We Didn’t Really Mean It

The Holy Office later published an interpretation of its 1897 ruling on the letter of John:

At this response there arose on June 2, 1927, the following declaration, at first given privately by the same Sacred Congregation and afterwards repeated many times, which was made a part of public law in EB n. 121 by authority of the Holy Office itself:
“This decree was passed to check the audacity of private teachers who attributed to themselves the right either of rejecting entirely the authenticity of the Johannine comma, or at least of calling it into question by their own final judgment. But it was not meant at all to prevent Catholic writers from investigating the subject more fully and, after weighing the arguments accurately on both sides, with that and temperance which the gravity of the subject requires, from inclining toward an opinion in opposition to its authenticity, provided they professed that they were ready to abide by the judgment of the Church, to which the duty was delegated by Jesus Christ not only of interpreting Holy Scripture but also of guarding it faithfully.”

It seems reasonable to take this more or less at face value. However, it is not really an interpretation of the meaning of the earlier ruling, but rather of its motive, and one that basically undercuts the original ruling.

Why was it necessary for this interpretation to be given privately “many times” before it was published? The original ruling essentially said that one could not even call the authenticity of the text into question. This would leave people who desired to be obedient to the ruling with no alternative but to firmly assert the authenticity of the text. Since many Catholic scholars could see that this went against the facts in manifest ways, there were consequently many who appealed in private for an interpretation which would permit them to question the authenticity of the text.

Even if we accept the basic honesty of the explanation, however, the original ruling exists in a broader context, of which the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission statement on Genesis is one example, which suggests a more general idea: the “audacity of private teachers” is doing damage to the Church, and therefore such audacity must be repressed. Regardless of whether repression was the correct response, the first part was true: damage was indeed being done. Audacity however was no necessary part of this process, since seeking the truth would do just as well.

Modernism Responds to Pius X

Earlier I quoted Pope Pius X against the Modernists:

4. But since the Modernists (as they are commonly and rightly called) employ a very clever artifice, namely, to present their doctrines without order and systematic arrangement into one whole, scattered and disjointed one from another, so as to appear to be in doubt and uncertainty, while they are in reality firm and steadfast, it will be of advantage, Venerable Brethren, to bring their teachings together here into one group, and to point out the connexion between them, and thus to pass to an examination of the sources of the errors, and to prescribe remedies for averting the evil.

Pius X proceeds to begin to lay out the doctrines of the modernists as “firm and steadfast,” and as a systematic whole:

5. To proceed in an orderly manner in this recondite subject, it must first of all be noted that every Modernist sustains and comprises within himself many personalities; he is a philosopher, a believer, a theologian, an historian, a critic, an apologist, a reformer. These roles must be clearly distinguished from one another by all who would accurately know their system and thoroughly comprehend the principles and the consequences of their doctrines.

Agnosticism its Philosophical Foundation

6. We begin, then, with the philosopher. Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject. Given these premises, all will readily perceive what becomes of Natural Theology, of the motives of credibility, of external revelation. The Modernists simply make away with them altogether; they include them in Intellectualism, which they call a ridiculous and long ago defunct system. Nor does the fact that the Church has formally condemned these portentous errors exercise the slightest restraint upon them. Yet the Vatican Council has defined, “If anyone says that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason by means of the things that are made, let him be anathema” (De Revel., can. I); and also: “If anyone says that it is not possible or not expedient that man be taught, through the medium of divine revelation, about God and the worship to be paid Him, let him be anathema” (Ibid., can. 2); and finally, “If anyone says that divine revelation cannot be made credible by external signs, and that therefore men should be drawn to the faith only by their personal internal experience or by private inspiration, let him be anathema” (De Fide, can. 3). But how the Modernists make the transition from Agnosticism, which is a state of pure nescience, to scientific and historic Atheism, which is a doctrine of positive denial; and consequently, by what legitimate process of reasoning, starting from ignorance as to whether God has in fact intervened in the history of the human race or not, they proceed, in their explanation of this history, to ignore God altogether, as if He really had not intervened, let him answer who can. Yet it is a fixed and established principle among them that both science and history must be atheistic: and within their boundaries there is room for nothing but phenomena; God and all that is divine are utterly excluded. We shall soon see clearly what, according to this most absurd teaching, must be held touching the most sacred Person of Christ, what concerning the mysteries of His life and death, and of His Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.

