Image and Reality

A number of the issues we have discussed can be considered in parallel. There are significant differences between them, but we have given three situations where there was one understanding, at least in the early Church and sometimes later, and after time there was a different understanding. The three issues are the genre of Genesis, the time of the end of the world, and the number of the saved.

The cases differ significantly. In regard to Genesis, it is fairly certain that it was interpreted mainly literally throughout most of Christian history, but there were also some exceptions, at least for some passages. There are literary reasons for supposing that it should not be interpreted in this way, and I presented some of them in the linked post, but in practice the change in understanding came about because the facts were inconsistent with supposing that it was a literal historical account. Fr. Harrison objects exactly for this reason: according to him, it is completely unreasonable to change your understanding of the text to conform to the facts. Nor is the change universal; many ordinary Christians and Catholics would still understand the text in a historically literal way. But this is surely not the current understanding of the Magisterium, nor is it objectively reasonable.

In regard to the time of the end, it is likely that the understanding that it would be soon was nearly universal in the early Church, but this cannot be demonstrated with certainty, since this understanding had to change very quickly in order to remain in conformity with experience. The changed understanding itself would thus be universal, although some take this farther than others; thus James Chastek in the linked post argued that the Second Coming is something that happens after human history has already been concluded, but not everyone would say this.

In regard to the number of the saved, the issue was surely much less important. Christ himself at least on one occasion seems to have refused to answer the question: one should not be concerned about how many are saved, but to strive for salvation. And the idea that most people are lost was surely not universal. Origen for example argued that all will be saved. And likewise, I have given only the example of Pope Benedict XVI currently arguing that most people are saved, while it is not clear how common this opinion is. Nonetheless, I have included this because of significant similarities. The Catholic doctrine of the Last Judgement implies that there is a deep truth behind the human tendency to divide people into good people and bad people. According to the doctrine, people will in fact be divided in this way, and the division will last for all eternity. But the human tendency is a bit different. As I suggested in the linked post, people frequently tend to make such a division on the basis of religion and politics and similar matters. Democrats might say that Republicans are heartless evil people; Christians might say that atheists are sinful and immoral people who have rebelled against God. Such a division is sometimes even taken so far that it is incorporated into a person’s idea of religious doctrine: thus for example some people hold a rigid understanding of the idea that there is no salvation outside the Church, and some Muslims say that all non-Muslims go to hell.

In this sense, the natural human tendency is surely deeply flawed. Just because people do not agree with you, or just because they do not belong to your communities, does not mean that they are evil people. If anything, it is obvious that most people are not deeply evil. On the one hand, this provides ammunition for people who would engage in Bulverism against the Christian doctrine; they can say that the doctrine may simply be a result of this flawed tendency. On the other hand, it provides an argument in favor of Pope Benedict XVI’s position, and in fact it is more or less the argument that he makes. This is why I have included it: Christ said certain things, which understood in a fairly simple way seem to imply certain things about the time of the end and the number of the saved. Likewise, Genesis says things which similarly can be taken to imply certain facts about the history of the world. Over time, everyone realized that what seemed implied about the time of the end, simply could not be the case. Many people realized that what seemed implied about the history of the world could not be the case, and at least some people realized that what seemed implied about the number of the saved is unlikely to be the case.

These surely differ in their doctrinal weight. The number of the saved is probably unimportant in a doctrinal sense, even if it might be important to us personally. The other two seem somewhat more important, but it not difficult to argue that such changes do not involve the substance of any doctrine. As I have said previously, one would not describe a contradiction as such as a development. So “the world will not end soon” cannot be a development of “the world will end soon,” but it would not be unreasonable to say that Christians went from one to the other through an improved understanding of the meaning and history of the Church, even if it was one that was forced upon them by the facts. In this sense, it is not unreasonable to understand all of these things in conformity with Newman’s idea of development of doctrine.

But something seems missing here. All of the facts may be consistent with Newman’s idea, but that does not mean that they are not consistent with anything else. And if anything, they seem more suggestive of the hypothesis that Newman rejects, that “Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons,” and which seems to imply that Christianity is not supernatural. To a non-Christian, these facts look like the early Christians were just ignorant, and their ignorance was overcome through the normal progress in the knowledge of truth. And to the extent that they received their religion from Christ, and even to some extent apparently these specific ideas, it looks like Christ was ignorant as well.

Pope Benedict XVI discusses a similar situation in his homilies on Genesis, published as the book In the Beginning:

These words, with which Holy Scripture begins, always have the effect on me of the solemn tolling of a great old bell, which stirs the heart from afar with its beauty and dignity and gives it an inkling of the mystery of eternity. For many of us, moreover, these words recall the memory of our first encounter with Gods holy book, the Bible, which was opened for us at this spot. It at once brought us out of our small child’s world, captivated us with its poetry, and gave us a feeling for the immeasurability of creation and its Creator.

