Liquidation does not mean punishment, subjugation, conquest, or even execution. Liquidation means extermination merely on the basis of otherness…. ‘Whoever is different will be liquidated,’ works like a poison, a constant temptation to human thought, destroying or at least menacing it. —Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues
One of the most distinctive and, I would say, unprecedented features of contemporary western culture is the sociological phenomenon of neighboring individuals living in distinct social networks, engaging in myriad cultural practices, learning in diverse educational institutions, and communicating in idiosyncratic imaginative and conceptual idioms. Our “neighbors” often live within radically divergent and virtually airtight intellectual, moral, and spiritual universes, holding beliefs utterly incompatible and irreconcilable with our own. Western culture, then, is a misnomer—it is, rather, a “culture of cultures.”
One unfortunate ideological upshot of this unique situation is a prima facie, a priori public incredulousness regarding anyone “having the whole truth.” It is no wonder that the Roman Catholic Church, whose Founder claimed the whole truth about His very person, is tolerated in western society only when lost in translation, as “one denomination among others,” a and juxtaposed with other equally a-rational “belief expressions” in a multicultural boutique. Indeed, any dogmatic belief system, in fully untranslated form, appears as a dangerous and inhuman cult, an intolerable opponent of the indisputable reign of “freedom” and “pluralism.”
Although I think our contemporary pluralistic situation, which Glenn Olsen has accurately named deep pluralism, is certainly unprecedented, I do not think it is an unprecedented evil. Of course, the existence of a pluralism of “truths” is not a good thing, for there is only one truth, and error is the result of sin. Pluralism, in short, must be seen, per se, as a grave defect of spiritual, intellectual, social, and political order. Pace neoconservatism, religious pluralism is not the ideal for politics, not the “best we can hope for this side of paradise,” not “the most prudent accommodation to the real world.” The Church’s perennial political ideal of the reign of Christ the King simply does not permit such resignation to sin and worldliness.
Yet, this tragic pluralism has been mysteriously permitted by God, and, as I shall try to explain in this essay, I think it provides Catholics with a unique opportunity for intellectual and spiritual growth. Indeed, pluralism itself can be, if interpreted and utilized correctly, a potent catalyst for the New Evangelization. Modernity, as I shall try to show, is both the cause and the cure of its own intellectual and spiritual disease, one that can be describes as a descent into partial thinking.
Feeling the Pull
To borrow from the thesis of Charles Taylor’s recently published masterpiece A Secular Age, with the peculiar “consciousness shift” that constitutes the essence of modernity comes a heightened capacity intimately to feel the pull of other world-views and belief systems—especially those we might otherwise deem unworthy of attraction. Modern secular pluralism provides an unprecedented opportunity for individuals to experience the other from the inside, that is, not just as an abstract possibility of thought and practice, as is possible in all ages, but intimately, as a living, breathing, concrete, coherent (or perhaps not so coherent), historical tradition. Alasdair MacIntyre describes this immersion in other traditions as akin to learning a second conceptual and imaginative language, judging it indispensable for the authentic understanding and practice of one’s own tradition. Moreover, without such immersion, we lose the capacity to recognize and correct the defects in our own tradition, rendering us ineffective as participants in its further development.
By encountering the partial truths in other traditions, we are more able to recognize partial truths as partial, both within other traditions and our own tradition, and in our mind’s appropriation and understanding of our own tradition. The tradition of which we are a member may indeed be the true tradition, providing supreme access to the whole truth, yet it can be perceived and grasped by us in a partial, tendentious, or distorted way. Encountering the truths in other traditions can serve to expose that false dichotomy in our mind that leads us to interpret other positions as nothing more than full-fledged errors, and our own position as nothing less than the whole truth. Our position might very well be the closest to the whole truth, but as finite, fallible, sinful creatures, our grasp of it is partial.
Modernity can cause a loss of the capacity to feel the pull of those parts of the truth one requires to regain wholeness, but it can also cause the growth of this capacity. As Pieper suggests in the quote above, the modern tendency to liquidate the other is far from being a sign of loyalty and devotion to the truth. Rather, it indicates a totalitarian solipsism of the self, an intellectual narcissism or self-inflicted, epistemological violence that translates all one’s experience of the other into the same. When this occurs, any part of the truth that one had genuinely recognized and possessed loses its healing properties as truth, becoming deadly. Instead of a part of truth, it functions now as a full-fledged error, and one becomes blind to precisely those other parts of the truth that could render him whole again. In other words, truth, when embraced partially but interpreted holistically, becomes error, becomes a lie.
