The Eucharist as a form of public reason: an agonistic reading of history. My talk at the University of Scranton

November 3, 2023
Communio Theology
Only Christianity gives us a thorough explanation of the agonistic quality of existence

What follows is my lecture given at the University of Scranton on November 2nd. Many of you will recognize elements of it as bits and pieces from previous things I have written. Nevertheless, it is a new lecture with a lot of new material. And here it is:

In what follows I make no pretense to a scholarly academic presentation.  Instead this is a reflective meditation on issues near and dear to my heart, which is just another way of saying that this paper should just be called “my absolutely correct opinions about everything.”  Back when I was still a real person and was deeply ensconced in the life of the professorate, I spent an enormous amount of time writing scholarly tomes for publication.  But then one day I realized that I hated doing this and that nobody cared anyway.  I spent three years writing a book on Balthasarian theological metaphysics as a template for a proper science and religion relationship which was published by T & T Clark, and which, I think, was purchased by three libraries at schools dedicated to the Jesuit religion and two dudes in Singapore who hit the wrong button on   Therefore, having done my bit for theological king and country I retired from my sweet gig at DeSales and opened a Catholic Worker farm.  I contentedly toiled away at that task in anonymity for seven years, happy to milk goats, bail hay, sheer sheep and fail at growing things, until some of my former students convinced me to start a blog.  They missed my irreverent takes on everything they said.  They missed my insults toward those toward whom I hold deep intellectual grudges they said.  They missed my jeweler’s eye for BS they said.  And so I wrote something on l’affair Pachamama which displayed all of those qualities and now the rest is history.  I hate blogs and I am a committed Luddite. A pox on all of them. And so I actually started my blog religiously committed to its failure, and decided to say what it is I truly think rather than what it is I think I am supposed to think, which I assumed would cause it to so offend everyone that it would crash and burn.  I figured it would last two months before Zuckerberg, Gates, and Massimo Faggioli shut it down.  But then the darn thing went and got popular on me and I got invited all over and went on Bishop Barron’s show and now here I am with all of you, with a new book of my obstreperous thoughts out from Ignatius Press, and a regular column in several Catholic national newspapers.  Not bad for a fat, bald, maladroit Luddite.  So thank you for perpetuating the dream…

Before I begin I want to be clear about one thing.  The question of the exact and proper relationship between church and state does not interest me in the slightest.  The constant dialectical fulminations between Catholic Romantics with their hard integralist fantasies on the one hand and philosophically incompetent Americanist strict separationists on the other I find tiresome and of little value.  It seems in these debates that all of the parties play in the sandbox of certain shopworn categories that drive the conversation even as they remain largely unexamined and unproblematized.  Neither seem capable of self-criticism of their first principles and indeed seem to have an allergy to such analytics.  Politics in the narrow sense in which these debates usually take place is a matter of prudential judgment and there are those well versed in these matters who are far more competent than I to make those judgments.  My interests here are far more heuristic and theological.

The problematic as I see it is not one of subjectivist religion versus the objectivity of secularity. The problematic must be viewed instead through the lens of who has the broadest explanatory framework for understanding the dynamics of human history and human agency and human meaning.  This was Balthasar’s point as well who made the claim that when one is dealing with the value-laden claims of competing worldviews, the worldview that takes into account the broadest swath of data points and is able to make sense of them in a heuristic framework that authentically unfolds the phenomenology of human experience, is most likely the truest one.  And in adjudicating between such competing claims the effort of modernity simply to bracket out worldviews grounded in Transcendence on the grounds that such Transcendence cannot be proven by the canons of modernity is to beg the question and to put the cart before the horse. Because the question of the rational canons of modernity must itself be examined for its cogency and credibility. So all of those caveats out of the way, allow me to begin.

As I have emphasized in so many of my writings, our political order and our culture all proceed from the procedural if not metaphysical assumption that God, or at least the question of God, does not matter as a basic principle for organizing our common life together.  Sure, freedom of religion is assured, but only so long as what we mean by “religion” is something private, like my preference for Popeyes Chicken over KFC, and that it therefore never interferes with our public politics. And any such conception of religion is constitutively hostile to the incarnational, historical claims of the Catholic faith.  Our economic system is ruled by profits alone.  It might have in mind the ultimate benefit of wealth to human persons, but the point is that it need not and very often, if not most often, does not so operate. Our educational system is ruled by secular elites who treat religion as a dangerous disease in the form of a social pathology that must be antiseptically cleansed from our classrooms.  Our entertainment industry is ruled by the cult of celebrity and a debased view of human life, with hateful caricatures of religion, especially the Catholic faith, the norm rather than the exception. Our government, we are told, must be free of any taint of religion, which really means that it is a religion unto itself, demanding total obedience to its dogmatic proclamations and its secular sacraments like abortion and the military industrial complex. And the net effect of all of this is the subtle, but very real, construction of an alternate reality which stands in direct competition to the Christian description of reality.  

