Presentation at the Convocation of the College of Fellows
January 28, 2011
Click on the image below to view the video of the presentation.
It is an honor to be here and a special privilege to share the podium with His Eminence, Cardinal Stafford, and Ron Hansen. My remarks may not prove worthy of the honor, but I hope they will at least convey my gratitude for the opportunity to be a very small part of this extraordinary institution.
Like many of you I suppose, the first thing that came to mind when I learned that Cardinal Ratzinger had chosen Benedict for his papal name was the concluding lines of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, in which he suggested that nothing short of a new St. Benedict would save Western Civilization from itself. Having a few weeks earlier declared the “dictatorship of relativism” to be the besetting affliction of the contemporary West, the new papal name seemed to signal that the rehabilitation of the culture for which the sixth century Benedict had laid the foundation would be a priority of Benedict XVI's pontificate. In the years since he ascended the Chair of Peter, it has become clear that the pope's interest in Western civilization is not some residual Euro-centric nostalgia for the glories of yesteryear, but that he understands what an enormous role culture plays in shaping our experience and determining how we interpret it, and therefore in defining our epistemological horizons.
The Holy Father clearly understands that if Western culture is to awaken from its historical amnesia and moral confusions, and if the uniqueness and history-altering meaning of the Christian Gospel is to be proclaimed afresh, we must learn to account for Christian truth in ways that are faithful to Church doctrine, intellectually cogent, morally robust, charitable, and uninhibited by the spirit of the age. Decades ago, Joseph Ratzinger pointed the way to accomplishing this task by suggesting that a collaboration between theology and anthropology can lead to “the truly most exciting part of Christian faith.”
My own work and that of the Cornerstone Forum is a product of that excitement and an effort to infect others with it, and nothing has been more apposite to that effort than the work of my long-time friend and teacher, René Girard, who has echoed the pope's sentiment, arguing that: “We should always seek the anthropological reality underlying the dogma.” Today, the task of giving anthropological annotation to the core doctrines of Christianity is essential, not only if we are to provide the kind of catechetical and apologetic sustenance that will prepare the faithful for the challenges they now face, but also if we are to give a credible and compelling account of the faith to open-minded non-believers.
Today, however, these efforts will necessarily have to engage the powerful forces now arrayed against any form of Christianity that refuses to mimic the passing moral and social fashions of the age. Though promising counter-trends can be found, very powerful forces in our society have lately been growing ever more hostile toward the religious tradition that inspired our civilization's greatest cultural and moral achievements – namely: the respect for the dignity of each and every person, an empathy for the persecuted, the downtrodden, the poor and the powerless, and – most importantly – the religious inculcation of these moral principles in human hearts and their political codification in law, which is essentially what we mean when we use the phrase “Western Civilization.”
Even where those principles remain too culturally venerable to be openly repudiated, they are often rhetorically invoked even as they are being effectively inverted. Efforts are afoot to replace the moral realism of the Christian tradition with a patchwork of momentarily fashionable and anthropologically preposterous social theories, which if given legal sanction will unquestionably lead to the loss of personal dignity, the erosion of societal cohesion, and continued moral decline. The validity of this prognosis is nowhere more chillingly confirmed than in how quickly many came to accept as morally licit the surgical killing of close to a million children each year in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's bestowal of legal legitimacy on that abominable practice in the Roe v. Wade case. The legalization of what was theretofore universally regarded in the Christian West as an unspeakable crime is the most morally grotesque of the ideological offspring of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, leading Peter Kreeft to observe:
The sexual revolution is today the single most important revolution in our time, for it concerns not only certain areas of life, like politics or war, but the origin of life itself. Sex is the one area where almost all the conflicts and controversies rage. The area where the culture of death and the culture of life conflict the most.
The manifold and calamitous social consequences of the sexual revolution are perfectly obvious, as are its morally ludicrous philosophical underpinnings – the principle one being the conflation of freedom with radical autonomy, according to which an act acquires its moral stature neither from the nature of the act itself nor because it conforms to philosophical, anthropological or moral reality – but simply because it is the product of a will sufficiently unfettered to imagine itself free.
But antinomian secularism isn't the only force queuing up to inherit the civilization we have lately been teaching our children to disdain. A radicalized Islam has awakened from its slumber to dream again of achieving its centuries old goal of conquering the West, a goal that the jihadists have reason to believe may finally be achievable, not by the conquering armies that failed in the past, but by an ineluctable process of demographic and cultural Islamization and Sharia compliancy, with only an occasional unruly protest, riot or threat of violence to intimidate recalcitrant infidels and accelerate the process. But as Pope Benedict knows so well, this looming crisis is due less to Islamic ambition – however formidable that might be – than to Western self-doubt and moral irresolution. When great cultures die, it is always from within.