If the diseased mind could learn to see the parts as parts, and not simply hateful errors to condemn and fear and from which to escape at all costs, he could see the prison into which his soul has fallen. As Plato’s cave suggests, liberation from intellectual prison can only occur through the dawning upon our intellects of the light of the whole, the Good, who is both that by which all knowledge occurs, and the knowable par excellence. And for our non-angelic, discursive, fallen intellects, this can only occur through a persistent, and often excruciating, dialectical comparison of whole and part, a dynamic exemplified by Plato in his dialogues and brought to near perfection by St. Thomas in his Summa Theologiae. It is a kind of ongoing intellectual crucifixion, with modernity as Calvary.
None of this is meant to suggest that there aren’t full-fledged, pernicious errors in the world, as distinct from merely partial truths—indeed, there more and worse ones than ever before. Nor am I suggesting that Catholicism is not the whole truth, objectively speaking. But often what we perceive to be absolute error is only a partial truth distorted by being removed from the whole; and often what we perceive to be the whole-truth is only an exaggeration of a partial truth. Finally, the partial truths we often reject as unworthy of our consideration are precisely those we need to embrace for the completion and correction of our thinking. In short, strategic and prudent, intellectual immersions in our pluralistic milieu, always preceded and followed by extensive and intensive periods of nursing at the bosom of the Holy Mother Church, as it were, is, I think, a necessary program to enable us to recognize the partialness of our own and others’ appropriation of the truth, effectively to help end the reign of relativistic pluralism and bring about a new Christendom, and to transcend whatever in modernity that holds us back from union with God.
As Catholics, of course, we do have “the whole truth,” so why risk plunging ourselves into pluralism, into alien traditions that we know to be fundamentally in error? We must recognize that the Church alone sees and possesses the whole truth (at least implicitly and latently; the expression and recognition of the whole truth by the Magisterium is time-bound and discursive, being historically mediated and occasioned, as Cardinal Newman has taught us). We the Church’s members, however, are always, subjectively speaking, approaching this whole truth, but—and this is the peculiar evil of modernity and pluralism—what we often think to be the whole truth is only our own partial appropriation of it, and, even worse, a part pretending to be the whole. This is the spiritual disease of modernity, and Catholicism is, as always, the cure of all spiritual maladies, but the occasion for the remedy is to be found in modernity itself.
Catholics in a pluralistic society are uniquely gifted to accomplish the healing, “whole and part” dialectical exercise we have described, for we possess both the whole, by grace through the Church, and the part, through open and humble dialectical encounters with our neighbors’ and our own partial truth fragments. Fragmentary, partial knowledge, unrecognized as fragmentary and partial and substituting for comprehensive, holistic knowledge, is the intellectual condition of our fallen nature, and the besetting bane of modernity; but with the intrinsic help of grace, the extrinsic help of the Magisterium, and our cooperation through courageous philosophical analysis and dialogue combined with contemplation, we can ascend, at least partially, to the whole which awaits us personally in the Beatific Vision.
The remainder of this essay shall consist of some particular examples of modern disease of partial thinking. In the first set of examples: the fall of Lucifer, the sin of Adam and Eve, and the Pharisees’ rejection of Christ; I shall try to illustrate the way in which an especially partial yet subjectively significant truth, when eclipsing an eminently more fundamental truth, becomes a fundamental error. In the second set of examples: relativism vs. absolutism and modernity vs. anti-modernity; I shall try to show that when comparably equal, complementary partial truths are pitted against each other as contraries, with each posing as self-sufficient wholes, even these parts are lost, leading to a totalitarianism of the psyche by which the only cure, a radical, vulnerable openness to the other, is perceived as the carrier of the disease.
Did an embrace of a partial truth lead Lucifer to fall from heaven? Of course, an angel, an intuitive, not discursive, intellectual being never cam, in a literal sense, grasp truth partially; yet I think there something analogous to partial thinking in the angelic intellect. Firstly, as St. Thomas teaches, an angel receives knowledge of the supernatural order through the mediation of angelic intellects higher than itself. Thus, an angel in the choir of powers could not receive knowledge of God’s plan for the salvation of man, for instance, through the intellect of an angel in the choir of archangels, but from principalities, cherubim, seraphim, etc. Secondly, spirit is superior to matter. God’s plan, as Lucifer may have heard it, was to reveal and effect the supernatural plan of salvation through the lowly intellect of a human being by uniting spirit and matter, nay, divinity and matter. Now, since the purpose of creation is to give glory to the most superior being, and since Lucifer was, as it is supposed, the second highest being, then how could it be anything but grave disorder to unite divinity with anything less than an angelic nature? And how could it be that a human woman, Mary, could possibly merit second place, as it were? Finally, is it, and could it ever be absolutely certain that this being calling himself “God” actually was what he claimed to be. As Milton’s Satan asks, did any of the angels actually witness creation, including their own?