And so complete has this transposition of values become, that even many of the leaders of the Christian churches now demand that their communions kowtow to the popular secular dogmas of the culture lest we fall into the dreaded category of social irrelevance.  Because, as we all know, Christ thought remaining popular with the reigning cultural Zeitgeist to be the most important criterion for discipleship. Not.   In other words, we hear talk all the time that the Church needs reform, but when you unpack what most folks mean by reform you often discover that it really means surrender to the de facto nihilism of our culture.  Look no further than the current appeasement to Teutonic secularity in the so-called “German synodal way” for evidence of the betrayal I am discussing.  This is not, therefore, an old man’s projection into the contemporary Church of his own experience of the post-conciliar Church in the seventies.  The insanity of those times lives on, despite having gone underground for a while as a smoldering ember just waiting for the right levels of oxygen and combustibles to reignite.  If I thought for one nanosecond that the Church has put such nonsense behind itself and was now in a state of spiritual health and equilibrium, I would say so, and quite happily.  But it hasn’t slayed those dragons and they have found new life within the Church in our idolatrous accommodation to the counter-religion of scientism, reductive naturalism, pornified eroticism, militarism, and consumerism.

My point here is not to engage in the usual litany of woe with regard to our current cultural degradations.  My point rather is to point out with blunt simplicity that this is indeed our current situation and that it affects us all, infects us all, and works powerfully within us to define what constitutes the really real and therefore what constitutes so-called “public reason”. This culture is what defines what the sociologists call our “plausibility structures” and even if we can work hard to transcend those structures and even to reverse their effects within us, even in so doing our transcendence and our reversals will be marked and formed inwardly as specifically a transcendence and a reversal of precisely this culture.  They will bear, as with Christ and his post resurrection wounds, the mark of the crucible through which they have passed.

So too therefore is the sanctity of the saints, and the particular form of rationality embedded within their witness, identified by the proprietary watermark of the historical moment that they occupy.  The significance of the saints is precisely that they are instantiations of an alternative form of eschatological reasoning that is every bit as public as secular reasoning insofar as the saints are asserting a vision of the meaning of the current historical moment via the phenomenology of their own lived praxis of existence and the vision it imparts.  As David L. Schindler noted, this is the peculiar genius of the saint insofar as they see things that others do not, but should, and then live that vision to the point of martyrdom if need be.  They have different eyes but eyes that anyone else could also have if they chose to develop those spiritual senses which are quite real.

This is another way of saying that there is a form of public reason embedded within the realm of symbol and sacrament that is in fact, as a reality defining structure, superior to reason which has been attenuated via a lazy reduction of reason to logical deduction, mathematical extrapolation, and empirical verification.  In other words, via a reduction to empiricism, idealism, and positivism.  

But this reduction of what counts as public reason is easily refuted in the praxis of secular societies.  Because not one of them articulates their core commitments and values in those categories.  How does one logically or empirically prove human rights or human dignity? Or the equality of the sexes and races? What does equality even mean in such a calculus since we are obviously, none of us, equal in all ways in an empirical way.   Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” No they aren’t.  And there isn’t a DEI office anywhere, at any company or university, that can empirically prove via a form of reason accessible to all rational people, what diversity actually is or equity or inclusion.  Just as the folks over in Rome cannot tell us what synodality is but that we will know it as we do it. Statements about human rights, justice, equity, inclusion and diversity are value-laden exercises that give the lie to the Enlightenment’s fact/value distinction as at the root of public reason and the social contract.

And these kinds of assertions need to be problematized as they stand because, for reasons grounded in idiosyncratic historical events, our culture refuses to ground these values, which are largely rational in a symbolic and non-reductive way, in any kind of metaphysical first principles.  Indeed, first principles are ridiculed as the remnants of Christian rational symbology and that the rationality of our secular value-bearing symbols are putatively more elemental and intuitive requiring no such groundings in transcendence.  There is therefore in contemporary forms of social discourse a purely stipulative quality to our value-bearing symbols such that words like “equality and diversity” need not be given denotative meanings and stand instead as mere assertive stipulations born out of the mood of our current social contract. And their inherent inaccessibility to anyone who is not immersed in the rationality of purely stipulative values is precisely why they are rigidly enforced from above since they bear within themselves nothing at all that is genuinely public in the sense of self-evident universal principles of reason.

