FAITH Magazine March-April 2007
The Catholic Church and the Counter-faith. A Study of the Roots of modern Secularism, Relativism, and de- Christianisation by Philip Trower, Family Publications, 327pp, £12.50
I recently came across the story of Plinio Correa de Oliveira (1908- 1995), a courageous and determined Brazilian Catholic layman who devoted his life to the defence of the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith against communism. He founded an international organisation called ‘Tradition, Family, Property’ as a vehicle for this purpose and was the author of Revolution and Counterrevolution. There are interesting parallels between Plinio Correa de Oliveira’s crusade against ‘revolution’ and Philip Trower’s crusade against ‘the counter-faith’. Although the enemy identified by the Brazilian was undoubtedly a noxious and dangerous threat not merely to the Church but to civilisation as such, I cannot help thinking that the target identified by Trower has proved in the longterm to be much more insidious and destructive in the West. Where Plinio Correa de Oliveira focussed on an enemy which put itself forward in open hostility towards the Church and civilisation as traditionally understood, Trower takes aim at a vague, ill-defined and chameleon-like philosophy which is hard even to identify clearly, a philosophy which does not really have a name, a philosophy which is frequently embraced by Catholics and other Christians all unawares that it is not compatible with their faith. ‘Secularism’, ‘relativism’, ‘liberalism’, are all terms that have been applied to this kind of thinking, but none of them really suffices as a label. Trower links it to the Enlightenment, but this is to open a can of worms since a number of the thinkers he discusses – particularly thelikes of Freud, Jung, Heidegger and Barth – would generally be seen as part of a counter-Enlightenment reaction in modern thought. And yet, as a historian of ideas myself, I think it could be argued that for all their own distaste for the Enlightenment mindset, these thinkers do actually remain imprisoned within that mindset in certain important respects - and particularly with regard to religion. Trower’s previous book, Turmoil and Truth, was devoted to a shrewd analysis of the difference between the healthy spirit of reform in the Church and the damaging spirit of revolution. In this new book he offers a snapshot of the penetration of what might be called ‘alien’ thinking (though this is not a term Trower himself uses) into twentieth-century Catholic intellectual life, singlingout in particular two writers accorded iconic status over the years, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Rahner. His thesis is that in basing their theologies on philosophies fundamentally alien to Catholicism – Teilhard on ‘evolutionism’ (the idea of evolution raised to the status of a cult) and Rahner on Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger – both these ‘Catholic’ thinkers allowed themselves to be led away from the faith.
The underlying difficulty here which Trower does not tackle is the difficult relationship between philosophy and theology. After all, St Thomas himself ‘baptised’ Aristotle: can we not speak of Teilhard ‘baptising’ Darwin and of Rahner doing the same to Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger? Is it not the greatest achievement of these two sages to have shown us how the best of contemporary thinking can be incorporated into the Catholic synthesis? Alongside this question lurks another: is it even possible for us to escape from ‘the spirit of the age’? Many have denied this, leading us to the conclusion that all the Catholic can do is to express the faith in terms of the predominant ways of thinking of the day. This seems over pessimistic in the light of so many biblical assertions that we are to lookat life sub specie aeternitatis. Surely it is of the essence of our faith that it enables us to transcend the spirit of our time – not perfectly but at least in some significant measure? Returning to the question of Catholic thinkers ‘baptising’ ‘alien’ philosophies, it does seem to me that questions are raised by the difference in historical context between St Thomas’s day and our own. What Thomas ‘baptised’ was a – or the - pagan pre-Christian ‘natural’ philosophy. What the likes of Teilhard and Rahner attempted to ‘baptise’ were philosophies which constituted at least in part a conscious attempt to provide an alternative to existing Catholic teaching. Although evolution as a biological theory may not be in conflict with Catholicism, evolutionism as an ideology – and especiallyraised to a cult as in Teilhard - seems a great deal more problematic. On the other hand, even if we were to accept that evolutionism - like Kantism, Hegelianism, and Heideggerianism - are philosophies fundamentally hostile to Catholic belief, it might be argued that they can still be plundered for the good things they contain. The celebrated Catholic prophet of counter-revolution, Joseph de Maistre, was very fond of the tag ‘salus ex inimicis‘ – ‘salvation out of one’s enemies’ – the idea that the most skilful debater draws on statements made by his opponents to fuel his own fire. Maistre loved to find quotations in the likes of his archenemy Voltaire which supported his own arguments in defence of the faith. The advantage of this method is that the ‘alien’ way of thinking is made tosubserve the good of the Church. Trower however – rightly in my view – scents in Teilhard and Rahner that the supposed ‘synthesis’ actually masks some kind of absorption of the faith into ‘secularist’ thinking. There is much more to this book however – including very perceptive vignettes of non-Catholic thinkersfaith like Freud, Jung, and Karl Barth who have exercised a baneful influence on some currents in modern Catholicism. Trower comes out of a background in journalism and his writing is refreshingly free of the trammels of academicism. He also manages to be trenchant without being aggressive, and that is not the least attractive feature of this impressive and important work.
