The Primacy of Christ in the Light of Modern Dilemmas
Stephen Dingley FAITH Magazine January-February 2008
PART ONE: THE CHALLENGE OF MODERNITY
We human beings are created by God and for God. We are created with a spiritual soul as well as a body, and so material things alone are not enough to satisfy us: we yearn for what is truly spiritual. As human beings we have a natural desire for God: we are naturally religious. We yearn for God to reveal himself to us. We yearn for communion with him, to share our deepest existence with him, and for him to share himself with us. And if that is the way God has made us, it is because he wants to fulfil us by the gift of himself.
As human beings, the way that we get to know people best is by meeting them. Communication at a distance, by email, telephone and so forth, is valuable, but it is no substitute for meeting someone in person. We need to be in the same place with them, to spend our time with them, to share our life with them. God wants us to have that same level of intimacy with him as well: not just to know about him by hearsay, but to meet him (cf. Job 42:5). Thus he chose to become one of us, so that we could get to know him to the fullest extent possible for a human being. Thus we are totally fulfilled, body and soul, in God, who has become true man whilst remaining true God. In other words, we are only fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
If it were not for sin then all of humanity would have been Christians. However, we have turned our back on God. We have damaged ourselves. Because of sin our minds are darkened and our wills are distorted: we no longer see God clearly and we no longer yearn for him with all our heart.
However, although we are damaged by sin, our nature is not totally destroyed. There still remains in us a basic, natural desire for God. As a result, even though most people have lost sight of the one true God, they still yearn for something more than worldly things. They reach outwards, desiring God, without knowing him. And so various religions have arisen in the world. These religions are human creations. They are not revealed by God. But God is not snobbish, and he will not refuse his grace to people who are open to receive it. So in other religions we expect to find much that is good and much that is true, although mixed with error and corruption. All of these religions are in fact implicitly looking for Jesus Christ. Adherents of these religions do not know it, but Jesus Christ isin truth the fulfilment of that longing for God which is present in every religion.
Sadly, the destructive impact of sin on humanity is not only seen at our beginnings. It is only too clear in our own times and in our own society. Only a few hundred years ago our European culture was gloriously Christian. How has it come about that our society in the last few centuries has lost that faith, lost sight of our true fulfilment in Jesus Christ? How come our world is now so secular? How did it go so horribly wrong?
Pope Benedict on the Decline of Christianity
This was the question at the heart of Pope Benedict’s famous (or even infamous) 2006 address at Regensburg University. His analysis is insightful. His thesis is that Christ, the Word or Logos of God, is at the heart of the truth about faith and reason, for logos means ‘reason’ as well as ‘word’. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and specifically in the image and likeness of Christ the Logos, therefore our access to God must be characterised by reason. Our worship of God too must be intelligent, rational worship, as St Paul teaches in his letter to the Romans (Rom 12:2; St Paul’s original Greek phrase is logiken latreian).
If we let go of our use of reason in our relationship with God we find ourselves on the path to disaster. In the first place it is no longer necessary to teach other people the faith, to explain it to them and convince them; it becomes acceptable to make people believe with the sword. And, of course, it was pointing out this attitude in some parts of the history of Islam that caused the controversy. However, this was not at all the main focus of the Pope’s address; his critique was much more devastatingly directed towards the Christian West - our own culture. He sees the breakdown of the right relationship between reason and religion in the West occurring in three stages.
The first stage was the Protestant Reformation. Amongst the Reformers’ criticisms of Catholicism was its dependence on scholastic theology and philosophy. In their opinion the Church needed to return to a ‘pure’ religion based on scripture alone, sola scriptura. In effect they were saying that human reason has nothing to say to faith. Some 200 years later Immanuel Kant would express this idea with astonishing radicalism, saying that he must lay aside thinking in order to make room for faith.
The second stage was essentially a response to the first: if reason must be set aside to make room for faith, then faith had better be set aside to make room for reason. If reason cannot talk about God or faith or miracles or the supernatural, then all these things must be banished from rational discourse. The result was an attempt to “demythologise” religion, to prune away all references to the supernatural: events like miracles and the resurrection of the dead, and doctrines like the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Christ. What was left was the ‘pure’ Christianity of the merely human Jesus and his ethical teachings - in other words, liberal modernism.
