“Returning to Reality” – by Scott P. Richert

And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost…

Piers Moran & Penn Jillette

On February 28, as Pope Benedict XVI was leaving office, the magician Penn Jillette was interviewed on CNN by Piers Morgan, a nominal Catholic. Morgan, a critic of Benedict, thought he would have a sympathetic ear in Jillette, an outspoken atheist, but the interview quickly took an amusing turn as Jillette began lecturing Morgan on the teachings of the Catholic Church, which Jillette got (mostly) right. Morgan pushed back, but in the process only revealed his own ignorance of why the Church teaches what She teaches. Jillette made short work of him, as would anyone even modestly versed in Catholic theology.

Catholic commentators, especially those who are politically conservative and thus despised Piers Morgan for other reasons, enjoyed a bit of Schadenfreude at Morgan’s expense. One obvious lesson—which many of the commentators drew—is that Catholics of Morgan’s generation (he is 48) were poorly catechized. If an atheist can beat a reasonably intelligent Catholic not just in technique but in the substance of a debate over Catholic theology, something is wrong.

There were less obvious lessons to be learned. The first is that American Catholics are just as enamored of celebrities as Americans of other stripes are. Not a few of the Catholic commentariat jumped to the conclusion that Jillette was ripe for conversion. (Many of the same commentators had declared Christopher Hitchens another Augustine or Saint Paul in the making, and had not only hoped for—a good thing—but expected his deathbed conversion, no matter how often Hitchens assured them it would never come.) Just as Kourtney Kardashian was lauded as a pro-life hero back in 2009 when she revealed in an interview that she could not bring herself to abort her unborn child, conceived out of wedlock, so Jillette became, for a moment, the potential new face of the Catholic Church in America. And as prolifers had made excuses for Kardashian, when in that same interview she had made it clear that she thought it perfectly fine for other mothers to kill their unborn children even if she could not personally do so, Jillette’s admirers tried to explain away the actions of this militant atheist who has used his stage act and his television show, Bullsh-t!, to launch a series of nasty attacks on the Catholic Church, the Eucharist, and the priesthood.

Which brings us to a second, less obvious lesson: The Devil knows not only Latin but Christian theology. And he can use that knowledge in more than one way: to try to undermine the faith of those who are weak, by instilling doubts in their minds; but also to mislead others through a form of spiritual pride, by convincing them that saying the right thing is necessarily the same thing as believing the right thing. If the Devil can convince people that the Faith is simply a checklist of propositions to which we must give assent rather than a lived relationship with the Risen Christ from which those doctrines flow, his work is mostly done.

Faith is, among other things, the perfection of reason, but that does not mean that reason alone can lead us to faith. Penn Jillette may know all the right things to say, but Morgan, despite his dissent from Church teaching, has the benefit of baptism and membership in the Church, while Jillette not only rejects both for himself but has made it perfectly clear that he despises those who choose them for themselves (and even more so for their children). Jillette was not, as so many seemed to assume, urging Morgan on to deepen his faith (or even simply “keeping him honest”); he was ridiculing him for being less knowledgeable than a man who rejects Jesus Christ, and all His works, and all of His salvific promises.

Put this way, this all seems rather obvious; so why did so many miss what Jillette was up to? Part of the problem is that, in the United States, Christianity has all too often become a surface phenomenon. Doctrine has become a substitute for the substance of the Faith, rather than a catechetical tool that is meant to help us understand what we, as Christians, experience. To put it in stark terms: Which came first, the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, or the dogmatic councils? As Chronicles’ longtime religion editor Harold O.J. Brown explained in his greatest work, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy From the Apostles to the Present, Christian doctrine developed from the lived experience of the Church, the Body of Christ, not the other way around. A credo is a distillation of what Christians believe because they know it to be true, rather than a list of propositions to which they give assent, and thus come to believe. The convert recites the Creed at his baptism not as a test of his orthodoxy but to affirm what he already knows, through his experience, to be true.

Many factors have contributed to the distortion of Christian doctrine from a distillation of the Christian experience into an abstraction, even an ideology. In the United States in the 20th century, a certain neo-Thomism played an important role, beginning in the Catholic Church but with its effects spilling out into other Christian denominations. Thomistic theology is not the problem; the problem, as Owen Barfield demonstrated in Saving the Appearances, comes when that theology is treated as an end in itself, and the experience that underlies it and which it encapsulates becomes attenuated or even lost. Recover that experience, and Christian doctrine takes on a new life that can deepen our faith; the works of Thomas become as fresh as if they were written yesterday. But without that experience, we become caricatures of Penn Jillette—functional atheists who, unlike Jillette, are convinced that we have the fullness of the Faith.

The problem, though, runs much deeper than modern neo-Thomism. It extends back to the beginning of the modern age and the rise of the modern state, as the realm of politics, previously limited, began to encroach upon more and more areas of everyday life. And it has reached its apotheosis in 21st-century America, where even so-called conservatives no longer believe that there are no political solutions to cultural problems, but that all cultural problems are at base political and can only be solved through elections and legislation and court decisions.

In a society with a strong common culture, the encroachment of politics into more and more areas of human life may not initially seem to pose a problem. Indeed, to the extent that legislation, for instance, is seen as supporting what is good in human life against external threats to the common culture, such encroachment may even be welcomed. But as the common culture breaks down, the increased power of the state over culture becomes a battering ram that accelerates that destruction.

