition of close hand-to-hand struggle with modern thought, and their perception of the modern is too influenced by the peculiar Roman Catholic relation to it - centuries of condemnations and grudging concessions, against which the openings of Vatican II might look like a conquest of modernity, rather than merely the removal of an obstacle to the dialogue with modernity. We are still learning the ABC of the modern. The popular appeal of the pre-modern ideology of Pope John Paul II and the inability of Catholics generally to contest it in an articulate way shows that Catholic consciousness is still far from a confident rapport with the modern.
David Tracy offers a sometimes rather stereotyping criticism of modernity characterized as the `evolutionary history of the triumph and taken-for-granted superiority of Western scientific, technological, pluralistic and democratic Enlightenment,' to which he opposes a postmodernity evoked in idealizing aesthetic terms: `the reality of otherness and difference - the otherness alive in the marginalized groups of modernity and tradition alike - the mystics, the dissenters, the avant-garde artists, the mad, the hysterical. The conscience of postmodernity, often implicit rather than explicit, lives more in those groups than in the elite intellectual classes constituting their ranks’ (David Tracy, On Naming the Present, Maryknoll, NY, 1994, pp. 3-4). This is a list of unreal stereotypes, which belong precisely to the imagination of modernism. To me the most convincing account of the postmodern moment remains Fredric Jameson's diagnosis of ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism’.
Modernism in the sense of the artistic breakthroughs early in this century, allied with the revolutionary scientific insights of Einstein and Bohr, is also something that Christianity has yet to catch up on. The growing interest in theological aspects of modern literature has not yet brought us to the point where the Gospel can be brought into dialogue with the worlds of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, R. M. Rilke or Robert Musil. The reason is that we are still putting religious labels on the phenomena of life, instead of allowing them to unfold in their endless diversity. Our Gospel is a set of formulas for making sense of life instead of being an aid to vision, which allows life to become still more enigmatic, still richer. For the modernists, no word, no perception, no idea can go unquestioned. Everything has to be seen anew, in its unfathomable strangeness. `One must be absolutely modern' (Rimbaud), not for the thrill of it, but because it is the condition of vision and authenticity. All of this resonates powerfully with the gospel word, especially with the teachings of the historical Jesus, which have been left relatively untouched by the controversies of later theology. As a word of freedom, the Gospel can yet wean the church from its desperate clutching at archaic and impracticable securities.
Despite his critique of modernity, Tracy is concerned to defend the modern values, including ‘the reality of reason as communicative; the hopes alive in all the new countermovements to a dominant techno-economic realm; the drive to a Jamesian cultural pluralism and a genuine political democracy undivorced from economic democracy,' especially in a church `where even the genuine gains of modernity first released by Vatican II after two centuries of Catholic resistance to modernity are now stymied at every point by those whose views are not post-Enlightenment at all but, at best, pre-Enlightenment’ (9, 10).
The Overcoming of Metaphysics
The discovery of the internal pluralism of Christian tradition has been favoured by a sense of the historicity of Western thought gleaned from Heidegger's critical ‘history of being’. Heidegger can be invoked as an anti-modern thinker, and his recall to the openness of being can be co-opted by neo-medievalists, but a more intelligent reading will find in him the most profound critical exegete of the Western philosophical tradition. The fortunes of theology have been closely intertwined with those of metaphysics since the time of Philo of Alexandria. Critical labour on this connection has its most celebrated monument in the History of Dogma of Adolf von Harnack, heir to a long tradition which sought to recapture the `essence of Christianity' from its entanglement in Greek metaphysics and Roman institutions. His analysis of Christian dogma as `a product of the Greek mind on the soil of the Gospel' can be deepened through integrating the kind of questions opened up by Heidegger. Unfortunately, Roman Catholic history of dogma, as exemplified in the work of Cardinal Aloys Grillmeier, has not produced a critical perspective comparable to Harnack's, nor has it made any use of the hermeneutical insights of Heidegger, with the result that it threatens to leave Christian faith enclosed within the categories of late antiquity. The immensity of the task of remastering this vast history in a critical key reminds us to what a degree Christianity is still the prisoner of a past that it has failed to overcome critically. This critical task is a specifically modern one; postmodern exercises in radicality or neo-conservative exercises in restoration are no substitute for it.
Other philosophical models for revisionist history include Wittgenstein's views on the plurality of language games and his replacement of essences with ‘family resemblances’, Thomas Kuhn's account of paradigm shifts, which Hans Kung has exploited in a rather schematic way, and the neo-Nietzschean approaches to history in Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, which have as yet made little substantial impact on Catholic historical thinking, with the exception of the studies of the French Jesuit Michel de Certeau. The fresh relation to history which the critique of metaphysical theology has opened up needs to be cashed in critical differentiated studies of classical Christian thinkers. Otherwise there is a danger that it becomes a vague ideological stance, easily co-opted by conservatives. Though there have been many feminist rereadings of Christian classics, the quieter, more long-term questioning to which Heideggerian and post-structuralist hermeneutics point has so far produced no major scholarly monuments.
