The Long View 2007-12-01: Spe Salvi
This is simply a masterpiece of John J. Reilly’s work. I’ll put in some choice quotes, but you must read the whole thing.
The encyclical is surprisingly respectful of atheism: “It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested,” much of the progressive West said for 200 years, because God allows an intolerable amount of injustice and suffering in the world. When people who thought like this gained the power to shape society, however, there occurred what usually occurs when someone tries to impose a contradiction on reality
The dark danger against which the encyclical warns is the possibility that the intolerance of human misery might become an intolerance of miserable humans. The price of perfect freedom from pain, we are given to understand, is perfect emptiness.
The document seeks to reconfigure our view of history in preparation for a long future in an age that is no longer modern.
Spe Salvi, "Saved by Hope," is the title of an encyclical that Pope Benedict XVI published yesterday, November 30. The English version is here. If I had to give it a subtitle, it would be “Progress, Salvation, and Eternity.” The document attempts to link personal salvation with the duties of people acting in history. It does this by drawing out the implications of a relationship with Christ. The essential point of the encyclical may be the proposition that to be in communion with Christ is to take on something of the divine function of fostering justice and good order in the world. However, the encyclical is very clear that no temporal state of things should be confused with final salvation, and especially not with the justice that the Last Judgment will establish. Rather, believers should be oriented toward that consummation, even though they know they will never bring it about. That is one way of saying what the encyclical means by "hope."
There are other ways of saying it. Indeed, in writing the summary of the encyclical in the previous paragraph, I was aware that I was emphasizing the points where the encyclical overlaps with my own interest in metahistory. There are in fact several such points, but they are not where the encyclical starts. The inquiry begins with the question, “What do we really want?” If we answer, “Eternal Life,” the encyclical notes, this phrase can be interpreted to mean the nightmare notion of mere perpetuity of the life we know. We are offered this as a better view:
To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists.
This may sound like an attempt to interpret eternal life as illumination, which is the position taken by some mystical traditions. However, that is not what is going on here. The encyclical is very clear about the future resurrection of the body and about the non-metaphorical nature of the Last Judgment. There is also an interesting discussion of Purgatory. In that connection, I was most interested in the comment on Luke 16:19-31, the parable in which the greedy rich man, in torment after death, pleads with Abraham to warn the rich man’s brothers to mend their ways, lest they share his sorry state:
We must note that in this parable Jesus is not referring to the final destiny after the Last Judgment, but is taking up a notion found, inter alia, in early Judaism, namely that of an intermediate state between death and resurrection, a state in which the final sentence is yet to be pronounced.
I always suspected that the man in the parable did not sound damned enough; by most accounts, the damned are little concerned to help the living avoid joining them. In any case, the encyclical notes that all we can know about the “intermediate state” is Cor 3:12-15, which describes how the works even of the saved will be tested at the Judgment. The point is not that the afterlife is a metaphor, or a heuristic device, but that it is a category mistake to interpret God’s time as our time. A caution like that no doubt seemed obscurantist in ages before virtual reality and mutually inaccessible time-space continua became elements of popular culture. They are not quite the sort of thing the encyclical means either, but perhaps they help to illustrate the question.
The document notes that salvation in Scripture usually has a social or collective dimension. One of the images of the Fall is Babel, the city that fell into chaos; one of the recurring images of salvation is a final City, which appears in Revelation as the New Jerusalem. Redemption, at some level, appears as the reestablishment of unity in a world community of believers. That idea would be seem to be the liminal case. The encyclical focuses on the more immediate point that the idea of a transcendental imperative to justice and order has taken the form in Christianity (and Judaism) of an insistence on the dignity of work. That, we are told, was one of the fundamental meanings of monasticism. The monks, at their best, were pioneers who sought to transform their environment both spiritually and physically.
With the coming of the modern era, a gap opened between the idea of salvation, which became more and more individualized, and the imperative to reshape the world, which became the concept of secular historical process. In some of its later forms, that imperative became an insistence on catastrophic revolution.
Our attention is directed, in the encyclical’s analysis of the roots of modernity, to the figure of Francis Bacon. Bacon famously touted the union of science and praxis as the guiding principle of the new age. This union would, step by step, restore to man the dominion over nature that was lost through original sin. For my part, I think the encyclical underestimates the degree that Bacon’s theological view of progress was perfectly sincere. However, it is true that the Rosicrucian Enlightenment (not a term the encyclical uses), of which Bacon was perhaps the most important representative, was a millennialist movement that introduced the idea of perpetual, useful, scientific progress to the Western imagination. The encyclical is perfectly correct in pointing out that, once the idea of progress appeared, it began to lose its original significance as an element of theodicy. Eventually, it even lost any necessary connection with science:
Faith in progress [involved] reason and freedom...Progress is the overcoming of all forms of dependency—it is progress towards perfect freedom...Both concepts therefore contain a revolutionary potential of enormous explosive force...[The] nineteenth century held fast to its faith in progress ...A revolutionary leap was needed ...Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics.
The problem with the revolutionary project was that, where it succeeded, it had no idea what the new order should look like. That was because it had deliberately shut itself off from the sources that might have suggested a tolerable agenda. The idea of progressive historical change had Christian roots. It was based on a hope that was not just informative but performative, that changed the people who shared the hope. However, the secular progressive tradition came to view religion as one of the things that most needed to be abolished. The encyclical is surprisingly respectful of atheism: “It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested,” much of the progressive West said for 200 years, because God allows an intolerable amount of injustice and suffering in the world. When people who thought like this gained the power to shape society, however, there occurred what usually occurs when someone tries to impose a contradiction on reality:
[T]he claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim.
The problem was not the Enlightenment’s insistence on freedom and reason. The triumph of reason, the encyclical notes, is also a goal of Christian life. However, reason triumphs only when it looks beyond itself. To me, at least, that sounds like something Wittgenstein might have said: the “picture-frame theory of sanity,” perhaps.
There is also nothing wrong with progress, though modernity should enter a dialogue with Christianity to reconsider the idea in the light of transcendental hope. However, we must recognize that “progress” is not a concept with universal application. For fundamental decisions, every individual and every generation is a new beginning. This principle has two important implications:
a) The right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone...Even the best structures function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order.
This sounds very much like what William Ernest Hocking used to say about much the same subject, though he is not cited.
b) Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. .... If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man's freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all.
This is not to say we should not try to structure the world as well as possible, even as sustainably as possible. I think what we see in part here is an informed skepticism about how durable even the most formidable order of the world can be. The encyclical’s paradigm case of a man sustained by hope in catastrophic historical circumstances is St. Augustine trying to make the world an incrementally better place right at the end of the Roman Empire. The dark danger against which the encyclical warns is the possibility that the intolerance of human misery might become an intolerance of miserable humans. The price of perfect freedom from pain, we are given to understand, is perfect emptiness.
By any reasonable definition, Benedict XVI must be classified as a conservative, but we may note that “conservative” has come to mean something quite different in the Catholic context from what it meant in the days of Pius IX and Saint Pius X. Catholic thought in general after the French Revolution tended to condemn modernity or at least deplore it, and to contemplate progress with dread. That attitude is absent from Spe Salvi. This is a critique of progress, but a critique with a view to reform. The document seeks to reconfigure our view of history in preparation for a long future in an age that is no longer modern. In that age, it will be one of the functions of the Church to safeguard the treasures of the Enlightenment, among which are humane reason and the idea of progress.
My own take on the Catholic view of history and eschatology are here.
Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly
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