Such critical analysis and skepticism, in itself, is not outlandish or inherently malicious, for as Pope Benedict XVI has made especially clear, it is incumbent on man to bring all claims to the bar of reason, even the claims of God Himself. Truth cannot contradict itself. However, for an unfallen angel, things are quite different. For an angel to have reasoned this way (whatever it would mean for an non-discursive angelic intellect to “reason”) is unspeakably malicious and perverse. This is not because his logic was flawed—angelic “logic” is always impeccable—but because to doubt God in an unfallen state, no matter the pretext, is already to have fallen into an abyss of unreality. Before the existence of evil and error in the world, there could be absolutely no reason not to submit to the plan of God the instant it is revealed, and the very hesitation to do so is tantamount to the creation of evil and error, the origin of hell. Prudent deliberation about the proper course of action to take in any given situation is, for us fallen men, an indispensable means to virtue, but for an unfallen angel, any hesitation or doubt regarding the will of God is the gravest of evils, a violent ripping of one’s being away from the bosom of reality, the rejection of the whole for the nothingness of the isolated part.
It is true that once one begins to think about the possibility of not submitting to God’s plan, the reasons justifying such a possibility seem quite reasonable, indeed, supremely reasonable and courageous! This is precisely the “partial truth,” so to speak, that Lucifer grasped, but the price paid for it was the loss of the immensely larger truth of the perfect goodness and infinite reasonableness of God. The origin of such “angelic Socratic questioning,” however subtle and coherent, was not intellectual error, but willful malice, the sin of disbelief, which, as Josef Pieper maintains, is the rejection of God’s revelation with full knowledge of it as the revelation of God. In this case, it was the rejection of the truth of the identity of God and Love. Such disbelief, by the highest and thus most loving—at least potentially—of God’s creatures, would be unthinkable if it were not revealed to us by the Church.
Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve had not yet obtained the fullness of human happiness or perfection in their short sojourn in paradise; for, like us, only in heaven would their lives be brought to complete fullness. All creatures, from the most humble to the most exalted, were to constitute their ladder to this eventual fullness, both through contemplation: the stars, the order of nature, each other; and by consumption: the bountiful and unimaginably delicious fruits and vegetables provided by the Lord God for their sustenance and delight. Yet, they were not permitted to consume or even contemplate every creature, and for no other reason than that the only other rational being they knew, the one who called himself “God,” willed it so. And they had met another rational being who suggested that by not consuming every fruit, they would be depriving themselves of the fullness of reality—after all, if some of the creatures could bring them some fulfillment, then all of the creatures would bring them all fulfillment. What could possibly justify their missing out? “God’s” command, in order to be reasonable, must be open to only one interpretation, that it was a command meant to be disobeyed.
Moreover, the fruit forbidden them was, by “God’s” very description, particularly necessary for their fulfillment, for it alone could provide the complete knowledge of reality, both good and evil, the fulfillment of their souls as capax omnium would seem to require. Without it, they would only know the good aspects of reality, not nearly the whole picture, and thus be deprived of the completeness of being and thus fulfillment. Finally, their unfallen and thus infallible intellects, as well as their perfectly ordered emotions, perceived this fruit immediately and upon reflection as good, pace the suggestion of “God” that it was, in some way, “evil”; indeed, completely good, and thus it would seem a sin not to bring it to the perfection for which it was made by being consumed by man.
In short, why obey such a command? Admittedly, one can see in these arguments some justification for at least some hesitation on the part of Adam and Eve when confronted with the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit. The essential problem with these arguments, however, is not their absurdity, incoherence, or implausibility, for they exhibit none of these attributes in themselves, but their partialness. They are true statements, but only if taken our of the existential and ontological context in which Adam and Eve found themselves. This is God who gave the command, and they are His creatures; in that context, all the partial truths become lies. By the mere existence and consideration of these arguments in their souls, Adam and Eve had already lost the whole truth. How else to explain how it could possibly seem “reasonable” to disobey God in order to obey Him, to perfect themselves by severing themselves from the source of perfection?
