Thursday, January 31, 2013

Contemporary Religious Traditionalism and the Fruits of Modernity.

We live in a most interesting time in terms of religious movements. If there is one common denominator among varieties of religious expression today, it is the burgeoning rejection of modernity and the attempt to re-institute pre-modern ideals. In Christianity, this impulse can be seen in the appeal of Greek or otherwise Orthodox Christianity, the sudden surge of Traditionalism in Roman Catholic circles, even the ideologies among more conservative camps. Of course, the rejection of modernity didn't begin in our own day. The Traditionalist school of the first half of the twentieth century could be credited with having started the trend. In the majority, leading figures of this school of thought, including the likes of Rene Geunon, despaired at the rampant materialism among Western religion. Many of them, like Geunon, were originally Roman Catholics, however, they soon abandoned the notion that Roman Catholicism could curb the tide of materialism - Roman Catholicism seeming to have forgotten its own metaphysical doctrine in favor of legalist nominalism. Traditionalist thinkers, in their rejection of Western modernity, typically utilize Hindu doctrine as a base upon which to reexamine Catholicism. Many Traditionalists utilize Islamic Mysticism as their preferred mode of spirituality, although there is always some residual attachment to the Catholicism of their youth. As one figure in the movement expressed it, there is no doubt that Catholicism works. Traditionalism always seeks to point the person to the transcendent and it dares to attempt a dialogue with the supernatural. The world beyond our own is vibrant in Traditionalist thought and there is no such thing as being content with purely human substitutions for the divine.

It is tempting to think there is connection between  Traditionalism and the "traditionalist" currents in Roman Catholicism or the increased interest in Orthodox Christianity, the opposition to modernity being the link. In Orthodoxy's case, the imposition is simply a consequence of its theological system and its historical development. In the case of Roman Catholic Traditionalism, Modernity represents the ultimate state of humanity's debasement, the lowest point away from rational thinking and intellectual coherence.

Philosophically, I am somewhat sympathetic to the Traditionalist school in so far as I do believe a sever critique of modernity in toto is due and is, in fact, looming overhead. The arc of modernity, to echo Morris Berman, is nearing its collapse as the economic, social and political schemas that rose out of modernity are pressed to their breaking points. It will not be on account of philosophical or theological reasoning that modernity enters its twilight. It will be due to social, political and economic pressures that shake modernity's basic assumptions. From an American perspective, the twenty first century began in earnest with a violent challenge to modernity. Despite a twelve year effort this challenge has not only alluded defeat, it has exerted additional pressure upon modernity's political and economic institutions. I write this as apathetic as possible: we may well have the challenge of living through an epochal change and the challenges to modernity continue to present themselves. Recent news coverage has made it apparently clear that banking institutions are above the reproach of law. Modernity sought to place everyone under the obligations of civil law. That financial institutions exist which can violate law and avoid sever penalties only serves to suggest that a new aristocracy is being birthed in modernity's wake.Theologically, I am even more sympathetic to the Traditionalist school. Modernity has served to largely produce myriads of disconnected religious experiences or movements that are ensnared in their own subjectivity.  No believer accepts context added to his or her religious experience; context, it is thought, is the beginning of the critical examination that threatens to disprove an illusion.

These days, however, the rejection of Modernity is producing a backlash against much valid and valuable scholarship on the grounds that said scholarship does not affirm the religion of the believing community. This can be seen in many areas, although perhaps most notably, from my perspective, is in the area of Biblical Studies. The late John MacKenzie once wrote (though I cannot remember in which volume) that in the aftermath of Vatican II it was not uncommon for bishops to request lectures or workshops led by Catholic Biblical scholars. There was an attempt, it seems, to fully understand the results of critical scholarship (as pertains the origin and meaning of the Bible) and find ways in which said results could be assimilated into the episcopal ministry. Today, critical scholarship is met with a world weary gaze, perhaps reasonably so. The academic industry has produce volume upon volume of ultimately inconsequential monographs and scholars in an effort to justify its payroll and the traditions of the University. The majority of Biblical scholarship is superfluous and of scant intellectual merit, unless of course one's livelihood depends on it. Yet, this doesn't change that critical scholarship produced important work in previous generations and even today the rare commentary comes along with considerable insight and depth. This being said, the majority of Biblical scholarship often comes across to Church authorities as (and indeed is) amateurish attempts at either deconstructive or reconstructive analysis.

