Wednesday, April 06, 2005

"Threads" interviews David Schindler (the complete text)

David Schindler is Gagnon professor of fundamental theology at the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family in Washington, D.C., and editor of the North American edition of Communio, the international theological review. A nationally recognized author, teacher and lecturer, his latest book is "Heart of the World, Center of the Church" (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich.). He spoke with "Threads" recently from his Washington office.

THREADS: How would you describe the central themes of 20th-century Catholic theology -- the main accomplishments and reversals over the last 100 years?

SCHINDLER: Let me begin by focusing on one theologian in particular, and then point out some of the themes that revolve around his work. The theologian is Henri de Lubac, and his life, interestingly enough, spanned most of the century: He was born at the turn of the century and died just five years ago. In a certain sense, De Lubac's work was part of all the major controversies from the late 1930s right up until the last decade or so of his life -- both the pre-Vatican II debates and the post-conciliar ones.

The basic theme of the 20th century -- and in a way, it's the theme of every century, but it has a particular urgency in our time -- is our sense of God in light of the problem of atheism. This finds its abstract formulation in the question of nature and grace, which was so controversial from the beginning of De Lubac's career up through the years following the council. The question has to do with the way in which relation to God becomes constitutive of the human being, such that life is fundamentally a drama, an engagement with God.

What De Lubac understood [most profoundly] was this problem of atheism; one of his best known books is "The Drama of Atheist Humanism." The battle before the Church, as she faces the culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, is the question of atheism. In the 19th century, you had an atheism of the style of Nietzsche. In the 20th century, at least in America and in Anglo-American liberal society, the problem of atheism takes the form of Jack Kevorkian or the philosopher Richard Rorty --

I'm curious why you'd pick De Lubac as pivotal, rather than Balthasar or Congar or some of the German theologians.

The quick answer is that, in a way, De Lubac was first. His work became the galvanizing point of debate. His book "The Supernatural," published in 1946, criticized what he saw as too much dualism in the modern Catholic tradition. In other words, he perceived that Catholic theology, by excessively separating the natural and supernatural orders, was actually colluding with a kind of naturalism in the culture. That's putting it abstractly. But the point for De Lubac is: Is the relationship to God constitutive for the human being, does it constitute his being, or doesn't it? Is God something accidental and abstract, or Someone the relation to whom goes very deep in the creature? De Lubac's work became the classical point of reference, and even though Balthasar may one day be seen as the great interpreter of the Second Vatican Council, the one whose writings most profoundly grasp the council's main themes, still the council itself was really shaped by the theology of De Lubac.

The aftermath of the council was marked by the divergence of "Concilium" and "Communio" theologians in interpreting what Vatican II actually intended. What was that split about?

In the opening phase of the council, theologians shared a common view that a certain kind of traditional Catholic theology had to be renewed. That had a lot to do with the sense of God and the relation of the natural and supernatural orders. But, as so often happens when you have a negative unity, a common enemy, you discover that once you're victorious, not much positive unity remains. So as the council went on, theologians seeking renewal bifurcated into one group that wanted to adapt as much as possible to modern culture, post-Enlightenment culture; and another group who insisted that, in order to achieve renewal, we had to go back to the sources and immerse ourselves in the tradition. As Charles Peguy said, one has to go to the bottom of the well to retrieve the freshest water.

This divergence continued into the years after the council and resulted in the creation, first, of a review called "Concilium" --

Who were the motive thinkers behind "Concilium," as opposed to "Communio?"

For "Concilium," they were Karl Rahner, Schillebeeckx and Hans Kung. For "Communio," De Lubac, Danielou, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ratzinger and Karol Wojtyla [now John Paul II]. The difference between them, again, was this nature/grace question. Theologians like Rahner tended to emphasize human experience. The "Communio" theologians tended to stress the need to start from within revelation, within the tradition, as the key interpreter of human experience.

You're currently editing a new series of books on Catholic ressourcement theology. What exactly does that term -- ressourcement -- mean, and why would a traditionally Protestant, Calvinist house like Eerdmans have an interest in publishing a series about it?

