Contra Dennett III: Mystery

July 4, 2011

In my first post on the subject I argued that that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell sets up a straw man by attacking only a childish and incoherent understanding of religion.  In my second I looked at his attempt to weigh the pros and cons of religion, which is riddled with logical flaws.  Dennett paints believers as unquestioning simpletons clinging to the stories they were told in childhood—he compares religion to Santa Claus—and simply ignores or breezily brushes aside any evidence that might contradict his stereotype.

One further aspect of Dennett’s charge against theism, however, deserves attention, for it can sometimes be a stumbling block even to believers—the notion of mystery.

For Dennett, “mystery” is simply a trump card played by believers whenever they can’t think of anything better to say, a talisman to be invoked when one has run out of arguments.  Unfortunately, sometimes this can be the case, especially when dealing with the sort of unsophisticated believers Dennett seems to favor.

In Dennett’s view, religious beliefs once provided simplistic explanations about why the world is the way it is, but believers have had to retreat from many of these explanations as human thought evolved.  Since religious beliefs are false to begin with—only material phenomena are real—they necessarily lead believers into absurdities and contradictions from which they attempt to extract themselves by changing their beliefs or, if they’re too stubborn for that, invoking mystery.

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Moderne, Postmoderne und wir

February 22, 2010

It has been wonderful to page through First Things 20th Anniversary Issue—and not only because of its priceless, circa-early-90s pictures of the neocon clan.  The issue also features some excellent First Things essays which I have never read, like Joseph Bottom’s “Christians and Postmoderns” from February 1994.  Alas, I wasn’t a ROFTER at age ten.

Reading the essay caused some latent neurons in my head to refire as I began again to consider a question I have often mulled over: Which poses a greater threat to Christianity, modernity or postmodernity?

Were I submitting this essay to a professor for a grade, I would need, at this point, to stop and define what I mean by modernity and postmodernity.  But since I am not handing the essay in for a grade and want to avoid writing a many-thousand word blog post, let me omit positing a definition of modernity—and trust that the term is more or less clear—and proceed straightaway to the difficult task of grabbing the slippery fish of postmodernity and holding it still long enough to slap a definition on it. Read the rest of this entry »


Cotton Fields and Latin Manuals

January 18, 2010

I remember paging through a book of collected photographs and articles about Johnny Cash (above right) which Rolling Stone issued shortly after the country music icon died in 2003.  One of the authors described how we shall never have another Johnny Cash because the cultural conditions that could create a Johnny Cash—hand-picking cotton in the Southern sun, cross-country train rides, rugged stone prisons—no longer exist.

That article came to mind as I recently read of the death of the Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx (above left).  To be sure, Schillebeeckx was not to twentieth-century Catholic theology what Cash was to twentieth-century country music (the argument for the Cash-equivalent would have to be between Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, with Schillebeeckx being more of a Merle Haggard-type).  Still, the Belgian Dominican’s death calls to mind the brilliant theologians of the twentieth century, whose collective theological sun stood at high noon in the heady and optimistic 1960’s.  It also reminds one that that sun has now all but set.

In a review of Fergus Kerr’s Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians, R. R. Reno labeled the theological giants of the last century the “Heroic Generation.”   Read the rest of this entry »


Ratzinger on Christ’s Descent into Hell

September 22, 2009

 Christ's Descent into Hell by Maulleigh.

Many WD readers will recall the theological skirmish which once, twice, and thrice erupted on the pages of First Things two and a half years ago.  The warring parties were Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Fr. Edward T. Oakes, S.J.  The point in question was Hans Urs von Balthasar’s controversial Holy Saturday theology, wherein he argues that Christ’s descent into hell was a passive, i.e., suffering, descent.  The traditional Holy Saturday motif is of the triumphant Christ descending in glory.  Pitstick argued that it is “undeniable that [Balthasar’s] theology of Christ’s descent entails a de facto, and sometimes even conscious, rejection of Catholic tradition.”  Oakes defended Balthasar’s orthodoxy, proposing that Pitstick’s “real service has been to argue against Balthasar so disagreeably that she will end up midwifing his theology into the mainstream of Church thinking.” Read the rest of this entry »


Balthasar, Baseball, and the Anima Technica Vacua

August 4, 2009

BratzookaIn the opening pages of the Epilogue to his monumental theological trilogy, Hans Urs von Balthasar considers modern man as an anima technica vacua.  He notes the contemporary desire for the Church to try to meet modern man “where he is,” cites several reports about the excessive television watching of American and European children, and then wonders:

So severe is this situation that most teachers of religion ask, with equal justice, just who these ruins are whom we should try to “meet” (against their will!) “where they are”.  A missionary toiling in the savannas of Africa or on the atolls of the Pacific has it relatively easy: he encounters a perhaps primitive anima naturaliter christiana.  What might come across to the native as pure theological Chinese he can easily translate into the simplest of languages.  But where is the famous “point of contact” with the anima technica vacua?  I for one certainly do not know.  Some table-rapping.  A séance or two, some dabbling in Zen meditation, a smattering of liberation theology: enough (10-11). Read the rest of this entry »


Solzhenitsyn and the Bones of Norilsk

August 3, 2009

Solzhenitsyn2Every June when spring finally arrives in the Siberian city of Norilsk, the bones appear, unearthed by the thaw and washed to the city by the melting snows.  The bones are the remains of prisoners who labored in Norilsk decades ago when the city was a prison labor camp, one of the remote frozen islands of the Gulag Archipelago.  The citizens of Norilsk want to forget the grisly origins of their city.  But the bones force them to remember.

The world came to know of the horrors of the Siberian camps largely through the efforts of one man, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died one year ago today.  While some of his fiction, such as the novellas One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona’s Place, is among the best of 20th century Russian literature, the work for which Solzhenitsyn will always be known is The Gulag Archipelago. Using mathematical mnemonic techniques to remember in breathtaking detail the events of his eleven years in the Soviet prison system, Solzhenitsyn – like the spring thaw unearthing the bones of Norilsk – brought the horrors of the Gulag into the light of day.  As he wrote in a prefatory note to The Gulag,

By an unexpected turn of our history, a bit of the truth, an insignificant part of the whole, was allowed out in the open.  But those same hands which once screwed tight our handcuffs now hold out their palms in reconciliation: “No, don’t! Don’t dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.”

But the proverb goes on to say: “Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.”

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