Finally, the third stage reduces the scope of human reason even further. Now religion and even ethics are deemed to be purely subjective and matters of individual feeling, so they cannot be meaningfully discussed. The only possible ground of rational discourse is the natural sciences, mathematics and empiricism. The resulting worldview is materialistic secularism, which we see all too obviously around us.
The Challenge of Relativism
According to the prevailing secularist mindset, you clearly have to get rid of any idea of absolute religious truth. Really you ought to be an atheist, or at best an agnostic. But if you must hang on to religion, you have to admit that it is only about personal experiences and feelings, and so is totally subjective. My experiences are no more valid or no less valid than yours, they are just different. Therefore my religion is just as good or bad as yours, and just as subjective. Jesus Christ and the Church and the sacraments and dogma are all mythical and relative. You can have them if you want them and you can junk them if you don’t. And, of course, Allah and the Qur’an and Buddha and the Greek gods and whoever else you care to mention are in exactly the same boat. If you want them,that’s fantastic, and if you don’t, you can ditch them. In the end, the same is true for all moral norms too. It is all up to your feelings. There are no absolute truth claims involved at all... except, of course, the absolute dogma that there are no truth claims in matters of religion and morals!
The Challenge of Materialism and Secularism
All of this relativism contrasts so sharply with the approach of modern science. No one says, “If you think that gravity is true for you, that’s fine; but it doesn’t happen to be true for me.” It is part of the standard scientific worldview that the laws of science are universally valid. We may not know everything about the universe yet there is more to discover, but we know that when we do the science we will discover the truth about the world. And the proof of the universal validity of science is technology: it works, quite independently of whether “it feels right for me”.
However, science is not just a useful source of technology; it explains the world around us. It explains rainbows and ightning and volcanoes and earthquakes and why the grass is green and why the sky is blue and why sprouts are good for you (whether you like them or not) and why butter is bad for you (even if you do like it). And it explains more than this. It explains where babies come from. It explains how the human race has evolved. It explains how the organic chemicals that formed the beginnings of life were produced on the early earth through the laws of chemistry. It explains how the earth formed four billion years ago out of a vast cloud of gas and dust. It explains how the atoms that made up that dust and gas were synthesised inside stars billions of years before that, and how thestars exploded and blew the atoms out into space. Science even explains how the whole universe emerged from a Big Bang fourteen billion years ago. We know these things - they are not just ideas that you can buy into if it feels nice for you. We know they are true.
If we know that science is true, and if religion and morality are simply subjective feelings, surely atheism is the only credible option, surely we are only jumped-up apes. The whole idea of spiritual beings needs to be abandoned as a quirk of history. Religion should be abandoned too; but if it is tolerated in society it should be definitively relegated to the private sphere. Materialistic secularism is surely the only credible worldview. It is certainly the prevalent worldview in our Western culture.
PART TWO: THE RESPONSE OF THE RELIGIONS
How can religion respond to this situation? What has religion got to say to a world that is fundamentally convinced of the value of science but totally unconvinced of the value of religion or morals? There are various possible answers.
One possible answer is to give in, to abandon any pretence to rationality in religion, and simply seek personal experience. This is the underlying attitude behind superstitions such as astrology or wearing lucky underpants to make your football team win. It is also the fundamental mentality of the New Age movement and neo-paganism. While they do sometimes engage rationally with such issues as ecology and feminism, at heart they are irrational and anti-rational. Ultimately their focus is on the purely experiential, seeking for intoxication and ecstasy.
Clearly such anti-rational religious ideas have no answer to give to our modern world. They merely capitulate to its secular materialism in all practical matters. In the end this is just running away from the questions.
Hinduism and Buddhism
If superstition and neo-paganism cannot offer any answer to the modern world, can traditional religions do any better? Let us start by looking at Hinduism.
Hinduism is a great mixture of ideas, some of which go back thousands of years while others are more recent. Not all of these ideas are totally consistent with each another, but this is not considered to be a major problem: Hinduism is pluralistic and relativistic. It is also polytheistic, at the surface level at least: Hindus believe in many gods. But whilst some Hindus accept this at face value, others see the gods really as manifestations of a single God. This God may be thought of as some sort of impersonal force in the universe or God may be personal. God may be identified with the universe, pantheism, or may somehow just be present in the universe panentheism.