As I remarked in the earlier post, Pope Pius X’s condemnation is sweeping and general, and surely many of the people who possessed many of the attitudes that the Pope considered modernist did not in fact embrace a systematic view such as the above. In a Modernist response, anonymous just as those accused by the encyclical are anonymous, one or some of the modernists responded to the encyclical (taken from the opening of this book):

A document so weighty, both in substance and form, as the Encyclical which we have reproduced at the end of this book; an attempt so deliberate to present “Modernist”* views to the public under a false and unfavorable light; a condemnation so authoritative of us Modernists as dangerous foes of Christian piety and unconscious promoters of atheism, make it a duty, which we owe to our own conscience, to the collective conscience, of the faithful, and to an anxious and expectant public, to lay bare our whole mind without reserve or concealment. We cannot possibly remain silent under the violent accusation which the chief authority of the Church, albeit recognizing us as her faithful subjects and as resolved to cling to her till our last breath, heaps upon our head. Hence there is nothing arrogant in our reply, since it is an elementary principle of justice for those who are accused to defend themselves; nor can we believe that this right has been taken from us at a moment so critical for the fortunes of Catholic Christianity.

They remark in the note on the name “Modernist”:

Let us say, once and for all, that we use this term only that we may be understood by those who have learnt it from the Encyclical, and that we do not need a new name to describe an attitude which we consider to be simply that of Christians and Catholics who live in harmony with the spirit of their day.

The following chapter begins to comment on the “systematic arrangement” laid out by Pius X:

First of all we must lay bare an equivocation by which inexpert readers of the Encyclical might easily be misled. That document starts with the assumption that there lies at the root of Modernism a certain philosophical system from which we deduce our critical methods, whether biblical or historical; in other words, that our zeal to reconcile the doctrines of Catholic tradition with the conclusions of positive science springs really from some theoretical apriorism which we defend through our ignorance of scholasticism and the rebellious pride of our reason. Now the assertion is false, and since it is the basis on which the Encyclical arranges its various arguments we cannot in our reply follow the order of that fallacious arrangement; but we must first of all show the utter emptiness of this allegation, and then discuss the theories which the Encyclical imputes to us.

In truth, the historical development, the methods and programme of so-called Modernism are very different from what they are said to be by the compilers of Pascendi Gregis.

So far from our philosophy dictating our critical method, it is the critical method that has, of its own accord, forced us to a very tentative and uncertain formulation of various philosophical conclusions, or better still, to a clearer exposition of certain ways of thinking to which Catholic apologetic has never been wholly a stranger. This independence of our criticism in respect to our purely tentative philosophy is evident in many ways.

First of all, of their own nature, textual criticism, as well as the so-called Higher Criticism (that is, the internal analysis of biblical documents with a view to establishing their origin and value), prescind entirely from philosophical assumptions. A single luminous example will suffice–that furnished by the question of the Comma Johanneum–now settled for ever. In past days when theologians wanted to prove the doctrine of the Trinity they never omitted to quote from the Vulgate (1 John v. 7): “There are three that bear record in Heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost.” Now the italicized words are lacking in all the Greek MSS. of to-day, cursive or uncial, and in all the Greek epistolaries and lectionaries, and in all the ancient translations, except the Vulgate, in the works of the Greek Fathers and of other Greek writers prior to the the twelfth century, in those of all the ancient Syrian and Armenian writers, and in those of a great number of the Latin Fathers. This silence of East and West is all the more remarkable as the passage would have been of priceless value in the Arian controversy. That it was not then appealed to, proves that it did not exist at the beginning of the fourth century. Moreove, a collation of MSS. and their comparison with the works of the heretic Priscillian, discovered a few years ago, makes it clear that the verse in question comes from Spain, and was fabricated by that heretic (A.D. 384) in favour of his trinitarian views, of which Peregrinus made himself the propagandist. Now it is plain that in order to arrive at such a conclusion and to study such a literary problem critically, no sort of philosophical doctrine or presupposition is required. The same can be said of a whole host of biblical and historical problems whose impartial solutions, leading to results so different from those of traditional Catholic criticism, are the true cause of that revolution in religious apologetic which we find forced upon us by sheer necessity. Does one really need any special philosophical preparation to trace a diversity of sources in the Pentateuch, or to convince oneself, by the most superficial comparison of texts, that the Fourth Gospel is a substantially different kind of work from the synoptics, or that the Nicene Creed is essentially a development of the Apostles’ Creed?