But of course this is an exercise in question begging since the problem remains as to why these particular values have been so stipulated rather than others.  And the fact that values like universal human rights, human dignity, equality, diversity, inclusion, fairness, justice and so on are the values so stipulated as our rational values in the social domain, is a powerful indication that the force of the Christian idea lives on since ultimately these are all values derived by European cultures from their Christian hangover.  It further raises the question of the essence of what we call modernity and its peculiar form of public reason. Perhaps, as one book has put it, we have never really been modern at all in the sense of a culture that has put Christianity in its rear view mirror in definitive ways.  The supernatural elements of Christianity are indeed denied, but the elemental truths that that Revelation brought to European civilization in radically transformative ways live on, no matter how distorted they have become in the hands of barbarians.  

But that view requires of us to believe that modernity is mostly an unconscious phenomenon characterized more by drift than by choice. And I agree with Augusto del Noce, Pierre Manent, and von Balthasar that there is a conscious element of rejection of Christianity and its values in the modern project, no matter how much its form of social reason and the values that it embraces retain the patina of the dust of the Christian centuries.  But at the very least, all of this should eliminate from our minds the silly notion that modern secular reason constitutes some uniquely publicly accessible form of reason, precisely as secular, as opposed to the alleged private and subjective nature of the reason that arises out of the symbology of Christian Revelation, taken to be something decidedly non-public by contrast. This becomes especially dubious when one realizes that to define what constitutes public reason as such as something purely reductive and empirical or logical is not even applicable, as we have seen, to the value constructions of modern Liberal societies.  

Allow me now to approach this from another direction.  Because in many ways what we are dealing with is a clash of orthodoxies rather than a clash between reason and superstition.   And sometimes it is necessary to restate the obvious in order to make clear how far down the path of bourgeois accommodation our Churches have gone.  So commonplace has our spirit of accommodation to secular modernity become that what should be obvious to a Christian, isn’t.  And here is what should be obvious:  If the God described by Christianity exists, then that God is the most real thing that is.  Also, and therefore, if this God exists, then God is the most important thing that is.  Likewise, if this God exists, and is the most real and most important thing that is, then the entirety of the world we inhabit, including ourselves, finds it source, reality, and ultimate fulfillment in this God.  In other words, if God exists as the most real and most important thing that is, then we must affirm that this world is not a self-enclosed and self-sufficient explanation unto itself, but is, precisely as nature, in need of a meta-historical and meta-physical explanation in a supra-natural realm in order to remain what it is most naturally. In other words, and contrary to modern thinking, to grow closer to God is to grow closer to yourself as well, that I become more human, not less, the closer to God I get, and that the inner dynamism of the human soul and, therefore, of human history, is oriented to one of two trajectories:  either upward, toward a heuristic fulfillment, a transformative transposition into a higher register of Being, or downward, into what St. Augustine called the libido dominandi, which is the spirit of consumption, acquisition, possession, and the fulfillment, often by whatever means necessary, of our worldly appetites.  We are either looking upward to God or downward to our gut or our crotch or our veins.

Furthermore, and following from these assertions with strict logic, if this God exists then, as Nicolas Gomez Davila points out, prayer is the most rational act a human being can engage in.[1]  “Prayer” here defined as our soul’s attempt to find itself in God and all of the subcategories of that finding (such as intercession). And “rational” means in this context the use of all of our mental faculties to perceive reality accurately and to interact with it accordingly.  Prayer becomes therefore, not a subjective and superficial piety, (an all too common aspect of modern Catholicism), but the constitutive substance of the rational act as such.  It becomes the source of our reason, its form, and its final lifting up into the realm of the supra rational.  Which means that if God exists, then it is the person who does not pray who is engaged in the thinning, shortening, and hobbling of reason, of short-circuiting its most fruitful pathway, and of grounding it in the unreality of our own diaphanous subjectivity.