So, for instance, state laws against abortion before 1973 largely represented the common moral sense of the people. But Roe v. Wade, while imposed from the top down, did not come out of nowhere. The moral consensus on abortion had been eroding for decades, and it reflected a more advanced erosion within the Christian churches on contraception, which itself reflected a loss within those churches not simply of the Christian understanding of the sacredness of life but, more importantly, of the experience that gave life to that understanding.

Jump forward to today, and for any person under the age of 40 in the United States, abortion has always been a part of the fabric of his or her life, and the battle over abortion, while framed in moral terms, has always been a political one. Those who believe that abortion is wrong wish to see Roe v. Wade overturned and new laws passed banning abortion; those who think otherwise work hard to maintain a pro-Roe majority on the Supreme Court.

The latter are wining, and will keep winning, until the former recognize that the only way to win the battle is, to reassert the primacy of culture over politics. To put it in explicitly Christian terms, in order to save the lives of unborn children, Christians must first set about saving the souls of their fathers and mothers. And that means not simply preaching to those mothers and fathers about the Christian moral tradition concerning the sacredness of human life but leading them to the salvific relationship with Christ that underlies and gives life to that tradition. Disconnected from that experience, especially in a society in which politics claims for itself the ultimate moral authority, the Christian moral tradition becomes ossified, at best, and at worst takes on the character of an ideology, both adversary to, and counterpart of, the ideology of individualistic liberalism.

The problem, as I have made clear, is nothing new, finding its roots in the rise of the modern world five centuries ago; and it was accurately diagnosed almost half a century ago by Josef Pieper, who also pointed toward its only possible solution in his short but indispensable work Tradition: Concept and Claim (translated from the German in 2008 by E. Christian Kopff and published that same year by ISI Books). Tradition, in both the secular usage and the capital-T of Christian Sacred Tradition, is not merely a collection of things worth preserving, as both political and religious “conservatives” today treat it, but the means by which the most important of all experiences is handed down. As Pieper writes,

There is really nothing praiseworthy in the mere fact that something which has been thought, said, or done “since forever” will continue to be thought, said, and done. The praise due the act of tradition only makes sense when what is preserved and will continue to be preserved through the generations is what is truly worth preserving. That is the point of young people’s doubting question. Why is it, they ask, that a duty has been violated, if we simply let what has been handed down rest on its laurels, so that we can say, think, and do something totally different? We can only hope that someone hears this radical question and gives an existentially believable and equally radical answer, “the” answer that goes to the heart of things: that among the many things that are more or less worth preserving and may have been accumulated as “tradition,” there is in the last analysis only one traditional good that it is absolutely necessary to preserve unchanged, namely the gift that is received and handed on in the sacred tradition. I say “necessary” because this tradition comes from a diving source; because each generation needs it for a truly human existence; because no people and no brilliant individual can replace it on their own or even add anything valid to it.

It should be obvious that Pieper is speaking here not of external forms but of that which gave them life, and which may require those external forms to change over time so that what is truly worth preserving may continue to be passed on. This is the problem faced by modern conservatives, who primarily seek to defend what they respected and loved when they were young, rather than what is necessarily worth preserving. Pieper contrasts “Tradition (singular)” with these “traditions,” which may start out supporting a healthy culture but ultimately have the potential to do more harm than good:

Genuine consciousness of tradition makes one positively free and independent in the face of conservatisms, which worry obsessively about the cultivation of the “traditions.” Certainly, a “cultivation of tradition” that attaches itself to a historically accidental external image of what has been handed down becomes a positive hindrance to a real transmission of what is truly worth conserving, which perhaps can occur only under changed historical forms. It is possible to imagine a real transmission of what is in the last analysis worth handing down, which a dogmatic conservatism could not even recognize.

This is the problem faced also by the Church, and here I speak broadly, and not just of the Catholic Church of which I am a member. Even under the best of circumstances, in a health culture in which the structures of society and of politics are not antagonistic toward the Christian Faith, the Church must be a countercultural institution. That is the only way in which She can be certain to be able to hand down the ultimate Truth of the Faith, and not let it become obscured or deformed by an “historically accidental external image” that may have arisen from that Truth but has since become abstracted from it.

We are always in danger of turning the traditions of Christianity—the rituals and doctrines, the moral teachings and institutions—into ends in themselves, rather than means to the true end, “the gift that is received and handed on.” Or rather, we should use the Gift (singular), Who gave Himself to save our souls, and Who continues, in every age until the end of time, to give man what he needs “for a truly human existence.”

American conservatives of a certain generation summed up the insight of a different German philosopher in the catchphrase “Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” And yet, while warning against the dangers of trying to bring about heaven on earth, they themselves, through their obsession with elections and legislation, did much to subjugate culture to politics and to make Christian moral teaching a means to a political end, rather than a means of transmitting the Truth of the Faith. The fruit of their efforts can be seen today in the lost battles of the Culture War, and in entire generations that have sought salvation not in the sacraments of Christian churches but in the squabbles of “the public square.”

All is not lost, however, so long as “the gift that is received and handed on” continues to be received and handed on. But the locus of hat transmission—that “Tradition (singular)”—has never been the polling place, but the Church, which guards that gift.

When we get that straight—when we recognize once again that the duty we owe to God is to pass on the Good News to our fellow man—only then shall we begin the process of returning to reality, revitalizing our culture, and putting politics back in its proper, limited space.

Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (December 2013)
Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles.
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