The place of the scientific study of Scripture in Traditionalist and neo-conservative Catholicisms is uncertain as both sides have seemingly moved away from Pius XII's Divino Afflantu Spiritu in their rejection of contemporary excuses for Biblical scholarship - a venture that often seems to be comprised of ever increasing circles of grammatical haranguing and philosophical irrelevance. Yet, even where fine scholarship has taken place, historical critical scholarship is, in many respects, anti-mythic; it leaves little to no room for upholding Christianity's established mythos nor any notions of Christian participation in the "mystery" derived from said mythos. The Orthodox, for their part, largely reject higher criticism, often on the grounds that the approach and its interpretive consequences are the results of Western exclusivity, that is, historical criticism is valid on account of a presupposition among Western scholars that the Western paradigm is preeminently correct over and against all other paradigms. While there is some truth to this (historical criticism in part and parcel of a post-enlightenment paradigm), one cannot deny the success of the method. One cannot deny that it has, for those who wish to engage it, revived the voice of the original author and his intention. True, a conflict with established Christian kergyma is almost unavoidable; even where New Testament documents are concerned, we are often forced to reckon with how much of the dominant Christian interpretation of these texts is based off of the doctrinal formulations of later eras being read into a text that may well have no genuine knowledge of or conviction in later doctrinal developments. Does the New Testament, let alone the Canon as a whole, genuinely reveal the impassible Deity of Platonic philosophy? Historical critical scholarship seriously challenges such a presumption, but one cannot ignore how much the Christian concept of God is based upon a philosophical perspective foreign to the sacred text - the exception being perhaps Hebrews. Even among the most liberal Protestant denominations, one will find, I argue, a resistance to the full assimilation of historical critical scholarship- too much of their kergyma is at stake. In some respects, the rejection of historical critical scholarship is on the rise in every ideological wing of Christianity and this should indicate to what degree such scholarship is considered to be a threat to Christian kergyma. The consequence of this rejection is, it seems to me, a re-establishment of "pre-critical" religion, a growing trend in which the insights of scholarship are ignored in favor of an adulterated, classical kergyma. Again, however, this trend is not without some level of justification.

As a scholar, I would hate to think that this is necessarily the future of things, though it does seem to be the direction in which things are moving. Perhaps, however, Christianity has the right to demand an expulsion of critical scholarship. The principle desire of any religion is adherence and affirmation of its particular "product," it's particular selection of history, sacred text and narrative construction, all of which form a coherent identity for the participants and a tangible religious product that can be acquired and internalized. In so far as the participants of the religion feel they receive a return or service from this product, in so far as they believe they have experienced some benefit from a particular religion that they would otherwise not receive from another, then a religion has the right to demand pre-critical adherence. The religion, for the believer, delivers on the promise of the product. It has, then, fulfilled its part of the bargain. The believer must fulfill his part of the bargain and assent to the confines and constrictions of the resulting product of the kergyma. These restrictions increasingly include the rejection of the consequences of historical critical scholarship - there will be no recasting of text, history and narrative construction. This is, as I said, the right of any religion with regard to the believer. If one does not accept the kergyma, then one must necessarily ask if one is a believer in that particular religion. One must calculate the costs of accepting the consequences of scholarship over the established kergyma and determine what one's association should be with that religious body. This, I suppose, is the underlying concern in all of the discussion around "Catholic Identity" that has occurred in Roman circles. It is not just a matter of external aesthetics and ritual. The concern influencing proponents of "Catholic Identity" is that the credibility of the "product", of Roman Catholicism, be preserved and to do so requires the preservation of the product's integrity through adherence of its contours and confines. If Catholicism gives to any individual all that it promises to give, if it indeed does for the individual what it says it is going to do, then indeed the Catholic Church has the right to demand adherence in doctrine and praxis. This follows for just about any religious body, so long as the doctrine is intellectually sound and the praxis within reason.

