In this Crisis Magazine classic, Edward T. Oakes, S.J. looks at the troubling tendency of theologians to abandon the historic faith.
In 1968, a professor of theology at the University of Regensburg wrote a modestly sized treatise on the Apostles’ Creed called Introduction to Christianity. Its impact, however, was anything but modest, for the book so captivated Pope Paul VI that he made its author archbishop of Munich (and later cardinal, one of his last appointments to the college); and just a few years later, the new pope, John Paul II, summoned the same man to Rome to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His name, of course, was Joseph Ratzinger.
Not many books have changed history, but this one certainly did, not just for the author personally but also for the wider Church. For it would be hard to exaggerate the influence of this bookish Bavarian, not just on John Paul II (perhaps the most influential pope in history) but on Catholics worldwide through the cardinal’s role as doctrinal overseer and enforcer of magisterial orthodoxy, and now, as the Supreme Pontiff himself. What made the book itself so remarkable was not just its deft use of the Apostles’ Creed to explain Christianity to the lay reader or its acute analysis of unbelief and the secular mind. An even greater virtue of the book was the future pope’s keen analysis of why the promising spirit of Vatican II failed to bring about a reunited Christianity and a re-Christianized Europe.
According to Ratzinger’s analysis, post-Enlightenment Christianity in Europe had been conned into adopting an evangelical strategy too superficial in its approach and too intimidated by Enlightened objections to Christian doctrine. He illustrated the reasoning behind this anemic strategy with a parable, one that Søren Kierkegaard once recounted about a fire that breaks out backstage right before a circus is set to perform. In panic the stage manager sends out one of the performers — a clown as it happens, and naturally already in costume — to warn the audience to leave immediately. But the spectators take the clown’s desperate pleas as part of his schtick; and the more he gesticulates the more they laugh, until fire engulfs the whole theater. This, said Kierkegaard, is the situation of Christians: The more they gesticulate with their creed, the more laughable they seem to their skeptical neighbors, until the world becomes engulfed in the flames of war and mutual hatred — a hell on earth as prelude to the hell after death. If only these Christian clowns had first thought to change out of their goofy costume, he implied, the theatergoing world might have been spared.
Kierkegaard did not explicitly say just what kind of funny clothes he thought Christians should now strip off to make their message of impending doom more credible. But whatever costume this Danish philosopher felt Christians should doff, his parable, at least for the professor from Regensburg, does not get at the real dilemma of preaching the gospel to a secular culture. The very news that a fire is on the way — and, above all, that we can be spared by the simple expedient of a belief in a transworldly message (why not just leave the theater?) — strikes the contemporary secular spectator as much more incredible than any costumed language in which it might be couched. Change the rites of the Mass from Latin to the vernacular, call on nuns to modernize their habits, introduce guitars and folk music in the Church’s worship, address the modern world in tones of respect and hope, praise modernity for its achievements — the core of the message will still seem absurd to the secular mind.
So maybe Kierkegaard misled us with his famous parable. Perhaps another story is more appropriate. For that reason, the future pontiff began his book with an even more somber narrative, one of the fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm. Once upon a time, a poor widow sends her young son Hans into the village to fetch a simple meal, and along the way into town he discovers a lump of gold. Thrilled, he heads back home to show his mother his amazing good luck. But no sooner has he started back than he meets a knight who persuades him to exchange the gold for the knight’s steed. “The better for plowing!” the knight assures the boy. Further down the way, a farmer explains that the widow can’t eat a horse, so why not exchange the horse for the farmer’s cow? After making this seemingly reasonable bargain, the boy continues home but then meets up with a neighbor carrying a goose under his arm. Of course the widow wants a meal today, says the neighbor, so why not exchange cow for goose? Done. Finally, nearly home, he meets up with a boy who tells him that if he exchanges the goose for a whetstone he can keep his knife sharpened for slaughtering any number of geese in the future. Done again. But when he gets home he notices the clumsy stone in his pocket and, puzzled at its presence, throws it away before crossing the threshold of his home, none the sadder and certainly none the wiser.