The result, paradoxically, of this denial of prayer as the supreme rational act is, therefore, the loss of reason itself as it falls prey to the Balkanization of the mind into a jumble of competing subconscious forces. If God exists, then the mind is oriented to the mystical, like seeds to the soil and leaves to the sun. And if God exists then the refusal to pray, the refusal of the mind’s natural movement to the mystical, is a self-destructive and irrational act that ultimately reduces all of our mental acts to forces that are submental, calling into question the very reality of consciousness itself and of its handmaid, free will.[2] And insofar as such ignorance is willful, then such stupidity is a sin.  A sin of the mind.  An intellectual conceit that is the honey-laced arsenic of our time.  The sardonic, cynical, and condescending smile that is the Facebook cover photo of our era.  

I labor to make this point because in our largely secular culture, even ostensibly religious people have, for the most part, compartmentalized their religious faith into just one more bourgeois lifestyle accessory - - an accessory that one only takes out now and then, when it is socially appropriate, but not something that governs and shapes the very warp and woof of our lives.  It is largely a bet-hedging distortion of Pascal’s wager, but in a weakened and largely legalistic form.  An often neglected aspect of Pascal’s wager is that it is more than just a simple “gamble” where the individual realizes that both atheism and theistic faith are “unprovable” in an absolute sense and that therefore one should opt for faith since, after all, what does one have to lose if faith turns out to be false, and what does one lose if atheism turns out to be false?  In the case of the former you lose nothing.  In the case of the latter, you could potentially lose everything.  

But what is neglected about this wager is the element of choosing as such and that the very act of choosing is a performative praxis that also contains an implied moral claim. Namely, that beyond concepts of reward and punishment in the next life, and even beyond the possibility of annihilation, is the instinctive realization that even if God does not exist, that he damn well ought to.  But it is precisely this “ought to” that evades our attenuated religious sense when “religion” becomes in reality an engine for the nullification of the very God it putatively champions.  And this happens precisely when Christians sequester God as a mere cipher for my “pious feelings in my more oceanic moods,” and therefore compartmentalize the faith as a peculiar aspect of my self-chosen affections - - affections which signify nothing truly real and which only serve the needs of the therapeutic self.  Such a compartmentalized God is a nullified God since such a God becomes a mere “part” of what Charles Taylor calls modernity’s elevation of the “immanent frame” of existence to the status of the truly real.[3]  I am thinking here as well of Taylor’s description of the modern “buffered self” as a self that no longer views itself as a deeply relational part of a nested hierarchy of cosmic/spiritual realities (perhaps even viewing itself as a mimetic “microcosm” of that hierarchy), but rather sees itself as existing completely within the immanent frame of purely horizontal relations which cuts it off from any sense of the eschatological claims of Christianity.[4]

Therefore, my point is a simple one … our culture turns us all into de facto atheists of practice, despite our merely notional faith.  I think it was Peguy who said that modern Christianity is largely comprised of believers who no longer believe.  And this fact causes us to ignore the very simple truths I have just outlined.  As Christians the centrality of God as the most real and important thing that is, should animate and direct everything we do in life.  It should make us different from the world in noticeable ways.  But it most often doesn’t.  And that is the critical point.    The importance of prayer as the most rational act, therefore, is not so much denied, as ignored, as we are busy building what the late Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce calls the civilization of “irreligion.” [5] So just as modern believers are de facto atheists in practice, so most modern atheists are filled with the pseudo passion for various “causes” with a quasi-religious fervor.  They are happy nihilists perched on the stylite of Liberal Capitalism’s apotheosis of the atomized, choosing self.  

But before I move on there is one more aspect of prayer that needs to be discussed.  And it is this:  if prayer is the highest act of the mind, then public, liturgical worship is the highest act of culture. Therefore, if God exists and prayer is the highest act of the mind then we need to recall that in every other aspect of our lives, when we account something to be true on a foundational level we celebrate it publicly.  The list of examples for this would be, of course, endless, from Presidential inaugurations, to the Super bowl … but the success of Facebook in particular I think should serve as a testimony to the human need to share stuff publicly, from our deepest beliefs to videos of my liposuction surgery. So when a society is so structured as to foreclose on the concept of liturgical prayer as a public act having some kind of public warrant and purchase, then that society is making an implied claim that such liturgical actions are not part of the “really real.” And this despite any and all “freedoms” that such a society might grant to those citizens who do choose to engage in liturgical prayer. There might even be some vague acknowledgment that such prayers do have the beneficial utility of instilling “civic virtues” in people, just like the Boy Scouts and the downtown Rotary Club.  But this is just another way of saying that such things are, as Nietzsche called them, noble lies.