Science and Belief in the Nuclear Age by Dr Peter E Hodgson, Ave Maria Press (available from 1331 Red Cedar Circle, Fort Collins, CO 80524, USA), 355pp, £18.95
Dr Peter Hodgson, formerly head of the Nuclear Physics theoretical division at the University of Oxford, has long been involved in the science–faith debate and has contributed widely to the Catholic Church’s appreciation of modern physics, especially as a consultant to the Pontifical Council of Culture. As well as his many works on physics, he has also written extensively on the synthesis of faith and science. His other recent work, Theology and Modern Physics, was reviewed recently in this magazine. Science and Belief in the Nuclear Age is a collection of twenty-six papers, articles and lectures written over the past decade or so. He is always keen to present the truth about the Catholic Church’s promotion of science, and so the first chapters of his new bookare dedicated to that issue, starting with an analysis of the positive attitude to science taken by Pope John Paul ii, who held as a guiding principle “the harmony existing between scientific truth and revealed truth.” His second chapter sets out clearly how the Church’s theology has always led to the promotion of good science. From the Middle Ages onwards, it was precisely in Christendom that the attitude to the natural world was the fertile ground in which the beginnings of modern science and technology would arise. This flies in the face of the modern myth that the Church has always suppressed science or been frightened of it. Hodgson argues that it is precisely the Christian concept of the material world that made sense of the science endeavour. “Matter is ordered and rational becauseit was created by a rational God.” Hodgson points to a number of key philosophers of the Middle Ages who helped to break the hold Aristotelian physics had over physical science, and he emphasizes the interesting work of the 14th-century Parisian, John Buridan. Hodgson concludes: “We thus find that during the critical centuries before the birth of science, the collective mind of Europe was inspired by a system of beliefs that included just those special elements that are necessary for the development of science. It is thus very plausible to say that there is a living, organic continuity between Christian revelation and modern science. Christianity provided just those beliefs that made possible the birth of modern science, and the moral climate that encouraged its growth.” His two, shortchapters on ‘belief’ are also very incisive, demonstrating how: “the grounds for belief in religion and science are remarkably similar. In both, individual beliefs are sustained not by a single chain of reasoning but by their integral connection with a whole complex of tightly interlocking beliefs.” Some argue that science is objective and religious understanding subjective. Hodgson explains with clarity why this is not so. Then his provocatively titled chapter “Is Physics Catholic” presents a host of Christian believers across the centuries who have contributed to modern science, and some amongst Hodgson’s own science students and acquaintances. (Your humble reviewer was taken aback to find anonymous mention of himself in this chapter.) The second part of the book consists of a series ofshort pithy chapters and book reviews on topics such as ‘time,’ ‘chance’ and ‘the mind of the universe' which expand the same theme. In the third section of more detailed chapters he tackles the central questions of modern physics: the interpretation of the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. His chapter on ‘Relativity and Religion’ shows how Einstein’s theories of relativity have often been abused by extending ‘relativity’ to theological and moral values. Einstein’s seeming overthrow of absolute space and time is often taken as justifying ‘relativism,’ the idea that nothing is absolute. Hodgson argues that nothing could be further from Einstein’s mind. The longest chapter in the book is a thorough and muchneeded discussion of the different interpretations of quantum mechanicsadopted by Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein. In essence is is a question of acceptance or refusal to accept that quantum mechanics is a complete description of atomic reality. Einstein always held that the statistical nature of Bohr et al.’s ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ was an insufficient answer, and there must be a deeper and deterministic explanation of reality which will explain the behaviour of individual particles, and not just the stochastic ensemble. Hodgson has much sympathy for this position and argues for a new realism in physics, and is firmly against speculations drawn from a sub-realist interpretation of quantum mechanics (eg. 'chance is the basis of reality'). Further chapters discuss whether we can locate divine action in the sub-atomic ‘gaps’ of quantum indeterminacy(Hodgson argues that we cannot), and how far Einstein may be considered religious.