The modernists have the better of the argument here. One might say that this kind of argument regarding the Comma involves philosophical presuppositions only by making arguments like, “This presupposes that our memory is valid,” “This presupposes that these manuscripts really come from those times,” “This presupposes that the others who have studied this question were being basically honest,” and so on. But these things are really just common sense, not some special philosophy. Nor are they even premises, in general, in the sense that my memory of drinking coffee this morning is not a premise in an argument that I drank coffee this morning; I simply assert that I did, and my memory is an efficient cause of my statement, not an argument for it.

The modernists bring up this example not as an irrelevant detail, but because it was precisely the kind of thing they were criticized for. Thus we have this from the Acta Sanctae Sedis in 1897 [this document, page 637]:

« Utrum tuto negari, aut saltem in dubium revocari possit
« esse authenticum textum S. Ioannis, in epistola prima, capo V,
« vers. 7, quod sic se habet: Quoniam tres sunt, qui testimonium
« dant in coelo: Pater, Verbum et Spiritus Sanctus: et hi tres
« unum sunt? »
Omnibus diligentissimo examine perpensis, praehabito que
DD. Consultorum voto, iidem Emi Cardinales respondendum
mandarunt: « Negative ».

The decree asserts that the authenticity of the text cannot be safely denied or even called into doubt. Now I have previously discussed such decrees. These should never be understood as attempting to settle the truth of the matter definitively. Rather they are making a rule: you are not allowed to deny this or even to call it into question.

Pope Pius X complains in Pascendi:

Finally, and this almost destroys all hope of cure, their very doctrines have given such a bent to their minds, that they disdain all authority and brook no restraint; and relying upon a false conscience, they attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy.

For Pope Pius X, calling into question the authenticity of the Comma would be “the result of pride and obstinacy,” because one questioning it would be in disobedience to the above decree. But given the kinds of arguments that are involved, it is easy enough to see why the people questioning it would ascribe this rather to a love of truth.

All of this might call to mind earlier debates. Here is Philip Gosse, quoted at length in the linked post:

I am not assuming here that the Inspired Word has been rightly read; I merely say that the plain straightforward meaning, the meaning that lies manifestly on the face of the passages in question, is in opposition with the conclusions which geologists have formed, as to the antiquity and the genesis of the globe on which we live.

Perhaps the simple, superficial sense of the Word is not the correct one; but it is at least that which its readers, learned and unlearned, had been generally content with before; and which would, I suppose, scarcely have been questioned, but for what appeared the exigencies of geological facts.

Now while there are, unhappily, not a few infidels, professed or concealed, who eagerly seize on any apparent discrepancy between the works and the Word of God, in order that they may invalidate the truth of the latter, there are, especially in this country, many names of the highest rank in physical (and, among other branches, in geological) science, to whom the veracity of God is as dear as life. They cannot bear to see it impugned; they know that it cannot be overthrown; they are assured that He who gave the Word, and He who made the worlds, is One Jehovah, who cannot be inconsistent with Himself. But they cannot shut their eyes to the startling fact, that the records which seem legibly written on His created works do flatly contradict the statements which seem to be plainly expressed in His word.