Myth has an essential place in religion and the mythological narrative is often more expansive than is often thought. In Christianity, for instance, the mythological narrative extends from the sacred text into the historical development of Christianity itself. Myth, it must be noted, does not mean false. Myth is the perennial truth behind a concrete historical event. Myth is the means by which we state with utmost surety that history indeed has meaning, that our existence is not merely a succession of transient accidents. Critical scholarship, admittedly, has the potential to displace long functioning myth if its results are utilized to redefine religious observance. Yet, critical scholarship may equally offer a new possibilities for engaging the mythic world of religion. Roman Catholicism again provides us with a prime example. While Roman Catholicism protects its mythic content, these days with great tenacity, Biblical Studies (the critical scholarship of the Bible) is a fact of Roman Catholic life. Whether or not a majority of the clergy or laity utilize it or even agree with it is irrelevant - Roman Catholicism has formally integrated Biblical Studies into its ecclesiastical composition. In such forms as Pontifical commissions, university posts, written products, symposia and the occasional local study group among adherents, or even personal interest, Biblical Studies has its place in the Roman Church and engagement with such scholarship and its results is a legitimate option. It may not rise to the level of effecting dogma or liturgical observance, however, in Roman Catholicism it is possible to engage in a substantial study of the theology of Isaiah, without  referencing the traditional usage of the book. Indeed, it is sufficient to reference how another sacred author, the author of the Gospel of Matthew, understood the book as part of his own theology. This model of engagement with critical scholarship while retaining one's membership in the religious body is not practiced by the majority. It is a minority approach and will likely remain so - especially if larger religious trends keep developing in a more "pre-critical" direction. Be this as it may, this model does exists and it demonstrates how critical scholarship can exist in the mythic matrix of a religious body, even if engagement of such scholarship is the activity of a certain few.

Can critical scholarship be assimilated into the essential myth of religion? I would examine the matter from this perspective. Myth seeks to understand the perennial significance of a historical event, we must keep this in mind when considering the value of assimilating critical scholarship into a religion. Christianity utilizes a theology derived from but not necessarily synonymous with the contents of the New Testament. The New Testament authors, Matthew for instance, created a theology that utilized a particular understanding of numerous books circulating in Second Temple Judaism. These books themselves, Isaiah for example, contained a theology that was largely written in an attempt to understand an objective event post factum. Leaving aside the discussion of what ancient literature or ideas may or may not be circulating in the books the comprise Christianity's Old Testament, even the books attributed to prophetic figures describe the author's experience of an event post factum. We do not, then, necessarily have the event presented to us in its pristine form or represented as it happened. Even the New Testament does not present Jesus of Nazareth in a literal account of his life as it happened. Rather, it presents subsequent reflection upon the person of Jesus and/or the experience. This is to say that we are always necessarily removed from the event by one degree another. Critical scholarship (and this is readily acknowledged when scholars are honest with themselves) does not reveal or present the Truth itself. Rather, it returns the reader to the original author's context and intention. It does not and cannot point toward the objective event itself. Moses' encounter with Yahweh cannot be defined by critical scholarship. We can establish what narrative techniques were employed, theological intentions and perhaps literary parallels, but critical scholarship cannot define the original event upon which subsequent literary reflection is based. Critical scholarship can make similar findings concerning the New Testament narratives. It cannot, however, define the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a person who has alluded historical biography and has, as a result, managed to transcend his own history.

This is where the veracity of religious narrative is established, where the value appreciates. Critical scholarship has much to offer in so far as the author's original intention opens new theological vistas for our exploration. It cannot, in my estimation, establish the truth of events that allude scientific definition. The religious narrative is one in continuum of interpretation of the original event. It's veracity is underwritten by the religion's ability to do what it says it can or will do. The goal, I believe, is to find some manner in which the interpretation of the original author is a valid and valued quantity in the praxis of the religion. The Roman Church, despite the myriad of obstacles facing it these days, is notable for having achieved such a goal. For critical scholarship to actually have any real value, scholars must see their model as one valid interpretative method among others, the limitations of historical critical inquiry being conceded in the hope that its many strengths might be appreciated.