Back To Where?
I recently finished reading Fr. Dominic Bourmaud’s critical survey of 20th C. Catholic thought, One Hundred Years of Modernism (Angelus Press 2006, 356pp.). It’s a good (not great) book which sometimes finds itself saddled with too many generalizations to be convincing. Still, Bourmaud should be commended for attempting to outline the substantial shifts in Western thought as a whole from the period of the Enlightenment up through the rise of phenomenology and existentialism and, from there, discuss its impact on Catholic theology. Bourmaud also brings in the emergence of critical-historical scholarship on the Bible and does a serviceable job connecting up this (originally German Protestant) trend with the (largely Catholic) 20th C. project of going “back to the sources” (ressourcement) with respect to the Christian theological tradition. Though I wish he would have given more pages to the effort, Bourmaud should be commended for pointing out the arbitrary elements of ressourcement and the selectivity biases often at work among the movement’s most visible proponents. Even “scholarly neutral” projects, such as Henri de Lubac’s Sources Chrétiennes, ought to raise eyebrows insofar as certain controversial authors are privileged (e.g., Origen of Alexandria) while other, far less controversial ones, such as St. Jerome, are almost entirely absent from the series. Bourmaud’s claim is that the ressourcement movement represents little more than an attempt by modernist 20th C. theologians to establish an unholy marriage between contemporary, a-theistic philosophy and the “Christian tradition.” And, according to Bourmaud, the concept of “tradition” among the ressourcement theologians is, to say the least, flexible. Where some (even large) elements of the received tradition don’t agree with the worldview of the modernist theologians, it is discarded. Where some obscure line of thought in an obscure thinker’s most obscure work appears, after substantial (if not torturous) interpretation, to gel with modernist thinking, it is placed front n’ center as representing the “authentic tradition.”
Those who have bothered to keep up with my blogging efforts over the years (including the efforts made when I was Orthodox) know that one of my longstanding criticisms with contemporary (Western) Orthodox scholarship is its decision to ape the dubious methodology of many who participated in the ressourcement movement. The “authentic tradition” is often pitted against the “received tradition” and, not surprisingly, the “received tradition” loses—not because it lacks freestanding merit, but because certain scholars believe they now have the sophistication and vision to determine perfectly what aspects of the “received tradition” ought to have never been transmitted in the first place. That these elements became part of the “received tradition” is chalked up to historical accident or ignorance; the work of the Holy Spirit is absent. But two can play at that game, which is why it should come as little surprise that the Orthodox, like the Catholics, are experiencing a counter-revolution (albeit a mild one) insofar as Orthodox writers are now trying to take apart the academic-anointed “authentic tradition.” This, naturally, invites counterattacks and the process goes on, perhaps endlessly and without much fruit. Because the Orthodox Church lacks a centralized teaching authority, these are battles which are unlikely to ever be resolved—at least in the foreseeable future. Whether that reality is any better or worse than the Catholic Church’s apparent abdication of its teaching authority on many critical issues is a matter I won’t bother to get into here.
I do wonder, however, if the counter-revolution can ever be truly successful. Consider, for instance, the ongoing academic quarrel over Henri de Lubac and the question of “pure nature” in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. In the last decade a series of detailed Thomistic studies have cast serious doubt on Lubac’s reading of Aquinas and Thomistic thought, and yet Lubac’s stock appears to be on the rise due to John Milbank’s declaration that he (along with Sergius Bulgakov) represents the pinnacle of 20th C. theology. Many Catholic theologians still genuflect on the Lubacian altar and no doubt every member of the College of Cardinals has read substantial portions of Lubac’s writings. The counter-attack from the Thomists has, up until now, been largely ignored by the mainstream theological establishment and, worst, mocked in the pages of Catholic publications like First Things. There’s no small irony in the fact that Lubac was lauded for questioning the “received tradition” in Catholicism and yet his defenders cannot contemplate that the “received tradition” of Lubac’s theological greatness should itself be subject to serious scrutiny. But Lubac is hardly alone. His fellow theologian and friend, Hans Urs von Balthasar, has started to take a theological thumping in recent years. And yet what “reward” has been offered to his most penetrating Anglophone critic, Alyssa Pitstick? Derision and mockery from one Fr. Edward Oakes in the pages of—you guessed it—First Things. (Non-Catholics are starting to get in on the anti-Balthasar action as well; see Karen Kilby’s recent Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Eerdmans 2012).)
Of course, it’s easier to tear down than to build up. After successfully tearing down centuries of Catholic theology and philosophy, the ressourcement theologians (and others who shared in their assumptions) cannot be easily removed from centrality. After all, if they are gone, what stands in their stead? It’s naïve to think that the Catholic Church can simply “go back to Thomism” or “back to Scholasticism”; too much has happened in the last few centuries to make that possibility a reality. A new, more authentically tradition theology, will have to rise up instead, but that itself could take a century or more to produce. And certainly not everything that came off the pen of Lubac and Balthasar deserves to be tossed on the rubbish heap. But at some point a critical analysis will have be undertaken to determine the exact contours of the two men’s orthodoxy and, moreover, the desirability of ressourcement-style projects where a pick-and-choose approach to history is given primacy of place in theological discussions. Contemporary (secular) thought continues to drift further and further into nihilism, and no doubt there will be plenty of young men and women so deeply impressed by the elegance of this drift that they won’t be able to stop themselves from combing through the manuscript archive and critical edition collections for “proof” that the descent into darkness is the true articulation of “Christian theology.” But someone will have to stop them.