But this is completely contrary to the deepest reality of the Church’s liturgy as the making present once again of that which is the most truly “rational,” “real,” and “public,” act that ever was: the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.  And if this crucified and risen, eucharistic God exists and prayer is the highest act of the mind, then public liturgical worship is the summit of all human striving… it is the Mount Everest of our very being.  And, from a Catholic perspective, the Eucharistic sacrifice is the most important thing that happens every day in the entire world.  It reinforces too the supremacy of the poetic, symbolic, and mystical dimensions of our reason over the merely efficient and pragmatic aspects, which our culture today worships above all else.  And in so nullifying the status of liturgical worship as a true “res publica” modernity also nullifies a lot more than it perhaps intends.

Every Eucharistic liturgy is a rupturing of the fabric of time and space, the tearing open of a veil, the exploding of old wine skins, the absurd and ecstatic leap of the creature at prayer into supernatural joy. What gets affirmed in the Eucharist is that the true, the good and the beautiful are not just tragic illusions generated by our misery. They are not the ruse of noble lies where truth and goodness and beauty are affirmed for the sake of keeping our sanity, all the while knowing darn well that they aren’t real, which is the “worldly cynicism” that passes itself off as enlightened sophistication, even though it is nothing more than a philosophical parlor trick in the trendy salons of our chattering classes. Nor are they fictions of the repressed libido wherein my unfulfilled desire to have sex with everyone and everything is viewed as the generative source of all of our conscious thinking. No, none of these will suffice and the world knows it.  But they have no alternative but to spin nonsense since the nullification of God leaves them no other option.  

What the Eucharist, by contrast, proposes and makes real is the shocking claim that true and the good and the beautiful “speak” to us and “appear” to us in the sacramental encounter with the resurrected Christ. Thus does the Catholic theological imagination act as resistance to the nihilistic and totalitarian ethos of the Capitalist, technocratic juggernaut of modernity where these realities degenerate into a cultural, counter-Eucharist that celebrates and elevates all that is base and vulgar.  Thus does the eucharistic liturgy, precisely because it makes no direct political claims in a worldly sense, and instead claims to make present an eschatological reality beyond this “immanent frame,” have the most profound public and political implications.  Every celebration of the Mass, therefore, is a stick in the eye to the modern, nihilistic bear, which is why its domestication is so necessary for the accommodation of Catholicism to the modern project.

Furthermore, if our mental horizon and the symbolic landscape it generates is not oriented upward, Eucharistically, to the heuristic transposition of this world into the higher register its very horizon implies, then it will not remain in stasis. The theologian David Hart, as we have seen, has called this choice we confront the choice between God or Nothing.  But human beings cannot live forever in the “nothing”, in the “Upside Down.”  We cannot live in Nietzsche’s fantasy camp for supermen. We cannot live without something Transcendent to affirm, because we are constitutively oriented to the Good. And so we create substitutes, we make counterfeit sacraments and set them up as simulacrums of the true good and pretend they are the real things. In the thought world of St. Augustine, we would call that the idolatry at the very heart of the “City of Man” and the libido dominandi.

The modern narrative born out of the Enlightenment, despite all of our pretentious talk of being post-modern, is still in force.  It is a progressive narrative wherein the curve of history is viewed as a progression from the infantile constructions of myth and religion, through the adolescence of breaking those myths in the early stages of the Enlightenment, and into our current adulthood of post-religious science and secularity.  It is also a narrative or myth of original violence wherein modernity’s myth of origins pits the social peace and amity brought by science and its reason, against the irrational, balkanizing violence created by all pre modern systems, grounded as they were in religion.

This mythology is at the root of all modern political liberalisms and it still raises its regulative power whenever “religion” threatens to intrude into the public sphere of politics.  The rationality of religion is allegedly private, subjective, and prone to coercive violence, wherein secular reason is still portrayed as objective, public, and prone to peace making.

But the falsity of this narrative is too apparent to stand against the tide of modern critical thinking and therefore, despite its ongoing power as a form of anti-religious social rhetoric, this form of Enlightenment liberalism has come under attack for its fostering of colonialism, nationalism, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and a litany of other alleged social sins which we must now erase and replace with a truly equitable culture.

We can lament this rise of cancel culture, wokeism, critical race theory, critical Marxist philosophical theory, and the scorched earth repudiation of all of our cultural and social institutions as inherently racist and oppressive, as just so much nonsense, but we would also be missing something of importance in this new narrative if we do.  