Anyone who has followed the path taken by Protestant theology in the past two centuries, and by Catholic theology in the past four decades, already knows the point of this story: All the costume changes in the world won’t matter if the messenger has squandered his treasure by altering his message to suit the convenience of the audience. For Ratzinger, creeds matter only if what they proclaim is true, and if Christians deep down don’t really think so, then all the translation strategies in the world will mean nothing:
The worried Christian of today is often bothered by questions like these: has our theology in the last few years not taken in many ways a similar path? Has it not gradually watered down the demands of faith, which had been found all too demanding, always only so little that nothing important seemed to be lost, yet always so much that it was soon possible to venture on to the next step? And will poor Hans, the Christian who trustfully let himself be led from exchange to exchange, from interpretation to interpretation, not really soon hold in his hand, instead of the gold with which he began, only a whetstone, which he can be confidently recommended to throw away?
The results of this not-so-wonderful exchange have now descended upon us: plummeting church attendance and a secular culture grown aggressively anti-Christian. Little surprise there, for the Church now trumpets its gospel with a most uncertain tocsin. As the late and renowned historian of dogma Jaroslav Pelikan brutally observes in Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (the fifth of his five-volume The Christian Tradition), “The modern period in the history of Christian doctrine may be defined as the time when doctrines that had been assumed more than debated for most of Christian history were themselves called into question: the idea of revelation, the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the expectation of life after death, even the very transcendence of God.”
Add to this mix doubts about the existence of hell and the need for the atoning death of Christ on the cross, then no wonder more and more struggling and confused believers say to themselves, “Why bother?,” and no wonder secular culture regards with such contempt the pathetic attempts of self-styled liberal believers to play catch-up ball with modern advances.
But perhaps the greatest harm done by this step-by-step sell-out is the damage Christians inflict on themselves by continuing to go to church while calling into question, secretly or openly, such central doctrines as the divinity of Christ and His atoning death. For when that happens, professions of faith become hollow and words are used without meaning them. In other words, Christians turn themselves into liars by showing up for church while hedging their bets even as they profess their Faith. In one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons, fittingly called “Unreal Words,” John Henry Cardinal Newman gets at this point directly when he says:
To make professions is to play with edged tools, unless we attend to what we are saying. Words have a meaning, whether we mean that meaning or not; and they are imputed to us in their real meaning, when our not meaning it is our own fault. He who takes God’s Name in vain is not counted guiltless because he means nothing by it — he cannot frame a language for himself; and they who make professions, of whatever kind, are heard in the sense of those professions, and are not excused because they themselves attach no sense to them.
Jesus Himself admonishes us in just these terms when He says: “But I tell you that men will have to give an account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). But what is true of individuals is even truer of the Church, for when ambivalence and equivocation take hold of the faithful in the very act of reciting the Creed, the Church will be choked off from the very graces it was founded to give to the world — again as Cardinal Newman, in that same sermon, foresaw:
The invisible Church has developed itself into the Church visible, and its outward rites and forms are nourished and animated by the living power which dwells within it. Thus every part of it is real, down to the minutest details. But when the seductions of the world and the lusts of the flesh have eaten out this divine inward life, what is the outward Church but a hollowness and a mockery, like the whited sepulchres of which our Lord speaks, a memorial of what was and is not? And though we trust that the Church is nowhere thus utterly deserted by the Spirit of truth, at least according to God’s ordinary providence, yet may we not say that in proportion as it approaches to this state of deadness, the grace of its ordinances, though not forfeited, at least flows in but a scanty or uncertain stream?
A scanty, uncertain stream indeed. How else can we explain the dearth of vocations in the industrialized West, the empty churches in Europe, the abysmal ignorance of the Faith among nominal Christians, the closing of Catholic schools in this country and Canada, the notorious violation of their vows by some priests (however few or many that number may be), even the very fact that the internal precincts of the Church have become one of the battlefields in the Culture Wars?