Here is a dilemma. A most painful one to the reverent mind! And many reverent minds have laboured hard and long to escape from it. It is unfair and dishonest to class our men of science with the infidel and atheist. They did not rejoice in the dilemma; they saw it at first dimly, and hoped to avoid it. At first they believed that the mighty processes which are recorded on the “everlasting mountains” might not only be harmonized with, but might afford beautiful and convincing demonstrations of Holy Scripture. They thought that the deluge of Noah would explain the stratification, and the antediluvian era account for the organic fossils.

A parallel passage could easily be written on the opposition between Pope Pius X and the modernists. While I don’t have a source at hand at the moment, it seems that Alfred Loisy did state after his excommunication that he had secretly been an atheist for many years. There is no way of knowing, however, whether this is true in a literal sense or was simply his own retrospective analysis of his past state of mind. In any case, it is quite sure that many of the modernists were not secret atheists, but simply men like the geologists in Gosse’s passage. Conflict came to light between the actual facts of geology and the current understanding based on the text of Genesis, and something had to be said about that conflict. In a similar way, in the modernist controversy, conflict came to light between the actual facts of history and the current understanding based on the Church’s traditions, and something had to be said about that conflict.

Gosse complains that the geologists are classed with “the infidel and the atheist,” in effect for their recognition of geological facts; Pius X accuses the modernists of secret agnosticism or atheism, in effect for their recognition of historical facts.

In both cases, the accusation is that an atheistic metaphysics, and likely an atheistic epistemology, comes first, and is responsible for the conclusions that are drawn. And in both cases the accusation is false. Epistemology cannot come first in principle, and it does not come first in practice in these cases. You might be able to argue that these people have ended up with a mistaken epistemology, and you might be able to argue that it does not follow from the facts from which they have drawn it. But they have drawn it from facts, mistakenly or not, and not the facts from the epistemology.

This is ultimately why, despite the lack of firm definition of the term “Modernism,” the controversy has remained until this day. This is why accusations of modernism continue to be thrown around, as a few years ago when Bishop Fellay accused Pope Francis of modernism:

What Gospel does he have? Which Bible does he have to say such things. It’s horrible. What has this to do with the Gospel? With the Catholic Faith? That’s pure Modernism, my dear brethren. We have in front of us a genuine Modernist…

If one wishes to criticize the views which are characterized as “modernist,” whether in the early 20th century or now in the 21st, one will make no progress without the acknowledgement that it was first the consideration of certain facts that led to those views, rightly or wrongly. Attributing them to some general system is simplistic and wrong.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
    and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
    by those who come after them.

This view is one that maintains neither progress nor regress. While there is change, the change is cyclical, and thus overall things remain the same. This is much like Aristotle’s view of the eternity of the world, although Qoheleth presumably accepts the account of Genesis 1.

Since change implies becoming better or becoming worse, and not all changes are normally undone, it is very hard in practice to maintain such a view. Thus we saw in the post linked above that Aristotle in practice believed not only in the progress of the sciences, but that they had basically reached their perfection.

As a similar example, consider this post by P. Edmund Waldstein:

In his letter to Pliny the Younger on the proper procedure in the persecution of Christians the Emperor Trajan agrees with Pliny that no note is to be taken of libelli containing anonymous denunciations, for, “Nam et pessimi exempli nec nostri saeculi est.” (“They set a bad precedent and are not in the spirit of our age.”) Not of our age! How disappointing that a Roman emperor would sink to the level of that puppet of the contemporary self-congratulatory liberal establishment, the Prime Minister of Canada, who famously justified his cabinet selection with the moronic pseudo-reason “because it’s 2015.” I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.

If “because it’s 2015” is a “moronic pseudo-reason,” the reason for this would be that time is an accidental feature: 2015 is just one year in history, just like the year 1015, and the year 3015. This suggests a view like that of Qoheleth: times are all alike, not ordered according to better and worse. But like Aristotle, P. Edmund betrays the fact that he does not really accept such a view: “I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.” If times are all alike, all species of idiocy should exist at all times. The instinct to assume that this is not the case results from the implicit belief that things do indeed change, and indeed become better and worse: it is just that P. Edmund implicitly believes that they become worse, not better, and in this case his implicit belief was not borne out by experience.

