Catholicism and the problem of modernity

Theologians from Hegel to Ratzinger have seen a fundamental problem of their project as how to make Christianity acceptable to modern persons. The problem can mean more than one thing, though it is often shorthand for the claim that Christianity rests heavily on myth and modern persons no longer have any interest in mythical foundations. The claim rests on two centuries of form criticism that takes the mythical vs. historical problem as the central concern of exegesis, which means that modern theology (and most people reading this blog have probably taken a class or ten like this) usually starts with damage control over the concept of myth – “myth doesn’t mean false” (Rollo May); “mythos is the counterpart and equal to logos” (Karen Armstrong); “myth is not just pre-scientific fairy tale” (Paul Tillich) etc.

The damage control accounts might all be fine as far as they go, but they cannot escape the liar paradox. To explain myth as true, or equal to logos, or not just pre-scientific while using logical, scientific discourse is a hypocrisy of logic. If myth is so true or noble or relevant then why are we studying it?  Why is a professor talking about it?

I have to admit the whole mythos-logos debate is extrinsic to my experience of Christianity, and it seems more like a problem peculiar to leftist Protestantism, or at least late-stage, iconoclast, intellectual, non-authoritarian Protestantism. Growing up outside this tradition doesn’t cause the same anxiety over myth-logos division, and even makes it seem like a problem created by Enlightenment rationalist leftism.

The easiest and most illuminating example I can give of this is a life-long Catholic’s experience of the stations of the cross. The stations are a given of Catholic experience: they’re just there, and always there, no matter whether they’re ugly or corny or intriguing or kitsch. They’re what Jesus is before you have any idea of what is going on in the gospel or in a sermon, and before you have any sense of Jesus even being a figure in salvation history. Now the stations have a something like a temporal progression and a historical basis, this only goes so far. The fourth station records Simon helping Jesus, but then Simon vanishes for the rest of the stations; the sixth station tells of a woman with no Scriptural basis and a dubious Medieval sounding name; other stations record, quite apart from any record, that Jesus fell three times, etc. One approach to all this is to blast it as non-historic, non-scriptural, and even incoherent (where does Simon go?) but this only makes sense to a critic who experiences it all from the outside. To one who grows up with it, the critique goes quite the other way: the Stations are experienced as an antibody to the perversion of intellect by pan-historical hubris or first-century chauvinism. Logical analysis is fine, but it has to make room for Simon being present during one station and vanishing; historical rigor is indispensable, but it has to allow that the unprecedented or never repeated might happen; and the Scriptural accounts of the Via Dolorosa are important to base ourselves on, but they can’t be taken as a club to bash Medieval talk about Veronica wiping the face of Jesus or Jesus falling three times on the way to Calvary. I don’t usually think about all this, I just have one box in my brain for form criticism and another for praying the stations. This sort of consciousness gets learned early – my five year old daughter thinks (quite by herself) that Adam and Even is a folktale with no connection to Jesus even while she cries while looking at Jesus’s second fall.

All this does not make criticism impossible, still less does it mean that anything goes (wide swatches of hagiography, for example, are long overdue for critical destruction), rather it carves out a role for authority and tradition outside of a pure subordination to critique. It is a challenge to Enlightenment pan-rationality, though obviously not challenge that can be made in Enlightenment terms. Seen from this angle, the “problem of making Christianity relevant to modern man” rests on a deeper, more problematic Enlightenment assumption of the universal scope of rational critique. The force of the critique, of course, is that the rational attempt to refute it tacitly accepts its terms. But irrefutability is not the same thing as truth – the criterion for truth could never be a the absence of something. You might be able to prove the limits of logic, but not the logical value of what falls outside of it, and to call any such reality “illogical” is decidedly tendentious. More importantly, the attempt to characterize what falls outside of logic by a mythos-logos division gives the division a decidedly rational or logical tint. It’s no more inherently rational to reverse the process and describe all the spinnings of reason in a Nietzschian manner as the desiccated corpses of mythical or poetic truth. It is the same thing to mock Medieval superstition as it is to say that Socrates or Hegel are clowns singing love songs to skeletons. In this sense, Catholicism is positioning itself as a mean between the German rationalist critical tradition and the Nietzschian response to it.

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  1. December 19, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    The damage control accounts might all be fine as far as they go, but they cannot escape the liar paradox. To explain myth as true, or equal to logos, or not just pre-scientific while using logical, scientific discourse is a hypocrisy of logic. If myth is so true or noble or relevant then why are we studying it? Why is a professor talking about it?

    Could you explain again the connection between these three thoughts in four sentences? They seem disconnected to me.

    • December 20, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      The sense is just that at rings hollow to praise mythos as equal to logos in a way that remains always logical and never breaks into myth or only encounters myth in a purely logical way.

  2. thenyssan said,

    December 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this post a lot. Another big example of this phenomenon is Catholic liturgical time. The time folding we do (John the Baptist in Advent, for example) is embedded so deeply that it’s hard to explain to outsiders. Sure you could talk about sacred space and sacred time, do some fancy philosophizing that belongs in a grad seminar–lots of “nunc et tunc” and “immanent eschatology” and whatnot–but time just does fold and the adult John just does preach right before his cousin of the same age is born. I feel this one even more strongly than the stations and I cringe every time a well-meaning priest tries to explain why we celebrate Christmas when we do.

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