For that reason, I hold that the primary cause of all that ails the Church in modern times stems from this prior capitulation to the Enlightened agenda so well adumbrated by Cardinal Ratzinger in his epochal book. Sometimes this capitulation is openly admitted, even celebrated, as in the slogan that was so popular in the Sixties and Seventies: “The world sets the agenda for the Church.” Many trends in theology are also quite open about this capitulation. St. Paul says, “We destroy arguments, demolishing every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). In total contrast to such Pauline courage would be the pusillanimity of those theologians who take the opposite tack by capitulating to every Enlightened thought to make the gospel captive to it.
Take, for example, the Jesuit Rev. Roger Haight, whose book Jesus: Symbol of God perfectly illustrates Catholic theology’s recent declension from gold to whetstone. What follows is a kind of catena of citations from the book — a catena plumbi, as it were — to show what I mean:
My understanding of the resurrection does not support the necessity of an empty tomb in principle. Resurrection faith today is not belief in an external miracle, an empirical historical event testified to by disciples, which we take as a fact on the basis of their word. Although that may describe in fact the belief of many Christians, it is no ideal. A reflective faith-hope today will affirm Jesus risen on the basis of a conviction that Jesus’ message is true; because God is the way Jesus revealed God to be, Jesus is alive.… Because it was Jesus whom people experienced as risen, and not someone else, one must assume that Jesus had a forceful religious impact on people.… In the view proposed here, the external event that helped mediate a consciousness of Jesus risen was Jesus himself during his ministry. Or, to be more exact, after his death, the disciples’ memory of Jesus filled this role [emphases mine].
In other words, the resurrection of Jesus differs in no fundamental way metaphysically from the way Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi continue to live on in the memory of those who have been inspired by their respective messages. With a thesis like this now afloat in the professional journals, theology has clearly reached the point where it thinks it can bargain with modern unbelief using a whetstone for legal tender. What Father Haight has given us, in effect, is a christology equally suitable to the followers of the slain Beatle, John Lennon, whose fans gather each year at Strawberry Fields in New York’s Central Park (their Golgotha) on the anniversary of his assassination (their Easter), fondly recall his memory, proudly affirm that his message is true, and recognize him for the forceful impact he had on people (as he once blurted out to a reporter when he was on tour in South Africa, and to immense controversy, “We’re more popular than Jesus”).
But let us now ignore that one book as merely symptomatic and turn to all those sermons on Easter Sunday that inform the congregation that “Jesus died as a man and rose as a community” or warble on from the pulpit that the risen Jesus is “not a he, but a we.” Or as one campus minister said in my hearing at a church service (I will forbear to call it a Mass, although such was its billing), “Let us now worship that sense of Ultimacy we sometimes call God.”
I recall another occasion when an ex-priest from Denver (who edits one of those depressing “homily helper” newsletters) got caught speaking incautiously to the religion editor of the Rocky Mountain News. “No, I don’t have a personal relation with Jesus,” he averred. “My pastoral approach is to gradually wean people away from the individual to the corporate reality.” To possible objections that might arise from a more careful and exacting exegesis of the New Testament’s resurrection narratives, the man merely sneered and, borrowing an arrow from Father Haight’s quiver, called these gospel depictions “the Polaroid Jesus, someone you could photograph on Easter Sunday.” The reporter recounting these recherché opinions seemed rather nonplussed and wondered what could ever motivate Christians to consent to such an obvious, wholesale liquidation of their own company store, to which the man replied that an “allegiance to a Jewish male affronts the modern commitment to ethnic and gender diversity.”
It is because of views like these that I hold that the first (but in no way exclusive) task of the New Evangelization is to evangelize Christians. This task, as I say, is daunting and requires, among its other skills, that the orthodox be alert to what I call “pod-people talk,” using here an analogy drawn from that classic sci-fi flick, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the famous cult movie about aliens who try to take over the planet by kidnapping hapless humans and forcing them to spend a night in large pods the size of body bags. Upon awakening from these awesome contraptions, the earthlings would have been zapped into alienhood: They emerged from their pods still looking and acting exactly as their past humanity would lead one to expect, but in essence they were aliens, fully intent on taking over the planet. For me the fascination of this plot derives from the way the loved ones of these newly alienized beings came to suspect something might be amiss. For although the Los Angeles English of the aliens was completely idiomatic and accent-free, there was yet something vaguely unsettling about their demeanor and sentences. A kind of subtext to their ordinary communications made their loved ones edgy and uneasy, until finally one or another of the disguised aliens would say something so utterly out of character that there could be no doubting their new identity.
