Sunday, August 1, 2010

REF: Literary History (Response to Robin)

This is a reply to a friend of mine who is writing her thesis on literary history. This is my response to her blog post "AMEN-Musings on the Book of Tobit". Her post can be found on her blog http://robins-thoughts.blogspot.com/, specifically at http://robins-thoughts.blogspot.com/2010/06/amen-musings-on-book-of-tobit.html. Here goes:

Okay, my first impression after reading this was "where did she get all this wisdom"? (Matthew 6:2b). The answer, of course, is found in your last quote from Eliot. "Seek and you shall find" (Matthew 7:7b).

My second impression was a sense of confirmation that what I wrote you privately back in March about the parallel I saw between these theories of literary history and the different approaches to Scripture in the modern era. I believe there is something truly and validly analogous here, and I would advise you to go back to that email and re-read that section (labeled #1 I believe it was - the rest of the novello you can disregard).

It seems to me (and remember, my background is theology not literature) that the position of Lewis lines up with the position advocated by the Modernist and liberal Protestant Scripture scholars who saw discontinuity and dichotomy, the position of Eliot is akin to that of the Biblical Theologians who saw continuity and unity, and the position of Yeats seems to best reflect the Church's current approach which sees some validity in both and thus separates the past from the present but from there brings about an essential though not absolute unity.

I wrote a paper on the two extremes of biblical interpretation and how the Catholic approach, as it always does, takes a "middle course" so as to avoid the extremes on each side yet preserving the good and "integrating" the truth from both and weaving it all into a "synthesis". Humanity tends toward extremes, and once we hit an extreme, there is an equal but opposite reaction and thus the "pendulum" swings toward the other extreme. The Catholic Church, contrary to this "either-or" tendency, has always upheld and practiced a "both-and" approach.

I had written you earlier about how this all just seems to be a continuation of the "Faith-Reason" debate, which even though the Church has taught definitively on it never seems to go away. The Fathers of the Church were split on the use of pagan literature - some said we should feel free to read it because it has much goodness and truth in it and can even be used evangelistically by pulling out Christian themes and finding Christ-figures and bridging to the Gospel, while others said it was to be avoided because it contained many errors and reading it was a dangerous occasion of sin and apostasy. The Scholastics would later be criticized for using the pagan Aristotle and other secular scientific sources to delve deeper into the Christian faith and help to explain it (ie. the term "transubstatiation" was taken straight out of Aristotilean metaphysics). "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" the skeptics cried. But Aquinas explained that both faith and reason come from God, and as such, both are sources for discovering and more deeply probing the truth.

And today, there is a similar controversy. Should we read Harry Potter and watch House on TV or shun them? Should we read Freud and Marx and use their many valid points to bear on our Christian faith and as a way of dialoguing with modern man, or should we focus solely on the fact that they made some serious errors, reprove them in the strictest terms, and wipe them out from our collective consciences? John Paul II says in "Fides et Ratio" (Faith and Reason) that the "Catholic" (and "catholic") approach is to do the former and avoid the latter - which he calls "fideism" (the "opposite" error from that of "rationalism" - which was the error of Enlightenment thinkers). There are so many Catholics today who want nothing to do with Harry Potter, but yet the Bible they cite in their rejection of the series does much the same in Acts 17 when St. Paul quotes a pagan Greek poet in Athens in order to convert the philosophers, and the great evangelists in Church history have done similar by quoting the sayings and teachings of various witch-doctors and shamans and "gods" in order to build a bridge from what was true in these to the fullness of truth in the Gospel. These same Catholics get upset when anyone has a good word to say about or gives any credit to Oprah or Hawking or Dawkins for "getting it right" sometimes and pointing out things that we as Catholics sometimes miss. To many such Catholics, they deserve only contempt and rebukes and insults for "missing the mark" - after all, they do not accept the fullness of truth that is found in the Catholic Church. But is this the Church's approach? Robin, you know that it is not because you have read "Gaudium et Spes" (The Church in the Modern World) from Vatican II. You know it is not because you are familiar with "Evangelii Nuntiandi" (Evangelization in the Modern World) from Pope Paul VI. Most Catholics have not - and that is why they side with the negative approach.

That is a good transition to this point: "I feel as though I sense pride in everyone, but that, in a sense, by making judgments about literature and arguing for a case, no matter how convinced we are of ourselves and our argument, it will come across as full of pride, as 'my way or the highway.' ... We can make judgments, but with the knowledge of our place amongst those who have come before and those who will come after." And that is PRECISELY what I just did in the above paragraph! But I defend doing so because it is largely through dialogue and debate that we arrive at the fullness of truth, and to debate well, we must make the best possible case we can, which requires the conviction of our views. However, we must always be "open" and "charitable" - we must offer our opinions humbly and listen openly to the merits of our opponent's responses vis-a-vis our arguments in case they are correct so that we may allow ourselves to be convinced by the truth and thus change our views. And even if we are correct, we may learn some things from the other that we may have missed before, or be forced to think more deeply about something we previously had not.

As you say, "we are allowed to approach our fellow man with our judgments and thoughts about life, literature, and actions, as long as we have knowledge that we don’t know the whole picture, we may be wrong, and God may want to work in ways we don’t expect. ... This is the reason why I can make judgments about THEIR judgments as well." Beautiful! And as long as we keep this always in mind, we NEVER have to fear making such judgments. We just never know which of our thoughts and ideas are correct and which of them are "cataracts". That is why "Unitatis Redintegratio" (Decree on Ecumenism) spoke about how ecumenical and religious dialogue (and by extension ALL dialogue) was always a "two-way" thing! Once again, we see the tendency towards a "synthesis" here rather than a "my way or the highway" mentality.

And so we come to the great Name: JESUS. He Himself is a great "synthesis" - fully Divine and fully Human (or completely "heavenly" and completely "earthly"). Every tendency towards fideism or rationalism is a tendency towards denying the Incarnation, which is what St. John says is the "spirit of antichrist". (1John 4:3). The Adversary's modus operandi is essentially to pull us towards extremes. Robin, he will probably never get you to deny your faith, so he tries to make your faith something that is merely intellectual, something that becomes a set of truths to believe and rules to follow, rather than a relationship of love stemming from the heart. With some, he will try to make it all about "feelings" rather than keeping it rooted in the intellect as well, and when the feelings go, the person loses his faith, or when they follow their feelings rather than the common sense God gave them and speaks through, the results will be disastrous. Satan is subtle (Genesis 3:1) - which is why we must practice humility as well. We are often oblivious to his evil designs. That is why we must "Watch" as well as "Pray" (Matthew 25:41), though our "prayer" will help us "see" more clearly and thus recognize the presence and work of Satan in various areas of our lives. The goal is the merging of our "watching" and "praying", so that there remains no line dividing "real life" and "prayer life". It is said that the great saints were all truly "contemplatives in action", that they were able to live constantly with their gaze firmly on the Lord, while remaining fully attentive to their duties in life and the people they interacted with. Once again, a "synthesis" of daily life and "prayer", of life on earth and life in heaven. ...

... I now have to return to my duties and my relations and be attentive to God in them and praise Him in the midst of them.

I think I will post a link to your article on my blog and post this response I gave here as well on mine. Thanks for giving me the material for a blog entry!

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