HOPE WITHOUT OPTIMISM
Thank you for Gary Gutting’s careful reflection on Stephen Pinker’s detailed book (“Is Ours the Best World Ever?” May 4). As a psychological scientist, I am disturbed when I see my colleagues in any science field busy doing bad metaphysics and attacking religious faith. It smacks of the shallow confusion of science with scientism.
The hope-in-progress mantra is implausible. It is indeed the case that modern prosperity and health, which are impressive and for which we are all doubtless grateful, were nonetheless purchased at horrible human and ecological cost. The fossil-fuel-induced ecological crisis now upon us is only one reckoning noted in the essay. Our wealth also rests on gains from slavery (outlawed in part because of faith-based activism) and serial genocides. Has life gotten better in the past few hundred years for the native peoples of the Americas, for example? Are the destructions of entire societies “proportionally smaller” than in the bad old days? By what soulless logic could our increased health and wealth somehow “outweigh” their total destruction (or their wealth outweigh the ones they destroyed before them)? How can we be sanguine about such a price of “progress”?
Better and more just progress we can and must pursue, to be sure. Yet, to make total faith in Progress (and Reason, and thus Technology) our proposal for the salvation of the human race is ultimately nihilistic. Even if we somehow escape planetary catastrophe and achieve a just and peaceful world, what future utopia could possibly make the human adventure “worth it”? The only honest moral position of those future atheistic utopians, unless they are morally dead cyborgs or perhaps Star Trek actors, would be perpetual grief. Give science and reason their due (they are an important bulwark against fundamentalism, and a sign of hope, to be sure), but I find Christian faith—including its “hope without optimism”—a more practical, realistic, and reasonable worldview than nineteenth-century philosophy for engaging our world’s challenges and our human predicament. While religious faith is, like science, technology, and logic, susceptible to being bent toward evil ends by human sin, the mature faith life and wisdom toward which we strive remain essential complements, alongside thoughtful science and self-critical reason, for understanding our world and for moving our society in a direction of justice, peace, and meaning.
In reading Mary McDonough’s piece (“Cheating Death,” April 13) I could only recall a discussion between two people in an adjoining booth, overheard during breakfast at Hardee’s recently. Both were relatively healthy persons, but, as one of them put it, “old farts.”
“I don’t think I would want to live to be 150,” one of them said.
“I would rather go home to my Lord,” the other said. “There is such a thing as getting too old.”
Both were well acquainted with the limitations of medical miracles. One was on a pacemaker. The other had at least two surgically replaced joints. Both were proud of the time given them, and neither advocated truncating their lifespans. (Though considering the high cholesterol content of their breakfasts, one could speculate they were playing against the odds.)
I can understand the techies’ fascination with playing with life extension, and as I race through my seventies at a speed exponentially higher than my fifties and sixties, I would like seventy-three to represent early middle age rather than a time when my increasing fascination with the obituary pages reveals nearly as many passing younger than me as older. I am trying to decide whether that is morbid fascination or facing reality. I do know that Christian faith has made all the difference in how I look at that inevitable transition, as I believe, from corporeal to spiritual.
I don’t wonder that the techies, with their deep abiding faith in our modern digital knowledge base, want to find a way to keep from being another Steve Jobs, who went almost in a flash from boy wonder to corpse just when he seemed to really hit a peak at fifty-six: or programming guru Randy Pausch, whose “Last Lecture” before his death at forty-seven in 2008 was a national inspiration, and still is, though it lacked a voice of faith to go with its Judeo-Christian optimism. Without a faith to fall back on, the only thing we have left to look forward to in living this life is the need for an extender.
Like the breakfast philosophers, I have a basic skepticism about extending what isn’t extendable beyond reason: accepting an actuarial reality. It doesn’t involve, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, “going gently into that good night,” or the potential of demographic disaster suggested by McDonough (though that is a reality; who would take care of a global crowd of two-hundred-year-olds?) I believe this is something that involves the mystery of the Father and our role as his children—mortal creatures who need his redemption, and to pass that wonder on to others.