To win broader acquiescence, both these attempts to set aside the moral and spiritual foundations of Western culture have been sugarcoated as campaigns to protect victims, thus neutralizing or paralyzing the moral misgivings of those in whom Christianity has awakened a solicitude for victims so paramount that the very claim to be protecting victims is enough to blind many to the systematic victimization occurring under these ideological auspices.
Another indispensable element in this cultural and moral evisceration is a superficially compelling appeal to sentimentality of another kind: multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is one of those ideological orchids that could only survive in the climate-controlled hothouse of academia. It declares – not on the basis of evidence, but by fiat – that no Archimedean point exists from which we can adjudicate cultural differences and that we must therefore assume them to be – for all intents and purposes – morally and socially equal. Not only is the idea absurd on the face of it, but it is so exclusively unique to Western culture as to be charmingly self-annihilating. It is currently dying an ignominious death, but it has done great damage, and its influence lingers.
Contrary to multiculturalism, cultures differ and the difference matters. One of the most powerful cultural influences is that of the iconic figure in whom a society is encouraged to recognize the living embodiment of its transcendent truths and highest ideals. A culture, for instance, predominantly influenced by a Man of peace who preached the Sermon on the Mount and died praying forgiveness on his persecutors – its countless shortcomings notwithstanding – is infinitely preferable to one whose ideal figure was an unflinching warlord who conquered by the sword, ruled by force and reveled in the slaughter of his enemies; or, for that matter, by a man of dispassionate introspection who strove to avoid suffering and regarded the world as an illusion.
But what of a world which renounces any embodied icon of its transcendent aspirations? To what lofty heights will it aspire? What sacrifices will it make, having no noble model to emulate? What might become of a culture in which each person is declared to be his or her own arbiter of truth and reality? Increasingly, we live in such a world, a world described by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Supreme Court's Casey decision, a world in which, Justice Kennedy opined, freedom means “the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
You can be sure that so radical a departure from settled tradition and commonsense did not occur in an historical vacuum. The Enlightenment secularized Christianity's moral and intellectual patrimony, but in due course not only did the deracinated form of that patrimony prove unequal to the task it inherited, but the naïve empiricism and vulgar utilitarianism on which the culture increasingly relied for moral guidance was lethal to the sacramental sensibilities which Catholic Christianity enriched Western civilization by awakening.
By “sacramental sensibilities” I'm not of course referring to sacraments in a formal ecclesial sense. Rather I use the term roughly as a synonym for “coming to our senses.” The adjective is apropos I think because the sensibility it defines is a prerequisite for meaningful participation in the ecclesial sacraments. It is the ability to recognize mystery in the ordinary, the ability to see creation shot through with the grandeur of God as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, a grandeur all the more magnificent inasmuch as it is:
… seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell …
Sacramental sensibilities thus understood are to nature as formal sacraments are to grace. To illustrate, here are two short passages of twentieth century poetry written within a few years of each other, one in which a sacramental sensibility is operating and one from which it has been eliminated.
William Butler Yeats, in his 1939 poem, Under Ben Bulben, wrote: “Michelangelo left a proof on the Sistine Chapel Roof.” You and I might want to protest that the real proof is in the little piece of bread and cup of wine on the Sistine Chapel altar, but those who cannot recognize the proof on the ceiling are not likely to recognize the one on the altar, which was what inspired the one on the ceiling.
A generation earlier, in his “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T. S. Eliot, playing at being Merlin, foresaw the future: “In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.” Both the ceiling and the proof are gone; all that is left is the effete attempt to make noises of a sufficiently cosmopolitan nature to be thought cultured. In that room of urbane but hollow prattle, the sacramental sensibilities have died, and the toxin from which they died is now administered day and night by the press, popular entertainment, the internet, and advertising. The young are the first to succumb to it.
But if modernity crippled our sacramental sensibilities, postmodernity is today dulling our anthropological sensibilities, our willingness to accede to even the most obvious facts about ourselves. For illustration, I turn to a less literary and less edifying example.
A year ago or so, the dean of students of a university – which out of charity I will leave unnamed except to say that it is a university with seven California campuses – this dean of students wrote to publicly apologize for a shortcoming belatedly discovered in something ominously called “the student satisfaction survey.” I'm afraid to ask if DSPT has such things, but if it does, I hope the students fill them out in mortal fear of the old fashioned student satisfaction survey that will hang on the door of the professor's office the day after final exams, and to which the student's only recourse is to look on and weep. But I digress.