Qoheleth in fact knows that many people assume that things are becoming worse, and he rejects this view, precisely because of his position that things are circular.  Thus he says,

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

It is not from wisdom to ask this, because the former days were just like these ones. There is nothing new under the sun.

But if this question is not according to wisdom, then just as St. Paul says, “I have been a fool! You forced me to it,” so the present discussion forces us to ask in what way former days were better than these, and why, and in what way worse, and why.

All Things are Water

In book I of his Metaphysics, Aristotle comments on earlier opinions about the first causes:

Evidently we have to acquire knowledge of the original causes (for we say we know each thing only when we think we recognize its first cause), and causes are spoken of in four senses. In one of these we mean the substance, i.e. the essence (for the ‘why’ is reducible finally to the definition, and the ultimate ‘why’ is a cause and principle); in another the matter or substratum, in a third the source of the change, and in a fourth the cause opposed to this, the purpose and the good (for this is the end of all generation and change). We have studied these causes sufficiently in our work on nature, but yet let us call to our aid those who have attacked the investigation of being and philosophized about reality before us. For obviously they too speak of certain principles and causes; to go over their views, then, will be of profit to the present inquiry, for we shall either find another kind of cause, or be more convinced of the correctness of those which we now maintain.

Of the first philosophers, then, most thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things. That of which all things that are consist, the first from which they come to be, the last into which they are resolved (the substance remaining, but changing in its modifications), this they say is the element and this the principle of things, and therefore they think nothing is either generated or destroyed, since this sort of entity is always conserved, as we say Socrates neither comes to be absolutely when he comes to be beautiful or musical, nor ceases to be when loses these characteristics, because the substratum, Socrates himself remains. just so they say nothing else comes to be or ceases to be; for there must be some entity-either one or more than one-from which all other things come to be, it being conserved.

Yet they do not all agree as to the number and the nature of these principles. Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things.

Some think that even the ancients who lived long before the present generation, and first framed accounts of the gods, had a similar view of nature; for they made Ocean and Tethys the parents of creation, and described the oath of the gods as being by water, to which they give the name of Styx; for what is oldest is most honourable, and the most honourable thing is that by which one swears. It may perhaps be uncertain whether this opinion about nature is primitive and ancient, but Thales at any rate is said to have declared himself thus about the first cause.

It is possibly for polemical motives that Aristotle portrays Thales as asserting that water alone is the principle of all things, to the exclusion of other kinds of cause besides the material cause. That is, most materialists, ancient and modern, do not believe that matter is the sole principle of reality. They may think it is the most important principle, but they recognize that other principles are involved, much as Lucretius recognizes that his atoms alone are insufficient to explain the world, but he must add something:

We wish thee also well aware of this:
The atoms, as their own weight bears them down
Plumb through the void, at scarce determined times,
In scarce determined places, from their course
Decline a little- call it, so to speak,
Mere changed trend. For were it not their wont
Thuswise to swerve, down would they fall, each one,
Like drops of rain, through the unbottomed void;
And then collisions ne’er could be nor blows
Among the primal elements; and thus
Nature would never have created aught.

We can understand however that even if Aristotle’s account may not be a completely accurate account of Thales’s opinions, Aristotle likely has a charitable motive for his presentation, namely the education of the reader, as by beginning by discussing the position that matter alone is the first cause, it becomes easier to see the necessity of other principles. And it is also possible that Thales did not mention any other principles simply because his interest was in the material principle, rather than from the wish to deny other principles.

There is some probability to the opinion, mentioned by Aristotle, that Thales’s idea about water had ancient predecessors. For example, there may be something like this in Genesis 1:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

The text speaks of a number of principles, including God, and formless matter. But the formless matter is virtually identified with water; even when the earth is a “formless void,” there is still a “deep”, and there is still a “face of the waters.” And God makes the world by divisions in the waters, creating first sky and world, and then creating dry land by limiting the lower waters.

We can ask whether Thales was right in several different ways:

First, was he right if he is understood as Aristotle understands him? In this way, his position would involve denying all principles other than material principles. And in this way Thales was wrong, since there are other principles.