In their exchange in the letters section of the May 4 issue, Paul Griffiths seems to think that Gary Gutting’s epistemological demands are too severe. And of course Griffiths has a point: most religious believers are satisfied with the sustenance they get from a religious way of life, including its moral demands. Gutting, however, wants to press the claims of philosophy and dogmatic theology where truth, rather than moral or psychological satisfaction, is given primacy of place.
But the criteria and understanding of “truth” are subtly but importantly different in theology as a purely theoretical enterprise in contrast to a lived theology. In the former, we rely on Scripture and tradition, handed down by the church as both are mediated and translated in a range of contemporary understanding. But in the latter, experience and first-person validation assume a much larger role than they do in the former. I do not want to set this up as an absolute difference between the two because experience certainly plays a role in any notion of understanding, but it plays an even greater role in existential truth in contrast to truth in theoretical contexts. This is another way of parsing Blaise Pascal’s important distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And also another way of invoking Kierkegaard’s sharp contrast between faith and knowledge.
Neither philosophy nor theology is an ahistorical discipline, although their practitioners would like to believe they are. The great challenge is always to translate timeless truth into time-bound and historical contexts, which are always changing. It is not enough to know about the various theological interpretations of the Incarnation. Rather, one is called upon to live the divine-human unity in one’s own life.
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
California State University
Los Angeles, Calif.
THE SACRAL TROIKA
Your May 4 issue is among the best to grace my mailbox in sixty years of readership. Taken cumulatively, the articles remind me of a friend’s cynical observation that “Jesus lived, died, rose, and ascended, and then over time the scribes and Pharisees gained control of the church.” That’s manifest in Paul Baumann’s incisive reply to Ross Douthat’s book (“Real Time with Ross Douthat”), Michael L. Hahn’s “Wedding Bans,” and the observation from one of my favorite contributors, Fr. Nonomen, that many priests would much rather preside at a funeral than a wedding (“Fr. Nonomen”). The church’s market share of the wedding business has been steadily plummeting. Our parish, which had fifty-five weddings per year fifteen years ago, now has eleven. We are perceived as user-unfriendly, legalistic, and off-putting in our marriage preparation programs, paperwork, and ceremonies. One of the strengths of Catholic parishes in the past was the sacramental system that helped our people celebrate God’s loving presence in the peak moments of life. If, for many young people, Confirmation was unfortunately the sacrament of exodus from the church, we could generally rely on the sacral troika of matrimony, baptism of the first baby, and First Communion to gradually reincorporate them. Once engaged, things like parish schools or religious education programs, substantive homilies and liturgies and powerful, sometimes life-changing experiences such as Cursillo, Renew, or Christ Renews His Parish could guide them more deeply into the mystery of God’s love. But the entry point for many is matrimony, and if the doorway is blocked, that process is stillborn. Fortunately, there still are some places where the Catholic wedding process is done right. Old St. Pat’s in Chicago’s downtown comes to mind. Perhaps Commonweal could devote a future issue to this crisis. If so, that might highlight my sixty-first year’s subscription.
THANK YOU, FR. BARAN
I would like to thank Paul Baumann for his article on Fr. John Baran (“Fr. Nonomen,” May 4). I was sorry to learn that Baran had died and I appreciated Mr. Baumann’s memories of him and his work.
Over the past years I have enjoyed very much “Fr. Nonomen’s” columns and looked forward to reading his insights, liturgical and pastoral, always expressed with clarity and humor. For the past twenty-five years I have ministered in a number of small mission parishes in Western Japan, a setting far from the large suburban parish in which Fr. Baran lived and worked, yet I always found his observations and comments to be most relevant and helpful. I will miss him.
May he rest in the light, refreshment, and peace of the Lord he served so well.