Yet these words give rise to a certain conflict. They are beautiful and familiar, but are they also true? Everything seems to speak against it, for science has long since disposed of the concepts that we have just now heard of – the idea of a world that is completely comprehensible in terms of space and time, and the idea that creation was built up piece by piece over the course of seven days. Instead of this we now face measurements that transcend all comprehension. Today we hear of the Big Bang, which happened billions of years ago and with which the universe began its expansion – an expansion that continues to occur without interruption. And it was not in neat succession that the stars were hung and the green of the fields created; it was rather in complex ways and over vast periods of time that the earth and the universe were constructed as we now know them.

Do these words, then, count for anything? In fact a theologian said not long ago that creation has become an unreal concept. If one is to be intellectually honest one ought to speak no longer of creation but rather of mutation and selection. Are these words true? Or have they perhaps, along with the entire Word of God and the whole biblical tradition, come out of the reveries of the infant age of human history, for which we occasionally experience homesickness but to which we can nevertheless not return, inasmuch as we cannot live on nostalgia? Is there an answer to this that we can claim for ourselves in this day and age?

He is discussing the specific issue of the truth of Genesis, and thus his response is tailored to this:

One answer was already worked out some time ago, as the scientific view of the world was gradually crystallizing; many of you probably came across it in your religious instruction. It says that the Bible is not a natural science textbook, nor does it intend to be such. It is a religious book, and consequently one cannot obtain information about the natural sciences from it. One cannot get from it a scientific explanation of how the world arose; one can only glean religious experience from it. Anything else is an image and a way of describing things whose aim is to make profound realities graspable to human beings. One must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed. The form would have been chosen from what was understandable at the time – from the images which surrounded the people who lived then, which they used in speaking and thinking, and thanks to which they were able to understand the greater realities. And only the reality that shines through these images would be what was intended and what was truly enduring. Thus Scripture would not wish to inform us about how the different species of plant life gradually appeared or how the sun and the moon and the stars were established. Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used to think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves. The sun and the moon are not deities that rule over them, and the sky that stretches over their heads is not full of mysterious and adversary divinities. Rather, all of this comes from one power, from God’s eternal Reason, which became – in the Word – the power of creation. All of this comes from the same Word of God that we meet in the act of faith. Thus, insofar as human beings realized that the world came from the Word, they ceased to care about the gods and demons. In addition, the world was freed so that reason might lift itself up to God and so that human beings might approach this God fearlessly. In this Word they experienced the true enlightenment that does away with the gods and the mysterious powers and that reveals to them that there is only one power everywhere and that we are in his hands. This is the living God, and this same power (which created the earth and the stars and which bears the whole universe) is the very one whom we meet in the Word of Holy Scripture. In this Word we come into contact with the real primordial force of the world and with the power that is above all powers.

After this description of a response to the problem, he says that there is still a problem:

I believe that this view is correct, but it is not enough. For when we are told that we have to distinguish between the images themselves and what those images mean, then we can ask in turn: Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial. And so the suspicion grows that ultimately perhaps this way of viewing things is only a trick of the church and of theologians who have run out of solutions but do not want to admit it, and now they are looking for something to hide behind. And on the whole the impression is given that the history of Christianity in the last four hundred years has been a constant rearguard action as the assertions of the faith and of theology have been dismantled piece by piece. People have, it is true, always found tricks as a way of getting out of difficulties. But there is an almost ineluctable fear that we will gradually end up in emptiness and that the time will come when there will be nothing left to defend and hide behind, that the whole landscape of Scripture and of the faith will be overrun by a kind of “reason” that will no longer be able to take any of this seriously.

Along with this there is another disquieting consideration. For one can ask: If theologians or even the church can shift the boundaries here between image and intention, between what lies buried in the past and what is of enduring value, why can they not do so elsewhere – as, for instance, with respect to Jesus’ miracles? And if there, why not also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord? This would be an operation whose aim would be, supposedly, to defend the faith, inasmuch as it would say: Behind what is there, which we can no longer defend, there is something more real. Such an operation often ends up by putting the faith itself in doubt, by raising the question of the honesty of those who are interpreting it and of whether anything at all there is enduring. As far as theological views of this sort are concerned, finally, quite a number of people have the abiding impression that the church’s faith is like a jellyfish: no one can get a grip on it and it has no firm center. It is on the many halfhearted interpretations of the biblical Word that can be found everywhere that a sickly Christianity takes its stand – a Christianity that is no longer true to itself and that consequently cannot radiate encouragement and enthusiasm. It gives, instead, the impression of being an organization that keeps on talking although it has nothing else to say, because twisted words are not convincing and are only concerned to hide their emptiness.

This concern is much like that of Ross Douthat in his comments regarding communion for divorced and remarried couples.

I will give Ratzinger’s response to these issues, and offer some comments on it, in the next post, or possibly later.


3 thoughts on “Image and Reality

  1. […] People arguing against Christianity might suggest that “ultimately perhaps this way of viewing things is only a trick of the church and of theologians who have run out of solutions but do not want to admit it, and now they are looking for something to hide behind,” as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it. […]


  2. […] tension here is real. I have touched on this issue elsewhere, as for example while discussing the human tendency to divide people into “good people” and “bad people.… Nonetheless, it is presumably possible to reconcile these statements at least in a technical […]


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