The dean, supine before his imagined evaluators, sent the following email to the students:
It has recently come to my attention that the gender and sexual orientation options on the student satisfaction survey were not inclusive for all students.
As a University that prides itself on multiculturalism, it is critical that we address the needs and interests of marginalized and underrepresented groups, which, of course, includes those who identify as LGBTQQI.
No explanation was given for these abbreviations; apparently none was needed. But for the sake of any Rip Van Winkles in the audience, the sexual orientations to which the dean was referring were: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex. That's about as generous a catalogue of options as one might reasonably expect from a non-Ivy League university, but apparently not inclusive enough. The dean continues:
I am writing to personally apologize for the limited number of options on the demographic portion of the survey and to assure you that we will take measures to ensure that the demographic questions on the next dissemination of the student satisfaction survey are inclusive.
For those of you who may not have identified with the listed options for gender or sexual orientation, please write in your responses on the survey (hard copy) and type in your response on the on-line survey in the first comment box.
Welcome to Justice Kennedy's world, a world in which we have lost our anthropological sensibilities, a world in which we are invited to simply make it up as we go and custom design our own “concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In such a world, nothing is given; volition becomes the self-constituting principle, and unconventionality the warrant of one's authenticity. Life under this regime demands ever new self-defining choices lest one's claim to social autonomy be compromised by a static identity. And, because each new choice must appear to be uninfluenced by the desires and decisions of others, it will necessarily tend to be more idiosyncratic, flamboyant, and socially aberrant than the last. To put it mildly, if polysyllabically, cultures which operate on this premise, in the inimitable words of Aidan Nichols, OP, are “ontologically non-perspicacious.” Aren't Dominicans great! “Ontologically non-perspicacious,” an understatement so exquisitely perfumed with erudition as to put the attentive reader on notice that a less understated version of this assessment is available upon request.
Henri de Lubac was not a Dominican, of course, but by the middle of the twentieth century even a Jesuit could see that a massive loss of what de Lubac called “ontological density” was accompanying the rise of the postmodern self. In other words, the contemporary Western self was becoming a shuttlecock for every wind that blows, at a moment in history when hurricane force winds – like those that swept away so many in the 20th century – are by no means out of the question.
To be sure, cultures come and go, and Christianity – like the Son of Man who had no place to lay His head – is not completely at home in any of them. But we who – through no merit of our own – have had the extraordinary privilege of living in a Christ-haunted culture must not take our cultural blessings for granted, nor neglect the task of preserving the religious and moral influence without which these blessings will vanish, leaving our children and their children to wander in a social landscape dreary and desolate in comparison to the one we were given on a silver platter.
Meeting our responsibilities in this regard will necessarily plunge us into the contemporary culture wars. Bemoaning these conflicts is easy enough, but they are about fundamentally important matters. A very great deal depends on how they are resolved, and to remain neutral is to take a stand in favor of the post-Christian, post-modern worldview now entrenching itself in the command centers of both political power and popular culture. As unavoidable as the culture wars are, there are two things to be kept in mind if we are to give authentic Christian witness in the midst of them. The first is that our goal is not victory, but fidelity. Tempting though it always is, Christians should be wary of outcomes accompanied by the waving of palm branches, for we, of all people, should know that the only crowns that won't fall off when we stumble are those with at least a few thorns in them. Secondly, as Henri de Lubac taught us, pity those who learn their catechism against something. Opposition and persecution serve to awaken a slumbering or tepid faith, but, once awakened, it must never let hostility to the enemies of faith eclipse love as the motive force in the Christian witness, love of God, love for the Church, for the faithful, and for the world at large, including the enemies of faith.
Of course the primary allegiance of the Cornerstone Forum – and the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology – is not to the cultures that faith inspired but to the faith that inspired them. Our task is to substantiate the central Christian claim: namely that Christianity – fulfilling the promise of its Jewish antecedents – reveals the truth about the human condition. And this claim – its considerable historical, theological and philosophical justifications notwithstanding – is ultimately an anthropological one. Culture is conducive to human flourishing precisely to the degree that its presuppositions about the nature and meaning of the human person and the social relationships in which the person is necessarily embedded are valid. Christianity's claim to universality stands or falls on that issue.
Increasingly, our approach will need to be an anthropological one, therefore, because our situation demands it. For no amount of political, economic or moral analysis will reveal the depth of the cultural crisis now engulfing us.Our predicament can only be understood anthropologically, and, as René Girard has so convincingly demonstrated, the mother-lode of anthropological intelligence is the Bible, and especially the Christian New Testament.