Second, was he right if he is understood in contrast with other materialist philosophers such as Anaximenes, who said that all things are made of air? We can see that there is a certain difficulty in such a supposition from the beginning. For if there is only one material principle of all things, why call it “water” or “air” in particular? If water contains nothing but the first material principle, and air contains nothing but the first material principle, why is one of them identified with the principle rather than the other?

Nonetheless, we can understand the claim to be something like, “Water is the most basic and natural form of the first material principle.” In this case, what it means to be the most basic and natural would be a matter of investigation, but there is nothing impossible about it in principle. But if we understand it in this way, Thales’s position (along with that of Anaximenes and others) is refuted by modern science, since water is known to be made of other more basic things, namely oxygen and hydrogen.

But we can ask whether Thales and Anaximenes were both right in a third way, a more generic way. If we break composite material things down into their parts, and their parts into their parts, and so on, will we always arrive at one basic material “stuff” which all other things are made out of?

This would necessarily be different from the prime matter of Aristotle, because this matter is understood to be completely formless. So while it may be part of a substance along with substantial form, it is not a part in the way that an arm is a part of a human being, or in the way that oxygen is part of water. A part in the latter sense already has some actuality; an arm has a certain shape even apart from being a part of a human being, and oxygen has qualities that it has even apart from water, while prime matter has no actuality whatsoever.

Since every order of causes comes to a first cause, the same will be true if we follow the order of material causality found by asking, “What parts is this made out of?” This cannot be refuted even if it turns out that material things are infinitely divisible, because it will not actually be true that anything is made out of an infinite number of parts. If we say, “this is made out of two halves, and the halves out of more halves, and so on,” this is not an explanation at all, as was pointed out in the post linked above, and so it cannot be a true account of why the thing is as it is. It may be that the thing is potentially divisible in those ways; but it is not actually made out of those parts. Instead, we are asking what we will arrive at if we look at the material composition of things, looking only for things with some actuality, and stopping when we find something which is not made up of other things in this way.

We made a strong argument that there only one first efficient cause. But we cannot duplicate that argument to show that there must be only one first material part of things, since the first efficient cause could be an adequate explanation of two or more first material causes. The theory of the four (or five) elements is an explanation like this. The first material parts are thought be four or five, according to this account, and in this way Thales would have been mistaken.

We can see some motivation for holding such a position. If there is fundamentally only one kind of “stuff,” why do we see various things in the world, such as plants and animals, rocks, chairs, and people? An account with a number elements can say that they form various things by being combined in various proportions and ways, while it is not evident how this question can be answered, if there is only one element.

Nonetheless, this does not really refute the position that there is fundamentally a single material element. If that element can exist in various ways, then it would be possible to explain how it could be used to form more complex substances. It is true that this would still leave something to be explained, namely the nature of those various ways that the element can exist, and how and why they come to be.

The position is neither refuted nor established by modern science. The Standard Model of particle physics contains many elementary particles, but in any case it is not thought to be a complete theory of physics.

Considerations of simplicity would favor the position of Thales. Other things being equal, it should be thought that a theory with a single element is more likely than one with ten elements; one with ten more likely than one with a hundred, and so on. Nonetheless, there does not seem to be any proof of Thales’s general position, nor any refutation of it. But one way or another, there will be one or more simplest material parts that everything else is made out of.

Language as Technology

Genesis tells the story of the Tower of Babel:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

The account suggests that language is a cause of technology, as when the Lord says, “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

But is possible to understand language here as a technology itself, one which gives rise to other technologies. It is a technology by which men communicate with each other. In the story, God weakens the technology, making it harder for people to communicate with one another, and therefore making it harder for them to accomplish other goals.

But language is not just a technology that exists for the sake of communication; it is also a technology that exists for the sake of thought. As I noted in the linked post, our ability to think depends to some extent on our possession of language.

All of this suggests that in principle, the idea of technological progress  is something that could apply to language itself, and that such progress could correspondingly be a cause of progress in truth. The account in Genesis suggests some of the ways that this could happen; to the degree that people develop better means of understanding one another, whether we speak of people speaking different languages, or even people already speaking the same language, they will be better able to work together towards the goal of truth, and thus will be better able to attain that goal.