I'd go back to Peguy: You find the freshest water at the bottom of the well. The idea of the series is to translate for the first time, or bring back into print, the main books of the thinkers who engaged this task of ressourcement , i.e., going back to the sources. People like Romano Guardini and his book. "The End of the Modern World." Or De Lubac himself and Georges Bernanos, one of the great novelists of the 20th century. Balthasar said that Bernanos gives us the greatest paradigm of the priesthood of the laity. His novel, "Diary of a Country Priest," offers us perhaps the most vivid example of what the council meant when it talked about the vocation of living out the call to holiness in the world . . .

Anyway, our purpose is to make these authors available to a generation that, since the council, hasn't had access to this kind of literature.

But why Eerdmans?

Eerdmans made a decision some time ago to broaden its offerings, but beyond that, I think they see some parallels in the relationship Karl Barth had to Protestantism, and the work of Balthasar to Catholic theology.

Why did you embark on this project personally?

Because it extends the purpose of "Communio." When Ratzinger, Wojtyla and De Lubac began "Communio," they wanted to recover the sources of Catholic thought, and that's very much my objective in the ressourcement series. Of course, in Europe you don't have the dearth of writing by these [ressourcement] authors that you face here.

In this country, Kung and Schillebeeckx seem far better known than Balthasar and De Lubac. Why?

In a way, they're more popular because they fit the zeitgeist better; their patterns of thinking are more congenial to the American spirit, especially in light of the secularization of our culture. We live in a post-Enlightenment culture, not a patristic culture.

With De Lubac and Balthasar, the retrieval [of Catholic sources] requires a kind of reversal, turning our [post-Enlightenment] thought patterns upside down and inserting ourselves inside revelation -- and through prayer, obedience and participation in the life of the Church, reading culture from a Christological point of view. It involves discerning the signs of the times through the mind of God. That's not a matter of hubris, but of prayer and obedience.

When you say we live in a post-Enlightenment culture as opposed to a patristic one, what does that translate to for the average layperson?

The autonomy of the individual. We have a self-centered, constructivist view of the self. We emphasize doing, making and the creativity of the self. As a result, our thinking, being and doing are not inserted sufficiently into our relationship with God. "I want to make my own world and have my own thoughts" -- that approach is pervasive in democratic, capitalist societies like the one we inhabit today.

So what would a truly Christian, patristic culture look like?

A good way to understand that is to read some of the recent encyclicals of this pope -- Evangelium Vitae, for example. At the heart of Evangelium Vitae is a deeper, contemplative, Marian sense of reality as gift; a primacy of recognizing people for what they are; a culture of being rather than having. Compare that to the culture we have today, which is highly instrumentalist and utilitarian; where we value things and even people for the pleasure they can bring or how they can be used for profit. This is the instrumentalism and utilitarianism which the pope sums up in what he calls the "culture of death." But the core error in all of this is our defective relation to God.

You bear some personal scars from the debate over how to interpret capitalism in light of Catholic teaching. You're aware of Cardinal Ratzinger's critique of consumer capitalism in the '80s, and the economic writings of this pope. How should Catholics think about capitalism, and how would you answer the argument that capitalism is the healthy alternative to things like Marxism?

Again, it comes back to communio theology. The idea of communion. We're called to love others as God loved us; to participate in the Trinitarian communion of love within God Himself through His son Jesus Christ. Now, that may sound highly abstract, but it's the nub of everything else. The call to love needs to penetrate every phase of our existence.

We have to order our economy within this call to love. The fact that Marxism-Leninism has been eliminated doesn't mean that the only alternative is a capitalism to which the Church must provide a moral correction. The Church proposes something different from both -- namely, communio. That should provide our basic context. In other words, the call to sanctity should form what we do in our economy. So, with a notion like self-interest: Of course we can't suppress that impulse forcibly; if we try, we end up in totalitarianism. But that doesn't mean we should bless it as a virtue of necessity. The call to sanctity requires a transformation of self-interest and its replacement, insofar as possible, with love.