Hindus believe in reincarnation. However, this is seen as a bad thing, and the aim of the Hindu religion is to escape from the cycle of reincarnation in order to escape from the universe to become merged with God. Given that God is often seen as an impersonal force associated with the universe, this really means disappearing into unconsciousness, disappearing almost into nothingness. This process is often likened to a raindrop falling into the ocean and merging into it.
How far can Hinduism give an answer to the modern world? First of all, it can give no account of why the world is rational or why science works; in fact, quite the opposite would seem to be the case. If Hinduism is pluralistic and holds together various contradictory ideas, then it cannot sustain an idea of absolute truth. If it is polytheistic, if there are many gods influencing the world in different ways, then we cannot expect the world to be coherent, we should not expect the world to show coherent and consistent behaviour. Rather, we would expect there to be a jumble of different dynamics. We would expect the universe to be a chaos, not a cosmos. If we accept pantheism, if the world is divine, then it must be intrinsically mysterious; in which case it is beyond rational investigationand science should be impossible, or at least blasphemous. Finally, if the aim of life is to escape from the cycle of reincarnation, to escape from the world, then the world is implicitly a bad place. In summary, Hinduism suggests a world that is irrational, chaotic, beyond reason and evil. This hardly constitutes an answer to the challenge of secular materialism.
Buddhism surely fares no better in offering a constructive response to the challenge of our modern culture. It adopts much the same outlook on the world as Hinduism does, but without any clear idea of God or gods, thus adding nihilism into the bargain.
Monotheism, perhaps, is more likely to be able to respond positively to the modern world. Within classical monotheism the emphasis is placed more on divine revelation in history than on personal religious experience. Thus there is a greater emphasis on the objective and the historical rather than the subjective and the mythical. Monotheism also tends to emphasise the difference between God and the world.
In Islam, God is thought of as utterly and uncompromisingly transcendent. He is totally above the world and beyond our knowledge and understanding. This remains true despite the reality of divine revelation, since, according to Islam, God does not reveal himself, but only the decrees of his will. The purpose of revelation is not that we should come to know God personally or enter into personal communion with him (although this idea is found in certain strains of Islamic thought, for example Sufism), but that we should just learn what he tells us to do. Thus the aim of human life in Islam is to obey God, to submit to him. The word Islam itself means ‘submission’.
Islam sees its scriptures as correspondingly utterly transcendent. The Qur’an is eternal and unchangeable, a heavenly text in Arabic. The majority opinion within Islam is that the Qur’an is uncreated. (Incidentally, that idea provides a very interesting link with the Christian concept of the uncreated Word of God, namely Jesus Christ.) This text was literally dictated word for word to Mohammed by the archangel Gabriel. Such a radical concept of the eternal word of God and its dictation demands a correspondingly radical and straightforward theory of interpretation. If the Qur’an is literally the words of God, existing from all eternity, and transmitted word for word to Mohammed, then it is in no way conditioned by the limitations of human authors. It would therefore be inappropriate to tryto distinguish the message being communicated from its literary form or any other culturally determined conventions and patterns of speech it may utilise. The direct word of God must surely be interpreted directly and literally. If the text of the Qur’an is the eternal and uncreated word of God, then the only logical option for interpreting it is fundamentalism.
What concept of the relationship between faith and reason does this give us? An early, minority view in Islam was that reason and revelation are complementary sources of guidance. The influential view, the view that eventually became dominant, is really that reason is suspect. Non-rational aspects of belief are to be defended because God transcends every possible human understanding. Reason can be used to explain and defend belief, but revelation itself is ultimately above the requirements of reason. In particular, we cannot necessarily understand why God says some things are good and other things are evil; he simply determines good and evil by sheer omnipotence. The task of humanity is not to question God’s decisions, nor even to understand them, but to obey them – to submit. Ultimately,then, all philosophy and all human reason is suspect.
As a result it would seem that Islam can offer no satisfactory answer to the modern world. The underlying mentality is that faith and reason are in conflict. In the end, reason must be marginalised, since any attempt to understand God’s word is in danger of questioning his omnipotence.
This inability of Islamic thought to respond to modern scientific culture seems to stem from two fundamental problems. The first is that of seeing the Qur’an as eternal and uncreated. As a result revelation does not have a human aspect. If you cannot distinguish the truth being communicated from its culturally and historically conditioned manner of expression, then it seems impossible to cope with advances in human knowledge which show up the limitations and inaccuracies of the earlier ideas. In other words, a fundamentalist approach to the scriptures is unable to respond positively to developments in modern science and other areas of learning.