Ratzinger’s Response

Ratzinger  begins to respond to the difficulties he has raised:

So now we still have to ask: Is the distinction between the image and what is intended to be expressed only an evasion, because we can no longer rely on the text even though we still want to make something of it, or are there criteria from the Bible itself that attest to this distinction? Does it give us access to indications of this sort, and did the faith of the church know of these indications in the past and acknowledge them?

Let us look at Holy Scripture anew with these questions in mind. There we can determine first of all that the creation account in Genesis 1, which we have just heard, is not, from its very beginning, something that is closed in on itself. Indeed, Holy Scripture in its entirety was not written from beginning to end like a novel or a textbook. It is, rather, the echo of God’s history with his people. It arose out of the struggles and the vagaries of this history, and all through it we can catch a glimpse of the rises and falls, the sufferings and hopes, and the greatness and failures of this history. The Bible is thus the story of God’s struggle with human beings to make himself understandable to them over the course of time; but it is also the story of their struggle to seize hold of God over the course of time. Hence the theme of creation is not set down once for all in one place; rather, it accompanies Israel throughout its history, and, indeed, the whole Old Testament is a journeying with the Word of God. Only in the process of this journeying was the Bible’s real way of declaring itself formed, step by step. Consequently we ourselves can only discover where this way is leading if we follow it to the end. In this respect—as a way—the Old and New Testaments belong together. For the Christian the Old Testament represents, in its totality, an advance toward Christ; only when it attains to him does its real meaning, which was gradually hinted at, become clear. Thus every individual part derives its meaning from the whole, and the whole derives its meaning from its end—from Christ. Hence we only interpret an individual text theologically correctly (as the fathers of the church recognized and as the faith of the church in every age has recognized) when we see it as a way that is leading us ever forward, when we see in the text where this way is tending and what its inner direction is.

After a discussion of the history of Israel and its understanding of creation in relation to that of Babylon, he says:

I just said how, gradually, in confronting its pagan environment and its own heart, the people of Israel experienced what “creation” was. Implicit here is the fact that the classic creation account is not the only creation text of sacred Scripture. Immediately after it there follows another one, composed earlier and containing other imagery.

Here he is referring to Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as distinct creation accounts.

In the Psalms there are still others, and there the movement to clarify the faith concerning creation is carried further: In its confrontation with Hellenistic civilization, Wisdom literature reworks the theme without sticking to the old images such as the seven days.  Thus we can see how the Bible itself constantly re-adapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of his creating act. In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly. In this way they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater.

One decisive fact must still be mentioned at this point: The Old Testament is not the end of the road. What is worked out in the so-called Wisdom literature is the final bridge on a long road that leads to the message of Jesus Christ and to the New Testament. Only there do we find the conclusive and normative scriptural creation account, which reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3). John quite consciously took up here once again the first words of the Bible and read the creation account anew, with Christ, in order to tell us definitively what the Word is which appears throughout the Bible and with which God desires to shake our hearts. Thus it becomes clear to us that we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ. Consequently the law of Moses, the rituals of purification, the regulations concerning food, and all other such things are not to be carried out by us; otherwise the biblical Word would be senseless and meaningless. We read all of this not as if it were something complete in itself. We read it with him in whom all things have been fulfilled and in whom all of its validity and truth are revealed. Therefore we read the law, like the creation account, with him; and from him (and not from some subsequently discovered trick) we know what God wished over the course of centuries to have gradually penetrate the human heart and soul. Christ frees us from the slavery of the letter, and precisely thus does he give back to us, renewed, the truth of the images.

