March 12, 2011

Theology of History

Providence has given me a number of reasons of late to examine more closely my fundamental theological ideas. Among not the least of these reasons is my obedience to obtain a doctorate in sacred theology and my desire to be a responsible catholic blogger.

In this project I have begun to try to articulate a certain theological sense of modern history that I seem to hold, and which seems to frame a lot of my thinking. This being the case, I need to get these ideas out in the open so I can examine them better and submit myself to critique.

In that spirit, here are the outlines of the theology of history that I seem to have fallen into over the years. I don't present this as a set of theological claims, but as an attempt at self-examination.

1. Modern man, as Nietzsche famously diagnosed, killed God and thereby emancipated himself from religion (and yes, often even we religious people want to enjoy this emancipation for ourselves, wanting to have it both ways) and from both the desire for and responsibility to any supernatural destiny.

2. Because people want purpose, direction, and meaning more than anything else, purely rational substitutes for God as the purpose and goal of human history began to emerge thanks to Hegel, Marx, etc. Historical dialectics replaced the eschatological Kingdom of God. On the other hand, thanks to Freud, the ascent of the mind to God was replaced with an inward, therapeutic journey of personal archaeology.

3. As the twentieth century passed, these replacements for the dead God came to destroy themselves. National Socialism scarred the whole world. Communism caused tremendous suffering and then imploded. The inward, therapeutic journey which was supposed to be so liberating came to yield a rotten fruit of narcissism and entitlement.

4. With both God and Marx dead--that is to say without either a natural or supernatural meaning or destiny--modern man had become, by the middle of the twentieth century, adrift. He began to call his state of being adrift his 'post-modernity.' In this condition he has nothing left to do but argue about the right way to conduct the modern liberal state (and sorry, the 'modern liberal state' embraces both 'liberals' and 'conservatives' in the political sense of the terms.) But even in this project he has no criteria for doing so, being without any durable values, shared ultimate concern, or absolute truth. So the criteria for conducting the modern liberal state come to be based on personal feelings and personal convenience on the animal level--both having been given some sense of 'absolute' value by the therapeutic journey. Thus, we end up in a situation where various tragedies and absurdities, e.g. state-sanctioned abortion and homosexual "marriage" respectively, become to people obvious, 'no-brainers.'

5. Into this state of affairs, the Catholic Church, in the wake of Vatican II, tried to finally embrace the ideas of modernity, like someone who comes to a party just as it is ending. So we get a certain 'Spirit of Vatican II' that wants to talk about historical progress in the sense of the European Enlightenment, just as the rest of the thoughtful world--having witnessed the first half of the twentieth century--is just about ready to reject it. Thus, we end up with a kind of misplaced focus in our ministry and preaching, in which the 'progress of peoples' is seen in an overly this-worldly way. Works of material charity and social justice are very worthwhile, and even necessary, but even more than these, what modern "society" (if it can be called that) really needs is eschatology, a sense of where it is going, an idea of the Destiny from which derives the meaning of the present and the person within it.

So there it is. As I try to dig out my theological assumptions, I realize that this sense of history is a big part of it. In some ways, it's mixed up with my unconsciously abstracting a theology from my own experience of conversion.


K T Cat said...

A brilliant post. My thoughts go along similar lines, but are a bit more on the economic side. Allow me to suggest that hedonism is a luxury good. Libertines earn less (look at single mothers) and cause us to spend more (social pathologies link to such lifestyles). The money is starting to run out. We've borrowed just as much as we can, as has Europe and definitely Japan. What does this mean for the Church?

I'm thinking it's a pretty good time to be a Catholic.

K T Cat said...

Addendum: In Portugal, they're finding out that Government As God hasn't worked. They're about to discover that salvation and cooperation are individual, not collective.

ben in denver said...

Are you familiar with Seraphim Rose?

You may want to have a look at this, if you haven't before:

Brother Charles said...

Ben-a brilliant connection.

I first came into contact with the writings and example of Fr. Seraphim early on in my Catholic life, via the Death to the World zine and the 'Punks to Monks' group associated with the Herman of Alaska brotherhood. I found therein certain parallels to my own entrance into Roman Catholic Christianity.

Probably there is influence in what I wrote; I have to go back and read again. Thanks!

RJ said...

Talking about the progress of the peoples, I noticed when studying Paul VI's encyclical "Populorum Progressio" that he does not neglect the spiritual side but presents a balance with the right priorities (as you would expect). I found this a corrective to my own approach, which had unconsciously slipped into a materially-focussed concept of development.

Brother Charles said...

Yes! My experience was the same. It's parallel to actually reading the documents of Vatican II and discovering that they didn't say what everybody always said they did.

RJ said...

Just looking at it again, I found this:
'The sad fact is that we often see the older moral, spiritual and religious values give way without finding any place in the new scheme of things. ...In such troubled times some people are strongly tempted by the alluring but deceitful promises of would-be saviors. Who does not see the concomitant dangers: public upheavals, civil insurrection, the drift toward totalitarian ideologies?' (So relevant!)

I'm thinking here more of the 'dictatorship of relativism' than what is happening in the Middle East ('civil insurrection'?), which seems to be inspired by the aspiration for democracy (a commendable desire for more of a say in one's own life).

Taken in that light, I see a continuity there with what our present Pope is saying about that dictatorship.

Greg said...

Excellent post. A virtual road map of the past that sets the tone for charting a future course.

I, too, have found reading the Documents of Vatican II greatly clarifies issues. Brilliant writing in many places... and in only a couple places, one finds the sudden appearance of a different "voice." Would be fascinating to learn about the process, as it does seem a few, a very few, ideas were inserted out of left field.

I wrote a blog post this weekend that is narrower in scope but perhaps more radical in its call for an immediate conversation that sheds light on toxins that have accumulated in the public square. It is a response to an editorial by a Franciscan who I felt took a wrong turn.