The deeper difficulty is that of giving priority to the will of God and the decree of God, rather that to the truth of God and the reason of God. If Islam is suspicious of reason, then it has nothing ultimately to say to the modern scientific culture, because our scientific culture places its basic trust in human reason– and not without justification, given the great technological advances which science has led to. Faced with a choice between faith and reason, our society will choose reason. And in the end Islam seems to demand such a choice. If this is true, then the only response of Islam to the challenge of the modern secular world is retreat and defence.
Christian Fundamentalism and Liberalism
In truth, Christian fundamentalism stands in much the same position as Islam. It clings not only to the divine revelation expressed in the scriptures but also to the exclusively literal truth of the scriptures. As a result it has to let go of reason; it has to reject many of the findings of modern mainstream science, thinking that this is the only way to remain faithful to God’s revelation.
Liberalism, on the other hand, takes a diametrically opposite position. It is very happy to embrace modern knowledge and opinion, but underestimates the reality of the supernatural. Thus the divine inspiration of the scriptures is downplayed and they are treated largely as merely historical documents, thus letting divine revelation slip through its fingers. The result is that whilst it attempts to be acceptable to modern society, it can fail to have any significant response to offer.
PART THREE: CHRIST AND HIS CHURCH, THE ONLY ADEQUATE RESPONSE
Having considered so many unfruitful ways for religion to respond to the modern world, we must now examine the elements required for a more successful approach. In the opinion of the author, they are in fact the elements of Catholicism.
The True Place of Reason in Religion
The first thing that must be established is the right relationship between reason and religion. From the very beginning the Church has known and taught that human reason has a central place in authentic religion. It is what St Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans:
What can be known about God is plain to them [men], because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Rom 1:19-20)
In fact the same ideas can be seen even in the Old Testament:
For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists... For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. ...If [people] had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things? (Wisdom 13:1-9)
However, it is in St John’s theology that the importance of reason is most majestically expressed: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” For the Greek Logosmeans not only ‘word’ but also ‘reason’. One might translate, In the beginning was the Reason, and the Reason was with God, and the Reason was God. If this is true, then this verse is a hugely important text for the present investigation. Finally, the idea that reason has a crucial place in our relationship to God is found in many of the Fathers and great theologians of the Church: it is there in Justin, in Augustine, and in Aquinas.
All of this stands in stark contrast with the setting aside of reason which we saw in some Reformation theology and in Immanuel Kant. Karl Barth, as another and very influential example, sees faith as sheer paradox, independent of and contrary to reason. The ideas being advocated in such statements come perilously close to the deadly idea of blind faith. No wonder, then, when one of the great prophets of atheism in our time, Richard Dawkins, says, “faith... means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of
evidence”, or again:
Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence... Faith is not allowed to justify itself by argument.
This sort of definition of faith is surely a caricature of any Christian position, but it is totally opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church:
The assent of faith is by no means a blind impulse of the mind. ...Not only can there be no conflict between faith and reason, they also support each other since right reason demonstrates the foundations of the faith and, illumined by its light, pursues
the science of divine things, while faith frees and protects reason from errors and provides it with manifold insights.
There can be no conflict between faith and reason because both come from one and the same God. The God who created the world and who created our minds is also the God who has revealed himself, and God is not divided against himself.
The Truth about God and the World
Having granted the legitimate, indeed essential, place of human reason within religion, we need to identify the truth about God and the world, and the relationship between them.
First of all, God exists, he is not a myth. Next, God is not the world. Therefore we can investigate the world scientifically: it is not blasphemy, and it is not a foolish attempt to understand what is intrinsically mystery above human understanding. God created the world, so it is good. Thus, when we do science we will be exploring something positive; it will be interesting, it will be fruitful, it will be good for us. Of course we can abuse science, as we can abuse every good thing, but essentially science is a good thing to do because God has made the world good. God is one, therefore the world that he made will be coherent: it will be a cosmos, not a chaos. We expect science to work, we expect science to uncover a beautiful unity in the world made by God. And all of this is what wediscover.
The result is that God can be known by our reason, even without the help of supernatural revelation. When we look at the world we can see reliable evidence for God. Again, this is the doctrinal position of the Catholic Church: “If anyone says that the One true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be known with certainty with the natural light of human reason through the things that are created anathema sit. ”
God created the world through his Word, through his Logoso r Reason, not just by the sheer decree of his will. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:1-3) Thus the order of the world, which we discover in science, reveals the very Mind of God. Furthermore, the development of the world reveals the purpose of God. When God made the world, he had a purpose in mind; and we can begin to discern that purpose when we use our mind. And that purpose is ultimately Christ.