The ancient church and the church of the Middle Ages also knew this. They knew that the Bible is a whole and that we only understand its truth when we understand it with Christ in mind—with the freedom that he bestowed on us and with the profundity whereby he reveals what is enduring through images. Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten—this dynamic that is the living unity of Scripture, which we can only understand with Christ in the in the freedom that he gives us and in the certitude that comes from that freedom. The new historical thinking wanted to read every text in itself, in its bare literalness. Its interest lay only in the exact explanation of particulars, but meanwhile it forgot the Bible as a whole. In a word, it no longer read the texts forward but backward—that is, with a view not to Christ but to the probable origins of those texts. People were no longer concerned with understanding what a text said or what a thing was from the aspect of its fulfillment, but from that of its beginning, its source. As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith. This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation.

There were two difficulties that Ratzinger originally raised. The first was, “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.” The second was. “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?”

His response to the first is that it was in fact said earlier, in a way. It is implied in the Old Testament itself insofar as it describes creation in various ways, such as in the seven days of Genesis 1, but also as a single day, as in Genesis 2:4 and elsewhere. And it was implied by Christians insofar as they read Scripture in reference to Christ rather than simply as it is in itself.

This is a good response insofar as it goes, but something more is needed, because this does not explain why Galileo was put on trial, as he puts it. His explanation for this seems to be that people forgot the correct way to read Scripture: “Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten… As a result… there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology…”

There seems to be something true about this, but also something missing. St. Augustine would almost certainly have disagreed with those who condemned Galileo. On the other hand, it was not people of the sixteenth or seventeenth century who came up with the idea that the texts of Scripture should be mostly read in a literal historical fashion, and assumed to be true in that way. For example, I quoted in a previous post a passage where Lactantius says that we know pretty much exactly how old the earth is, because Scripture tells us. And his was not an unusual opinion. So while it may be true that the condemnation of Galileo happened in part because of a lack of theological awareness, it is also true that to some extent “it must have been taught differently at one time.” Even Ratzinger’s reponse, then, can only be understood in the framework of the development of doctrine. Yes, Scripture itself has implications for how Scripture should be read; but it took time for people to develop a fuller understanding of these implications, and this development took place not only during the time of the Old Testament, but also during the time of the New.

This leads right to Ratzinger’s second difficulty, because it is precisely the fact that we modify our way of interpreting Scripture that gives rise to the “disquieting consideration” that theologians might end up modifying our understanding “also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord.”

Ratzinger does not seem to have returned explicitly to this particular difficulty, but he has given a response in an implicit way. In essence, this seems to be that “we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ.” Everything is to be interpreted in light of Christ. Consequently we cannot reinterpret what happened to Christ himself, because there is no light in virtue of which we would be able to do that, but we can reinterpret other things. This gives us a way to say that the cross and resurrection are “absolutely central” and cannot be reinterpreted, but to allow such reinterpretation in other matters.

The problem with this response is that in the end it seems to say little more than, “If we ended up doing such a reinterpretation, we would no longer be Christians.” This may be the case, but it does not necessarily imply that it will not happen. In fact, this is precisely the reason that the consideration is disquieting in the first place.

There is a second part of Ratzinger’s response that implicitly bears on this difficulty, and this is his suggestion that if we read Scripture properly, and in the light of Christ, then there will not be any tension between science and theology:

As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith. This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation.

Ratzinger has said that the basic point of Genesis 1 is that God created the world. Here he is saying that if you read the Bible in this way, and without making all sorts of other concrete claims that turn out not to be true, this is a reasonable understanding of reality and does not conflict with science.

The statement here is simply about creation, but if we take this with reference to the second difficulty, the implication is that once we read the whole of Scripture in the light of Christ, all the tension between science and theology will be resolved fairly easily. But something is missing here. “God created the world,” is in fact a metaphysical statement and surely does not conflict with science, as he says, and it is quite reasonable. But reading the whole of Scripture in light of Christ requires, as he also says, maintaining more or less the Christian understanding of the cross and resurrection. And saying that Christ rose from the dead is not merely a metaphysical statement. It is also a historical claim, and there is no reason in principle why such a claim could not conflict with scientific knowledge applied to history.

Of course none of these considerations could possibly show that the difficulty is right, and that one necessarily has to end up reinterpreting the idea of the resurrection. But on the other hand, there seems something lacking in Ratzinger’s response. Something more needs to be said.

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.