And what we would be missing is the essentially agonistic reading of history as one long story of suffering and oppression wherein power is wielded by an elite few at the expense of the vast swaths of suffering human beings.  It is a narrative of oppression in the service of the libido dominandi wherein all societies have been complicit in the scapegoating mechanism where violence is institutionalized as a subset of peacekeeping. Modernity was born as a pacification project born out of the so-called religious wars of Europe – whether those wars were really religious or not being irrelevant here – but with this pacification what we got was simply the replacing of one form of oppression with another wherein the nation State, and the elites who ran them, took onto itself all of the previous prerogatives of the Church thus ensuring that the agonies of the masses would continue on.  

I am not here to defend modern critical theory, but only to point out that insofar as it is engaged in a real critique of real historical sins, and is not just a new hyperbolic power play of exaggerated grievances for the sake of some new form of raw power, then it is engaging in a valid critique of power and its misuses, even if the conclusions drawn about where we go from here are themselves destructive.  And just insofar is it also then a valid critique of secular reason as relating primarily to allegedly verifiable realities when in point of fact such secular reason has been exercised as a form of reason detached from the rational symbolic power of the suffering that has been the true engine of history.

The flaw in all of this, from a Christian perspective, is not in the essence of the social critique it offers, but rather that it itself lacks a transcendent referent that can save it from its own inherent atheistic nihilism. Critical theory therefore is also too prone to scapegoating, and this becomes, ironically, even more pronounced in critical theory than in classic modernity due to its misreading of the agonistic nature of existence as primordially caused by class struggle with an attendant romanticization of the oppressed classes as allegedly free of the will to power and its penchant for violence. How does one avoid in this grand dialectic an endless loop of the oppressed becoming themselves the oppressors? Do not all revolutions in the modern era so devoted to such class struggles not themselves inevitably succumb to this dynamic? History shows us that they do and it is because they focus on oppressive social structures as the Ur cause of all the misery and so if we can just eliminate and replace those structures with truly liberative ones, all will be well.

But this requires force and coercion and even violence.  And since critical theory’s designation of certain groups as possessing special victim status as opposed to others is larded with certain moral, ideological, and social biases, it too is inherently balkanizing as various groups maneuver for power based on being more victim than thou.  And in all of this, the question of God remains nullified since Christianity is automatically dismissed tout court as one of the primary historical agents of oppression.

Are we then trapped between the false universalism of modernity’s alleged secular, Archimedean objectivity on the one hand and the balkanizing relativism of reason one sees in critical theory on the other? The common denominator in both is the rejection of the concept or even the question of God, and certainly of the Christian conception of God.  However, count me among those thinkers who hold that no resolution of this conflict is possible without reference to God as the Transcendent fulcrum upon which all of history depends and is the only sufficient grounding for our reason that can save it from the excesses of a runaway objectivism or subjectivism.  In many ways, modernity and post-modernity represent a secularized and immanentized recapitulation of the ancient problem of the One and the Many, a problem which remained unresolved in antiquity until the advent of Christianity with its radical vision of creation and Incarnation, as well as its trinitarian relational view of Being as such.  

Therefore, as then, so now as well.  My claim is that the Christian fact provides us with the broader explanatory framework for explaining in particular the agonistic nature of human existence and the dynamics of oppression and victimization. And as such constitutes are far better accounting, in terms of public reason, of the phenomenology of the appearing of the specifically human element in time and space.

Pope Benedict, in Spes Salvi (22), notes the critique of modernity offered by critical theorists like Adorno, but also uses it as a call for Christianity to re-propose itself once again as just such a broader explanatory framework, starting from its roots:

Again, we find ourselves facing the question: what may we hope? A self-critique of modernity is needed in dialogue with Christianity and its concept of hope. In this dialogue Christians too, in the context of their knowledge and experience, must learn anew in what their hope truly consists, what they have to offer to the world and what they cannot offer. Flowing into this self-critique of the modern age there also has to be a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots. On this subject, all we can attempt here are a few brief observations. First we must ask ourselves: what does “progress” really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.

What Pope Benedict is proposing here is that in the light of the critique of modernity can we not now envision a reproposal of the Christian hope from its very roots? And what are those roots?  Here I would propose to you that the public form of the rationality of this proposal takes the form of an embracing of the agonistic nature of human existence, with death as its ultimate fate in all cases, but with an inner transformation of that suffering in a grand reversal of values wherein the torturers of history do not have the last word nor is death the final commentary on the logos of the meaning of our existence.  Death, as St. Paul noted, which is the sting of sin precisely because it robs us of hope. There can therefore be no true rationality that does not confront this death as either the tragic end of all things in frustrated agony, or the final frontier that can only be conquered spiritually by an intrusion from above.  