The penultimate section of the book consist of a series of chapters on the scientific and ethical considerations surrounding the provision and extension of nuclear power, of which Hodgson is a keen advocate, and concerning which he has long been an expert. He has often been a vociferous promoter of science in the Church, calling for good Catholic scientists and indeed priest-scientists to counter the false assumption that science is a realm of atheism. “The greater part of our task,” he writes, “ is to convey our understanding of the relation between theology and science to all members of the Church … Catholic teachers at all levels need to be well informed on the relation between science and their faith, and they can be helped in this respect by suitable publications.” I pray thatFaith Magazine contributes precisely to the great evangelizing task to which Hodgson has so eagerly and tirelessly committed himself.
Rev Dr Philip Miller
Being Reasonable About Religion by William Charlton , Ashgate, 178pp, £45
William Charlton appears to have a modest aim in writing this book, which is simply to be ‘reasonable’ about religion. However as soon as the reader opens up the front cover he is confronted with chapter headings that cover almost every area of Christian concern, from gods, the spread of Christianity, science and creation, to explaining mind, the Trinity, salvation, Baptism and the Eucharist. So Charlton has our interest, especially as he attempts to cover all this in a mere 161 pages. My own high hopes were only partiallly met. This is perhaps in part due to the nature of what Charlton is attempting with this work: being ‘reasonable’ in attempting to appear unbiased. In the early part of the book especially, Charlton has a tendency to wander off on what appear to be tangentialdiscussions that serve to illustrate his impressively wide range of reading but left this reader without a sense of clear structure and form. This is combined with an alarming tendency to make sweeping statements such as; “New Testament scholars sometimes say that the Gospel accounts of the appearances of the risen Christ are false and his followers did not intentionally claim to be eye-witnesses to his resurrection”, without references to back it up. He also makes controversial comments such as: ‘The fact that accepting this miracle [the resurrection] could involve you in a painful death does not make such an evolution [of Christianity] improbable, since some people are extremely obstinate and like being martyrs.’ (my emphasis). However Charlton is primarily a philosopher and itshows. On page 47 the reader finds an impressively clear and concise few chapters inviting them to think vigorously in defence of the position that ‘science cannot explain the origin of the physical universe, its continued existence, or mind.’ Suddenly the frustratingly ‘reasonable’ and uncertain style is driven to conclusions by a commanding philosophical intellect exploring topics as complex as the nature of causation. These middle chapters stimulate and entertain.
Charlton places Christian philosophical foundations largely outside the realm of science: ‘that science has not proved that God or an after life exists is not bad news but good.’ Similarly ‘ceasing to exist' cannot be a defiance of any kind of law. A natural law tells us how things must behave as a matter of physical necessity if they exist; no law can tell us that a thing will exist or that there will always be behaviour for it to apply to.’ Working with Colin McGinn’s ideas on consciousness Charlton illustrates the inconsistencies of philosophers who view mind as explainable by science, while suggesting himself that ‘the presence of mind in nature is not something invisible and hidden except to introspection, but the most palpable thing there is. Purposive human action is humanthought (and if religious believers are right, the continuation of physical processes generally is a kind of divine thought).’ Refreshingly Charlton sees purpose in physical reality: ‘I am suggesting that teleological explainability is the norm, that we may expect there to be some reason for what happens unless we have some ground for thinking it happens for no reason.’
However in the concluding chapter there seems to be a lack of appreciation of the Catholic theological understanding of how the Church arrives at infallible statements. He concludes that “Infallibility is a Victorian extra, an additional protection with which one could dispense, like galoshes.” He suggests that Church teaching is unnecessarily morally objective, that Catholic claims to truth are like the Stalinist propaganda machine, and: “A particular action is right or wrong only in relation to the circumstances in which it is performed.” For Charlton “being reasonable” about Catholic doctrine involves leaving aside its proper context (that of faith). He can claim a fairly rigorous analytical approach but fails to ‘get inside’ Catholic theological concepts.
Being Reasonable About Religion is a rollercoaster ride of exploration that will interest many because of the diversity of topics covered, but is a work of varying usefulness. The extremely competent and concise middle section on philosophy sits in between sections that this reviewer found unstructured, unconvincing and which could frankly mislead the novice as to the nature of Catholic theology. It is also hard to see a target audience for the work. The seasoned philosopher and theologian might prefer more in depth writings on the topics covered, and the newly curious may find it difficult and unclear. This is a shame, as many might miss the thought provoking and well written philosophy buried within.