The suspicion that Christian tradition has been marked by a forgetfulness of revelation, analogous to Heidegger's ‘forgetfulness of being’, or that it has fallen prey to essentialism and linguistic illusions, in Wittgenstein's sense, or to logocentrism in Derrida's, frees Catholic theologians to appropriate on new premises the Lutheran and Calvinist critique of the tradition. Unfortunately, many theologians are investing instead in a modern repristination of speculative metaphysics, following Hegel, Whitehead or contemporary analytical philosophers of religion. The quarrel about how best to critically reappropriate the Christian past cuts across denominational lines.
Bloated speculation, no less than panicky fundamentalism, is a defence against nihilism, that `uncanniest guest' at the banquet of modernity. Buddhist thinkers, such as Nishitani Keiji, teach us that the way to overcome nihilism is not to build such defences, but to embrace the emptiness, to let go of identities that have outlived their purpose. To nag at the negativity of modernity is only to increase it. A dialectical negation of negation is achieved only by plunging fully into the perilous element, allowing the `power of the negative' to do its work. An over-eager apologetic or constructive aim continues to vitiate Catholic attempts to appropriate the deepest questions of modernity.
In the medieval synthesis every corner of the edifice of doctrine was well-lighted, and there was little space for rearranging the furniture. But the intellectual framework of that time is now obsolete, and the basic teachings emerge anew without the ontological moorings that kept them in their place in the system. The words `God' or `grace' no longer have the clear self-evident meaning they had in the middle ages, but have become topics for puzzlement and interrogation. The Creed itself sounds very different today, as its statements no longer have the clear definition they once had, but point us rather to the unknown. `God, the maker of heaven and earth' is a profoundly obscure idea today, one that we take up as a venerable means of expressing trust in an ultimate gracious reality. The more we reflect on it, the more we realize that the space of Christian thought has become endlessly open, its play of perspectives unmasterable, inviting a flexible, exploratory exercise of the mind. The concern with continuity, fidelity, identity can keep us sober as we enter this labyrinth, this Babel, but it must not impede us from opening up to all the questions. In such a context the consultation of other religions becomes an obvious help to finding our bearings. The central reference point of Christianity, Jesus Christ, has become as much question as answer, and we seek clues to interpreting his significance in dialogue with Jewish tradition, from which Jesus emerged, and in dialogue with Buddhism.
Metaphysics built on the early church's sense that it had sublated Judaism into its truth, leaving behind an empty shell, and in turn the Aufhebung of Judaism nourished the Christian metaphysical vision, which saw itself as universal when in reality it was but a new province of the spirit. Now as the controversy between Christianity and Judaism turns out again to be an open question, and a highly complex and differentiated one, and as the monolith of Christian identity fashioned by metaphysical theology begins to fissure, the church can revel in the pluralism created in its history by the tense interplay of the Jewish and Hellenic elements. Here, again, however, there is still great resistance to the revision of Christian tradition that such a recognition of the autonomous dignity and truth of the Jewish heritage will entail. In any case, Christianity is thrown together with Judaism in a new give-and-take which promises to be endless, and this is a constant lesson in modesty, both ethical and intellectual.
Just as Christianity can no longer overcome or be disentangled from its Jewish roots, so Catholicism can no longer be abstracted from the wider web of Christian traditions which increasingly come to seem complementary or alternative perspectives rather than defective ones. Nor can any religion be abstracted from the interreligious space in which each of them functions as a critique of all the others. The acceptance of irreducible pluralism threatens to turn religious life into an endless debate, in which secure identity and whole-hearted conviction are no longer possible. But that, too, is a danger that cannot be sidestepped. We are obliged to learn new combinations of conviction with uncertainty and to acquire identities that exist only in an open-ended exchange which constantly exposes them to revision. All faiths are lined with questioning and are acquiring, at the hands of modern scholarship, a consciousness of the fragile, contingent status of the languages they have constructed during their historical careers. It will be objected that such adult sophistication cannot be demanded of simple believers. Yet the advance of modernity in all spheres (politics, economics, technology) is an education in such reflexive sophistication. Religion, too, has to acquire its modern face. Persistence in religiously sanctioned infantilism is a kind of inauthenticity that the church of the future may no longer be able to permit itself.