The task of the Christian therefore is not to flee to the hills but to engage and engage and engage our brothers and sisters who are locked into the pain of Satan’s sting and the moldering stench of the tomb as life’s ultimate meaning. In other words, we must preach and live Christ crucified and risen.  This alone is our form of reason.  This is our telos as Christians.  This is our public martyrial witness.

Here I will appeal to a central concept of von Balthasar’s which he calls the valor of the unshielded heart.  He says:

But … the situation in which this truth emerges is now that of suffering … which lays man bare in his vulnerability, forcibly exposing and humiliating him.  Only a great and majestic human being is equal to this; he alone can bear such a burden, and only from him, when he is finally and necessarily broken apart, can there arise, like a fragrance, the pure essence of human kind, indeed, of being as such.  What is unprecedented here is that the suffering is neither denied (declared to be only apparent and philosophically reduced), nor is it shunned for the sake of an unattainable eudaimonia, but rather the way of man to god and the revelation of the deep truth of existence passes directly through the most extreme form of suffering.  That is the valor of the unshielded heart, which philosophy will lack, and which stands in a direct relation to Christ.

(Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Glory of the Lord IV, p. 103)

In the quote above Balthasar is tracing the metaphysics of classical antiquity and in a penetrating analysis notes that the Greek tragedians, unlike their philosophical contemporaries, viewed man’s dignity as mysteriously related to the “glory” that emanates from the realm of the gods.  Balthasar puts it as follows: “In tragedy, man acts against the background of the god and man only reveals himself, emerging into the light of his own truth, because of the appearance of the god, even in wrath and concealment.” (pp. 102-103). In tragedy the existence of the gods is taken seriously and it is the final victory and glorification of the gods that forms the backdrop for the dramatic action that unfolds.  Man’s true dignity, therefore, resides in accepting “fate,” even if it ultimately means suffering and death, for it is only in such acceptance that man too can participate in the glory of the divine realm and achieve a measure of calm serenity, even joy, as our sufferings are lifted up and bathed in the glory of the victory of the gods.  Therein lies as well a kind of liberation as the valor of an unshielded heart approaches the gods with no bargaining or preconditions and allows itself to be broken open, revealing the soul’s true inner dignity as a liturgy of transformed suffering that also acts as the medium for the god’s epiphany.  

What the Greeks lacked, of course, is the Revelation of the glory of Christ.  The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the most unshielded heart possible, and therefore after Him no tragedy in a high register is any longer possible.  Greek tragic figures such as Oedipus and Antigone really were guilty of something and thus their sufferings are ultimately the result of divine justice but without any hope of reparation or restoration.  Their unshielded hearts, therefore, had valor as they accepted their fate with a dignified moral resolve, but in the end their fate, though epiphanic, is a tragic one.  And the inherent inscrutability of the world of the gods means that the question of man’s tragic fate is left hanging - - i.e. is human tragedy a merely penultimate reality awaiting a future resolution or is it our ultimate destiny?  Is this wound which bleeds into us without ceasing ever to end or are we destined to suffer the futility of an endlessly repeating nightmare forever? Is the machinery of divine justice like a set of automatic gears in which we will all be ground-up and pulverized or will there be some sort of heuristic dénouement to the whole affair that speaks of mercy? The tragedians do not say, but the fact that the human characters show up at all speaks to the importance of their free choices in the unfolding drama - -  a moral dimension - - that transcends mere fate.

But in Christ there is no such ambiguity, no tragic “fate” that is the result of his sins, and certainly no hint of a divine justice that is without mercy or reparative grace.  Christ’s human soul is uniquely “unshielded” insofar as it is an utterly open soul to both his Father’s will (mission) and to those who have been entrusted to him (all of humanity).  His entire existence can be defined as “pro nobis,” a “man for others,” and whose mission is precisely to be completely broken open in order to bear the sins of the world through a mysterious “exchange” wherein he takes into his unshielded soul the full existential weight and consequences for our sins.  What can this mean?  Who can fathom its mysterious depths?  St. Paul says that Christ “became” sin for our sakes which underscores the substitutionary nature of this exchange and, therefore, its reparative atonement.