Adam Smith [author of "The Wealth of Nations"] is undergoing a kind of rehabilitation these days. Some people claim there's a support [for his thought] in Centesimus Annus, as though what is privately a vice -- self-interest -- well, if we channel it, we can make it socially a virtue. I don't think the pope affirms that; in fact, I believe he sees that as residing at the core of both spiritual and material poverty throughout the world.

But then how should we interpret Centesimus Annus, because it certainly has been hailed as a document that blesses a modified democratic capitalism.

It blesses a free market, and of course freedom is an essential element of any adequate understanding of the human person. But it puts this in the context of a call for integral, authentic human liberation. Liberation comes first -- liberation from sin. It involves forgiveness by the Holy Spirit and conversion, and the paradigm is Mary. So yes, there's an approval of a market economy, but precisely in the context of this radical conversion, the call to love.

OK, given what you've just said about capitalism, how should we think about technology as Catholics -- and particularly the new communications technologies? I mean, capitalism runs on technological innovation, and we're not going to be able to escape that, given the nature of progress.

Bernanos said that we should assume intellectuals are imbeciles until they prove the contrary. That insight has a particular resonance in a technological culture. All of us, in this culture, grow up with the presumption that a technique or a method can solve problems that require genuine intelligence, interiority, morality and spirituality. This happens in a comprehensive way in academic circles -- the reliance on critical methods -- where it becomes a substitute for wisdom, which requires depth of contemplation.

It's been our temptation since the world began -- we find a technical means to solve a spiritual problem. But today the temptation is greater than ever, because our techniques have greater potential than ever before.

A good place to begin thinking about these questions as Catholics is the issue of contraception. Built into the Church's rejection of contraception is a certain understanding of technology. We can't just blunder into any old mechanical or chemical means to solve a human problem. Technical means need to be penetrated from within with contemplation, morality and a sense of God and the order required by God. Now, all of this is at the level of principle, but it's also concrete, because it affects everything we think about and do.

This is one of the great battlegrounds of the future. Catholic theology must engage with this issue much more radically than it has in the past.

I wonder if the roots of this nation in the religious wars of the old country -- the need to escape the bitter sectarian divisions of Europe -- haven't resulted in a contemporary American mindset of, "Let's agree to go with what works."

Well about those religious wars, I would say we need to look at whether we're really any less violent, now that we've achieved a certain civility and an agreement to cooperate. One could argue that we're every bit as violent as we were 300 years ago, but now we're killing different people more subtly and calling it humane, thanks to euthanasia and abortion.

This leads to the question of utilitarianism, because [as a culture] we've said, "Let's set all these important questions about the meaning of life aside, and instead let's just agree to do what works." The trouble with "doing what works" is that it tends to create a lowest common denominator mentality. In other words, we agree to focus only on what feeds us, clothes us and gives us comfort --

It also creates a completely instrumentalist mindset.

Exactly. Things that obstruct my comfort have to be moved out of the way. But I don't think our response [as Catholics] can be romanticism. By that I mean, there are always advances in history which are coincident with corruptions, and corruptions which are coincident with advances. And history is real -- so we don't have the option of a nostalgic reaching back to some mythical society in the past. We have to ponder these technology issues much more fundamentally than we have to date, and understand the role they play in creating an instrumentalist culture.

The irony of technology is that while we're speaking here, you're being recorded onto a computer's hard drive for uploading onto the world wide web, to be listened to by people anywhere from Ireland to Antarctica. What you say will potentially be heard just as easily in Johannesburg as Los Angeles. Obviously, these technologies have some positive value, but how do you sort through it from a Catholic perspective?

As technology develops, we need to probe it and bring into sharper relief the dangers involved. I mean, there's a certain abstraction in these new communication technologies, because the communication is not incarnate. There's an elimination of space and time, and we need to reflect on the meaning of that.