The world in which we live, “has lost its story,” writes George Weigel in his foreword to The Light of the World, the journalist Peter Seewald's interview with Pope Benedict XVI. It is, Weigel writes, a world in which humans are widely regarded as having “no intentional origin, no noble destiny, and thus no path to take through history.” But, of course, Weigel knows what Cardinal George of Chicago has expressed so concisely, that the Church exists “to remind the world of its true story.” The Eucharistic table – like the wardrobe in the Narnia stories – is where the faithful are invited to enter into that story and find their place in it. But the larger world is not any more likely to be in the mood for that story today than it ever has been. René Girard's half century in the American academy made it clear to him, for example, how scornful the academy is of the West's religious patrimony, a development Girard attributed to the fact that “a panic-stricken refusal to glance, even furtively, in the only direction where meaning could still be found dominates our intellectual life.”
Were we to glance in the direction of that tradition, two things would stand out unmistakably: the Cross and the Trinity. The Cross has from the time of St. Paul forward been folly to the pseudo-sophisticates and a scandal to the religions of the world. In many ways, the Trinity is even more scandalous. Jews and Muslims, among others, find it abhorrent and a barrier to interreligious dialogue, in the interest of which some Christians are willing to set it aside. But the truth is that without the Trinity and the Cross we simply cannot fully appreciate the greatness of the human vocation, the tragedy of the human predicament, and the anthropological realism of the Christian Proposal.
Only by recognizing the decisive impact the Christian revelation has had on history and culture – and the transfiguring effect Christian faith has had on human subjectivity – can we assess the current crisis, while awakening a hope capable of surviving the world-historical convolutions that loom on the horizon.Without that hope, the absurdly romantic utopias conjured up to replace it will dissolve – as so many already have – into despair and nihilism.
In the face of challenges as formidable as these, it is essential to remember that Christianity spread through the ancient world because it awakened hope in those resigned to pagan despair and engulfed in crises analogous to our own. As the revelation of the Cross began freeing humanity from the seductive power of sacred violence and the myths and rituals that perpetuated it, the Resurrection bathed the world in a light which the darkness of historical calamity and persecution could not extinguish. At the very moment when civil order seemed to be dissolving, and the barbarians were closing in on its besieged outposts, Christians bore witness to a hope unlike anything the surrounding pagan world had ever known. Today, under similar circumstances, it will fall again to Christianity to inspire a hope capable of filling the vacuum left by the collapse of modernity's naïve optimism, on one hand, and the thinly disguised despair and cynicism of postmodernity, on the other.
More years ago than I care to remember I wrote a book entitled: “Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads.” Who can possibly doubt that we stand now at a more perilous crossroads than the one I tried to describe in that book. So perilous, in fact, that we cannot possibly avoid cataclysmic disaster on the strength of our own efforts alone. Whatever the future holds for good or ill, there isn't the least doubt that it will confirm the validity of Jesus' astonishing statement in John's Gospel: “Without me you can do nothing.”
If the rising tide of nihilism that has accompanied the de-Christianization of the West correlates with Jesus' warning about the spiritual impotence into which a once Christian civilization can be expected to descend without Christ, the mustard seeds of serious Christian commitment that are taking root and sprouting up among the increasingly rank weeds of irreligious secularism are a vivid reminder of what faith in Christ can accomplish against all worldly odds.
Each of us is just such a mustard seed, and in this critical hour of our common life together each of us is called by name to some mission only we can perform.
A world that refuses to ask the right questions will never get the right answers. The Christian proposal will make no sense unless and until the enduring existential questions come alive again. Why are we here? What are humans for?
A pretty good theological answer to these questions is: “To know, love, and serve God in this world so that we may be happy with Him in the next.” If I may say so in so learned a gathering, it is not, as we say, rocket science. Alas, however, the devil is quite literally in the details, and once we delve into the details, something very much like Thomas' Summa or von Balthasar's Theo-Drama becomes necessary. Which is precisely why this distinguished institution is so crucial to the work at hand, and why it is such a privilege for a day-laborer in the Lord's vineyard like myself to be associated with it.
Thank you and God bless you.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 21
 René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, trans. Mary Baker, (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2010), 177.
 Peter Kreeft, "Why a Christian Anthropology Makes a Difference," an address to The Catholic Medical Association's 79th Annual Educational Conference (October 27-30, 2010).
 Casey vs. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 112 Sup. Ct. 2791, at 2807.
 Aidan Nichols, OP, Christendom Awake: On Reenergizing the Church in Culture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 13.
 Benedict XVI, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, A Conversation with Peter Seewald, trans. Michael J. Miller and Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), x.
 Quoted: Glenn W. Olsen, The Turn to Transcendence: The Role of Religion in the Twenty-First Century, (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 318.
 René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 261.