But how does it atone? Is it because Christ has taken on the punishments due to sin in order to appease an “offended” God who will not forgive his wayward creatures until he gets his pound of flesh? How could Christ’s tortured and murderous death “please” God? Sin does indeed require some form of retributive punishment, but all too often our take on the atonement is vulgar and involves a monstrous portrayal of God as a “sky sadist.” It can also be anti-Semitic since all too often in such schemes the God of the Old Testament is described as a God of law, judgment, and wrath (the Father) whose avenging justice is satiated by the brutal death, at the hands of Jews, of His Son - - a death that ushers in a now “changed” God of love.  Or, as in the case of the Gnostic Marcion, a different God altogether, which really amounts to the same thing as the “changed” God.  And then, in the name of this “love” we decided to persecute the Jews for their alleged deicide, burn heretics at the stake, and to turn the engine of the State into an instrument of an often brutal coercion. There is an inner logic to all of that since a view of God the Father as a vengeful sadist has a nasty habit of legitimating our own violence in His name.  And ultimately, Christ too is transformed from a pantocrator who is, for all eternity, the lamb who was slain, into a kick-ass pantocrator who, when he comes back a second time, will be pissed.

A better view of the atonement is rooted in the unchanging and unconditional love of the God of the Covenant.  There is no single view of the atonement that can adequately “pin down” in some kind of totalizing scheme the full depths of its mystery - - a mystery that is ultimately unknowable by us since the atonement is an act of the Trinity ad intra before it is ad extra, and even in the Revelation of God in Christ the mystery that is God in His divine essence remains.  Nevertheless, what is revealed as the central motif of all of Scripture is that God is love.  Love can and must also involve justice of course, otherwise it would not be a true love, but most certainly at the very least such a view of God precludes the sky sadist described above.  Therefore, a full and proper view of the atonement must be rooted in that theological fact. And so it is more in line with this fact to view the atonement as an exchange wherein Christ takes into his unshielded heart the full toxicity and poison that is sin in a mysterious mystical act and suffers it through to the end. And if the ultimate consequence of all sin is to make us “distant” from God, what it is that Christ suffers is the experience of that distance, of that “dereliction,” and of that crushing alienation in the “dark night” of the experience of the “absence” of God. And yet, despite it all, Christ continues to love even from the depths of darkness and offers to

the Father on our behalf a perfect act of contrition. In other words, our “no” to God which our sins both represent and instantiate, is transformed into a definitive “yes.” We too must appropriate that “yes” and make it our own - - our salvation being anything but automatic - - but we are now relieved of the anxiety that our faith can never be “good enough” to “merit” the Father’s forgiveness.

In all of this, the public form of our reason must be willing to suffer the abyss of modern anomia and to conquer it from within for the sake of our brothers and sisters.

I will end, therefore, with the analysis of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, where what I mean by the valor of the unshielded heart in evangelization becomes clearer by way of contrast with what the current milieu proposes.  Ratzinger, commenting on the fact that even Saint Therese of Lisieux suffered powerful temptations to atheism, states in his “Introduction to Christianity”:

“Her mind is beset by every possible argument against the faith; the sense of believing seems to have vanished. … In other words… someone here catches a glimpse of the abyss lurking … under the firm structure of the supporting conventions.  In a situation like this, what is in question is not the sort of thing that one perhaps quarrels about otherwise – the dogma of the Assumption, the proper use of confession – all this becomes absolutely secondary. What is at stake is the whole structure; it is a question of all or nothing. That is the only remaining alternative; nowhere does there seem anything to cling to in this sudden fall. Wherever one looks, only the bottomless abyss of nothingness can be seen.” (p. 43)

And as we float over the abyss below, like the shipwrecked Jesuit in Claudel’s  Soulier de Satin, all we have to cling to is a wooden plank – a plank which symbolizes the cross of Christ – and it is that plank which must be for us today our deepest metric of public truth. That wooden plank, that thin, floating, arboreal presence upon which hung the savior the world.  Our only savior.

Praised be Jesus Christ.  

[1] Martin Mosebach. Subversive Catholicism. (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2019), p. 41.

[2]We see this denial of consciousness itself in some modern theories in neuroscience that claim that there is no such thing as a “conscious self” or a “person” and that what we think of as “consciousness” is simply the alchemy of complex brain chemistry generating, under evolutionary pressure, the “illusion” of the self.

[3]Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007) pp. 542-547

[4]Ibid. pp. 37-42

[5] Augusto del Noce. The Crisis of Modernity. Carlo Lancellotti (editor and translator). (Montreal:  McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014). p. xiv. By “irreligion” del Noce does not mean “anti religious”.  His point is that our culture is too indifferent to religion and religious questions to mount any opposition to it.

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