In the course of 40 years of adult life spent in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, it has gradually been borne in upon me that most students attending our elite divinity schools must have spent a night in the theological version of these pods. For although they seem to speak real English, unaccented and fully idiomatic, there is yet something strange and unsettling about the lingo that comes out of their mouths. At first their sentences are merely unsettling and ooze with a slippery vagueness that sounds wrong but which can — with those patient hermeneutical transpositions that so many theologians have made their stock-in-trade — be explained away. But then along comes a Father Haight or an ex-priest caught on tape with a reporter, and suddenly the orthodox wake up with the queasy feeling that the body snatchers have entered the ancient precincts of the Church.
A few years back the Vatican made half-hearted attempts to address this problem with the directive known as Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but the sex-abuse crisis seems to have taken the wind out of the bishops’ sails when the time came to enforce the prescriptions in that document (which was one reason the liberal press, most especially the liberal Catholic press, found the scandal so useful). But however worthy the document or half-hearted its implementation, the problems attendant upon the professionalization of theology, with its huge superstructure of hermeneutical legerdemain, actually go much deeper than anything that the Vatican could address with a mere document.
In the face of this truly mortal danger to the life of the Church, I believe Christians must be evangelized by preachers who deliberately set out to destroy the pretensions of the body snatchers. And to do that they must attack head-on what I regard as the most basic presupposition of the pod people. In my reading of their works, liberal Christians want to make the Christian message easy to believe, and to do so they must first make the New Testament hard to understand — which explains why there must be such a huge superstructure of biblical commentaries and hermeneutical throat-clearing whenever a preacher sets out to preach, and why the end result proves to be so easy on the intellect once the sermon is over. For example, no one could possibly doubt that the disciples “remembered” the ministry of Jesus after His death; and if, by definition, that is all that the resurrection means, who could deny that Jesus “rose” in the mind of the disciples? But to explain how the New Testament could seem to give an impression so at odds with this easygoing view, one must subject the Scriptures to an astonishingly elaborate historical-critical analysis and then try to get the believer to accept the end result as an even remotely plausible reflection of what the New Testament says. No wonder courses in hermeneutics are so popular in elite divinity schools.
In fact, the situation of New Testament interpretation is the exact opposite: I maintain that the Christian dispensation is much more difficult to believe than it is to understand, for its message can be boiled down to a five-word sentence of remarkable simplicity but one that represents a radical challenge to the intellect: We die before we live. Or again, another five-word kerygma: We meet Christ in death. In each case, five simple, easy-to-understand words, but ones that nearly everything about the way the modern world is structured make difficult to believe. In an age of popularized books on neurology from the pen of Oliver Sacks and when most people are intuitively aware of the dependence of consciousness on brain chemistry (just from living in a “Prozac Nation” or from witnessing a relative suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, if from nothing else), these two five-word sentences will immediately strike the hearer as easy to understand but difficult to believe.
Far be it from me to deny the difficulties involved in true belief, as opposed to the thin gruel peddled by our pod theologians. But whatever the challenges facing preachers of the true gospel, we at least have before us the lesson of two centuries of cultural Protestantism and four decades of liberal Catholicism to warn us against the alternative. For both these versions of “Christianity” teach us that a little bit of the gospel is more damaging than would be forthright rejection of the whole package. Watered-down Christianity has only given us absurd hopes, the vision of a non-existent future, lukewarm zeal, a narcissistic ethic, incantatory theology, invented grievances (like the pseudo-allergy to so-called gender-biased language), and a preaching in which, in Dante’s harsh words, “sheep leave church, having been fed on wind.” No wonder T. S. Eliot tartly observed, “We know too much, and are convinced of too little. Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Crisis Magazine.