Facing up to modernity means repentance for the obscurantism of the last five hundred years. Only very recently have church leaders began to apologize for the crimes committed by a persecutory church in the past, crimes which haunt us today more than ever before, for they are better known now and more severely judged, as a major argument for the falsehood of Christianity. The Christian tourist in Jerusalem today is likely to be embarrassed by reminders of how the Crusaders massacred the city's inhabitants nine hundred years ago, burning the Jews alive in their synagogues. The perpetrators of such atrocities easily forget them, but the victims remember forever. Right into this century the Crusades were fondly celebrated as a glorious hour in Christian history. Who could believe that the war to liberate the holy places, propagandized in the beautiful sermons of Saint Bernard, commemorated in gorgeous technicolor in Tasso's epic, and legitimated, at least grosso modo, by the centuries long threat of Turkish imperialism, could really have been a diabolical adventure? The noble death in battle of young Christian knights blotted from remembrance the evils inflicted by the Crusaders on the territories they claimed to liberate. Today, however, the Jewish and Islamic perspectives have to be taken seriously, and they strike Christian triumphalism dumb.
But the apology which the Pope has announced for the threshold of the new millennium will only be a form of damage control, or a public relations exercise, unless it is based on deep insight into the theological roots of the crimes committed in the name of faith. To attain such insight the church would have to abandon the witch-hunting mentality and odium theologicum that have become almost inseparable from the idea of orthodoxy and it would have to internalize profoundly the values of modernity - democratic conceptions of tolerance and justice, philosophical conceptions of the disinterested quest for truth, including the embarrassing truths of factual history. In reality, the intellectual questions of modernity, including those of the `masters of suspicion,' are still considered naughty and exotic in Roman Catholic circles. A convincing apologetic based on complete openness to these questions has yet to be composed. All of this demands a deep conversion, or even mutation, of Christianity. It is currently inconceivable that the necessity of such mutation could be voiced in an official assembly of the church. But history can make the inconceivable the inevitable in a short span of time.
Some thinkers are asking whether the historically instituted identity of Catholicism is not in itself a constricting, even violent force, and whether we ought not to recover a Christianity that would be a universal human message of community and solidarity rather than a starkly defined institution. Thus Gotthold Hasenhuetl writes: ‘Mission cannot have the purpose of founding churches in the `heathen' lands. As Jesus always addressed himself to the whole people and did not found any special community, so the Christian message is not at the service of a special community, to be increased by proselytization and conversions. The `conversion to the Church of God' propagated by the inventor of hierarchical succession, Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. III 3,4), is a false narrowing, often tied up with claims to power. The slogan should not be: “Become members of the Church”, but rather: “Put fraternity into practice”.... The Christian faith is not primarily a defined religion, but a human momentum of liberation to be realized in the different religions. It is a light that could assume the most diverse colours as it shines in the entire chromatic spectrum of human cultures, ways of life and religious self-awareness’ (‘Mission und Inkulturation’, Hermathena 156 (Summer 1994), p. 56).
Similar sentiments are voiced by Simone Weil, a thinker who has many Catholic readers, and who distinguishes the Christian inspiration, in its universality, from its all too imperfect incarnations in the historical churches. Clearly the negotiation between the historic claims of church tradition and the pluralistic awareness of the modern world will go on for a long time.
Modernity has made Christians modest. The immense onward march of secularization has shown history as the most powerful critical force, the greatest teacher of negative theology. Yet in its essence the Christian faith has retained its rational respectability and its appeal to consciences. It need not shore these up by returning to pre-modern systems of myth or metaphysics, or by offering an ersatz version of modern rationalism. It suffices to let its voice be heard in a key tempered by and attuned to the times. We must adopt the speech of the age, fully recognizing not only its doubts and anxieties but also its broader, freer view of human nature. This entails that we let die forms of thought, ethical stances, ways of imagining, which can no longer function as a skilful means for the communication of faith. But what is living and what is dead in Christian language? That is a very difficult question to answer, as the long history of premature burials of such concepts as `God' has shown. Nonetheless, the question itself must be kept open, as the pledge of our engagement with modernity.
Some fear that the combined brunt of Nietzschean critique and interreligious relativization threatens the church with extinction or with a sectarian withering and hardening. In this situation we need to see what we can honestly rely on and what has to be treated as disposable. A church in which theologians are sacked for questioning the historicity of the Virgin Birth is far from being able to make this distinction. And what can be relied on? I would answer: the essential thrust of the biblical, prophetic word, on the one hand, and the element of Buddhist emptiness in which this word is being tempered and lightened, on the other. The encounter of Christianity and Buddhism is the external enactment of the deep mutation happening within Christianity. Christian churches left to themselves come to seem like Platonic caves, unreal. The old images crumble away, the old languages grow stale, and we have to let them go, salvaging only a residue of authentic hearing of the Gospel and experience of community. Buddhism comes to Christianity in this time of crisis as a reassuring voice, encouraging it to step over boldly into emptiness, like Peter or Ananda walking on the water. Whether Christianity can equally play for Buddhism a graced and providential role of this sort is for Buddhists to discover.
Joseph S. O'Leary