Thursday, October 13, 2005

Divided. Really?

While reading an assigned chapter for my sacramental theology class, I came across a throwaway line about the divisions among Christian denominations: despite our divisions, we are united. Probably because I was highly caffeintated at the time (I'm not, now--fancy that), I wrote on my white-board: "Are we united in spite of our divisions, or are we divided in spite of our unity?" I can understand the optimistic impulse in ecumenical dialogue--it's healthy for progress. At the same time, I have a deep suspicion of throw-away lines meant to sustain a polite veil over what really is an ugly situation.

I am not saying that we definitely are divided in spit of our unity; but the question should be looked at.

To explain myself: the term you want to emphasize is always the second term in the sentence. I.e., "In spite of our [superficial quality], we are [deeper, underlying quality]." To say that we are united in spite of our divisions, is to imply that the divisions, real though they may be, occupy a superficial category relative to our unity. This can be taken in the extreme sense that the superficial category is actually illusory or trivial; the "divisions" mean nothing, and we can get along fine if we exclude discussion of them entirely, and focus only on the deeper unity. There is a powerful impulse in that direction in ecumenical dialogue, as well as interreligious dialogue. The fatal flaw in it is that it takes a category of details--i.e., those which are "superficial" relative to another, deeper category; and it makes them "superficial", absolutely. E.g., if belief in Mary as Mother of God divides us, and it is relatively more superficial than our agreed upon belief in the Trinity, then it is "superficial" can therefore can be discarded.

There is a logical confusion here. Relative superficiality is not the same as superficiality. Eyes are superficial organs relative to the human heart; that hardly means life would not be devastatingly affected if we plucked them out.

But even when the "superficial" category, i.e., the alleged divisions amid Christians, is not regarded so flippantly, it is still considered of less importance of the "deeper" category. It's a post-Vatican II truism--not to mention a doctrine as laid out by Ut Unum Sint, that the things that bond all Christians together as One are more profound than the things that divide them.

"If Christians, despite their divisions, can grow ever more united in common prayer around Christ, they will grow in the awareness of how little divides them in comparison to what unites them" (UUS #22). (I can't believe I actually found that quote. Yay me.)

But bring the question into the philosophical realm (*note the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the background*), there remains a problem with speaking of more-or-less superficial categories of either division and/or unity" the referent.

Things are never simply relative to one-another. Why? Because to be relative to something else implies some level of distance (conceptual distance or phsyical distance); and wherever distance is implied, the limits of that distance are implied.

[I'm going to cut off this reflection, started last Friday, here. It was interrupted that night by a couple of beers with friends, thereby making analysis impossible. My mind has gone on to other things, and I no longer have motivation to finish. Yay, beer!]


Br. Thomas said...

The point you raise is reminiscent of a long tirade by our beloved Prof. dr. Ignace Verhack of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium. Verhack notes in the course, "Philosophy of Religion (advanced)" that the current theme of interreligious and interdenominational dialogue perpetuates the modernist tendencies it hopes to transcend. Namely, the modernist says, "there's ONE TRUTH out there and I have it, you don't; nah nah nah!" This line, while true in at least one sense, does little to promote peaceful dialogue. So, the post-modernist comes along and says, "look, we are all really the same, as long as we go beyond our superficial differences and concentrate on our fundamental unity." The idiot (post-modernist) continues by saying all religions are one path to the same god, and absolute truth is an illusion we can deconstruct thanks to our new demi-god Derrida.

Verhack aptly points out that the post-modernist commits the same sin she accuses of the modernist: positing a single truth with one group being priveliged to know it. For the post-modernist conception of religious truth simply takes the modernist version and breaks it into many pieces. Now, to find the truth we just have to collect as many pieces as possible, jumble them together and find their common denominator right before tossing them in the dust bin.

So, instead of the modernist conservatives having the right answers at the cost of the rights of the poor and so forth, now the post-modernist liberals have the truth at the cost of rich tradition, historical revelation, the factical incarnation, and all the other perks of faith.
What to do, you ask? Verhack cites the Dalai Lama's approach to interreligious dialogue: you be the best Christian you can be, and I'll be the best Buddhist I can be; then we might have something to talk about.

Jeff said...

Ratzinger ("Truth and Tolerance") talks about how, the 'modernist' project being thwarted, all religion becomes then a mere "penultimate" reality, always fitfully flailing about for 'indeterminate' truth. Back in the day, Verhack spoke of how Derrida mocked this "tolerant, nice God". The God that ceases to reveal himself becomes, not the God of happy tolerance, but the God of war, of the tower of Babil--the kid with the magnifying glass popping ants.