As the whole began to fragment in front of their eyes, to disobey God was at first only a hint of a possibility, then a valid consideration, and finally a categorical imperative. Like Lucifer’s disbelief in the identity of God and love, Adam and Eve, by an autonomous act of their own free will, and without any trust-lessening occasion on the part of God, lost their trust in Him. Immediately, their integral perception of the whole truth, insofar as a finite, unfallen human could perceive it, became fragmented, and the whole in whose light the fragments of truth could be seen as only fragments, and thus as unworthy of isolated consideration, was lost to them, as well as to us, until the time of the descent of the Whole Himself into His now fractured world.
The final and perhaps most illustrative example of how fundamental error can arise through the holistic embrace of partial truth is the Pharisees’ rejection of Christ, particularly, one named Saul. Pope Benedict XVI has brought out the plausibility and power of the Pharisees’ indictment against Christ in his discussion of Rabbi Jacob Neusner’s book in his masterful Jesus of Nazareth. In essence, the threat Jesus posed to Judaism was far worse than any that came before. Throughout the history of Judaism there were always foes to its survival, those who would lessen its God-pleasingness: subversive teachers, heretics, fanatics, traitors, worldlings, indifferentists, blasphemers—but never before did one man embody the very antithesis of Judaic belief, the utter transcendence and holiness of God. Jesus, by his claim to be the definitive and full embodiment of God, threatened to destroy the Jewish people’s claim to be such, and by his defiant abrogation of Jewish laws, he would dismantle the cornerstone which underlay the entire edifice of Jewish culture, tradition, society, and life, the Sabbath.
In his book, the Pope pulls no punches in his characterization of Neusner’s argument—it is powerful, and Benedict depicts it so with the utmost respect and sympathy. Saul was only acting upon the force of the argument’s truth when he persecuted the infant Church, for this “man’s” power to destroy the Chosen People of God required a violent and ruthless extermination, as violent and ruthless—and even more justifiably so—as Joshua’s, Gideon’s, or David’s extermination of the much lesser threat of the Jerichoites, Madianites, and Philistines. However, as the trenchant, ironclad arguments of Lucifer and Adam and Eve splinter into fragments when applied to the infinite solidity of God’s holiness obviously embodied in the Carpenter from Nazareth, the Pharisee’s perspective, seemingly God’s very own, insofar as Israel was His very bride, was the epitome of blindness. From one angle, Jesus was the very antithesis of God, but from every other angle but this one, Jesus could be no one other than God. As Benedict argues, the Pharisees’ perspective, including their desire to destroy Jesus and persecute His followers, was the epitome of loyalty, piety, courage, and devotion to God—if Jesus was only a human being. If he was God, however, then their virtues become vices, and the “Jews,” as St. John calls those Hebrews who rejected Jesus, become, not God’s Bride, but the devil’s prostitute, not the Church of Yahweh, but the “synagogue of Satan.”
Saul was a prisoner to such partial thinking, and nothing but an unforeseen, undesired-indeed, violent—encounter with who, to his diseased spirit and intellect, was the radically other, a Jewish man claiming to be God, could liberate him. If Saul had been allowed to remain in the isolated, blinded world of the “Jewishdom” of his day, the way in which some traditional Catholics would like to remain in the isolating “Christendoms” of their neuroses, fears, and gnostic certainties, his blindness would never have been revealed to him, and he would never have become St. Paul, the apostle to the Jewish other, the Gentile. Christ Himself had to break Saul out of his partial thinking, which was not redolent of authentic Mosaic Judaism but a rabbinical, proto-Talmudic fanaticism of purely human origin. This had to occur in a violent way against his will, but we have the chance to invite Christ freely into our minds, by inviting the salvific “others”—ones that we would rather not meet— into our intimacy as they are providentially “forced” upon us by Our Lord in our modern pluralistic world—as neighbors.
The three examples above illustrate the way in which blindness to an otherwise overwhelmingly significant truth can ensue when a not insignificant, but considerably less important, partial truth is embraced in an exaggerated, exclusivist manner. For the most part, this is not the kind of error that believing Catholics fall into, but it is important to see illustrations of the basic dynamic in order better to understand its more subtle version, namely, the fall into the prison of partial truth through the embrace of false philosophical dichotomies.
This is the first essay in a two-part series, which originally appeared in Second Spring (Vol. 14, Spring, 2011).
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Porträt von Wally” by Egon Schiele, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.