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible... all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:15-17)
He [God] chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will... He has made known to us in all wisdom and insight [not just by his sheer decree] the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:4-10)
In conclusion, God the Creator is one and good and mind, therefore we see a world that is unified, harmonious, rational, true and good, a world that we can successfully investigate with science. In turn, the authentic application of science points us back to the truth of God.
The Truth about Revelation
We now need the truth about revelation. God is transcendent, he is in no way equal to the world, he is supremely above it. Yet he has genuinely revealed not only the decrees of his will but also his very self. He has communicated himself to us.7 And he does this in human ways, because we are human, and if we are to get to know God, we need to get to know him in a human way. Thus God uses human words and human language, human culture and human imagery, human existence and human nature. The apex of divine revelation is his coming into the world in Person: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Here at last we find the meaning of the world, the meaning of the cosmos: it is all for Christ. Science can know that the world has meaning, it can even discover the beginning of this meaning. But on its own it cannot find the full meaning of the world, for science only investigates matter, and the meaning of the world lies not just in matter, but also, and more fully, in spirit. Science yearns for and reaches out for a meaning, but that meaning is fully provided only by God’s revelation, by God’s Incarnation.
Finally we have a real answer for the modern secular world. So many other religions cannot do this, because for them the universe is mysterious or irrational or chaotic or evil, and so ultimately meaningless. But in a Christian understanding, the world is full of meaning and that meaning is Christ. So we should do science, we should investigate the world with our minds, openly and joyfully. It will lead us closer to God, to the true meaning of the world.
The Truth about Scripture and Doctrine
Finally we need the truth about scripture and doctrine. In Catholic theology scripture is certainly the inspired word of God: God is the author of every word in the Bible. But it is also a human word: the human beings who wrote it were also true authors.8 The scriptures therefore share to some extent in the nature of the incarnation: they use human things as the means for God to communicate with us humanly. Thus we do not simply interpret the Bible in a fundamentalist or literalist way. Rather we must carefully discern and distinguish the human and divine elements in it. We must recognise the historical and cultural limitations of the human aspects, and also the absolute and unchangeable nature of the divine aspects.
This is no easy task. It requires the use of human reason and human learning. But even that is not enough. It also requires the authentic and authoritative tradition and teaching of the Church, for if the word of God was inspired by the Holy Spirit, then it can only be authentically interpreted by the same Holy Spirit. Thus we need the living Magisterium of the Church. Without the Magisterium any attempt to interpret the scriptures inevitably falls into fundamentalism or liberalism.
And because the Holy Spirit is active in the Church, we also find authentic development of doctrine. The Church will respond to heresies, to developing theological reflections, and to new scientific discoveries. Theology will continually look for new syntheses to incorporate the truth that we discover in the sciences and in other human studies into our understanding of all things, our understanding of God and his world and his purposes fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
In Jesus Christ, the Word, the Logos, the Reason of God made flesh, and in his Church, and in that alone, we have an answer for our secular world. In this alone we expect the universe to be rational, created good and true by God, created with meaning – and that meaning of all creation looks to God himself. True religion, Roman Catholicism, is reasonable, it is rational and in fact it is the only reasonable position to take. Nothing else makes sense of us as human beings, as spiritual, rational and bodily beings. Only Roman Catholicism, only Jesus Christ and his Church, can explain that, can show the meaning of who we are.
Our world urgently needs to hear this truth, for only this truth can set it free from the slavery and self-absorption of secular materialism. So, let us believe it with confidence, and let us preach it with joy.
 Benedict XVI, “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”, Lecture of the Holy Father at the University of Regensburg, 12/09/2006. The text can be found at http://www.vatican.va/holy\_father/benedict\_xvi
 Cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum 12 on the interpretation of the Christian scriptures.
 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (new edition, Oxford: OUP, 1989), p. 198.
 Richard Dawkins, unnamed lecture, quoted in Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p. 84.
 Vatican I, Dei Filius: DS 3010, 3019.
Vatican I, Dei Filius: DS 3026; cf. DS 3004 and Vatican II, Dei Verbum 6.