You recently edited a book by Romano Guardini, "Letters from Lake Como," that dealt with some of these technology questions. He was writing some 60 years ago, but do his thoughts contain anything we can draw sustenance from today?

His letters were a reflection on what he observed as Southern Europe industrialized -- thoughts on the changing nature of tools and the idea of a craft, and what the changes were doing to the landscape. He's not just hearkening back to some ideal past; rather, he's trying to highlight the dangers inherent in mechanization, and our need to be clearly conscious of what gets lost. The best thoughts by Guardini on this subject are found in the last chapter of his book, "The End of the Modern World," where he really outlines the dangers. Technology changes consciousness. Industrialization changes consciousness.

It changes vocabulary too.

It changes everything. As Allan Bloom said many years ago, there's a world of difference between one great thinker who grasps and integrates the whole, and a thousand mediocre thinkers who understand only part of it. To the degree we allow ourselves to be a culture ordered to immediate self-interest, with everyone working on a part without an interest in the good of the whole, we will be fundamentally fragmented.

Among your many other tasks, you play a key role at the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family. What's the future of the institute? Why is it so important right now?

The origins of the institute are found in then-Cardinal Wojtyla's reading of the reception of Humane Vitae by Catholics in the '60s and after. He felt that the problem with the encyclical was that it didn't have a full enough anthropology; in other words, it wasn't integrated adequately into the larger question of the nature and destiny of the human being. The purpose of the institute is to develop that anthropology, in other words a full understanding of the nature of the human person in community, in light of the main doctrines of the Church --Trinity, Christology, Mariology, ecclesiology, etc.

The point is that the family is the basic cell of humanity, of the Church and civil society. If we lose the basic integrity of the family, then we've lost civilization. The pope's foresight on this issue has really become clear since [the U.N conferences in] Cairo and Beijing. What's going on now is not fundamentally a battle of economics or the threat of an arms race, but a struggle over the meaning and destiny of the human person.

One value of the institute seems to be as a countersign to contemporary academic life. So much of today's secular academic research seems focused on reducing the family to a relative, cultural construct.

Absolutely, even on questions as fundamental as: "Is there a basic difference between men and women?" It's paradoxical that the Church has become the last bastion of defense of authentic differences between men and women. The Church is the only one speaking unequivocally, internationally, to this point. What's at stake is the integrity of the love at the heart of the basic human community -- namely, the family.

Take the question of gender: Anyone who hasn't been sleepwalking in America over the last three or four decades knows how urgent the question of gender is -- same sex marriage; whether there are two genders or five. In the context of Beijing, there's increasing pressure to make five genders normative. These issues need profound responses. Intuitively, most people properly formed see problems with that idea [of five genders]. But it's one thing to understand things intuitively, quite another to articulate a response so that people can sort these issues out as they reflect on the culture.

One final question: Why did you write "Heart of the World, Center of the Church."

For some of the reasons we've talked about here. The problem in our country is atheism. But it's a peculiar sort -- a practical atheism. Nietzsche embodied a European unbelief that was sensitive to the question of the infinite and presumed that since God had died, humanity had to fill the infinite void left by Him and become infinitely creative.

In this country, we have an atheism with a shrug of the shoulders, a kind of relaxed unfolding of random finiteness. Our atheism is not a matter of reflective principle; instead, we're not even conscious of God or His absence, because we're so busy consuming.

Atheism with a happy face.

Right. So, as a culture, we have an enormous problem -- and it's a religious one. Catholics need to respond by working to reinstate a sense of God so that we can regain an adequate sense of our own creatureliness -- in other words, "I'm not the source of my own being, my own moral norms. I'm not the author of my life and therefore not the one who decides about my death."

What's happened in U.S. Catholicism -- thanks in part to [Jesuit Father] John Courtney Murray, who did many good things otherwise -- is that we now assume that we can't bring God into the heart of this discussion because, there are a lot of non-believers out there. But that's precisely the point. It's because religious questions have been so radically removed from our culture that we're so vulnerable to phenomena like Jack Kevorkian and abortion.

As the philosopher Will Herberg observed in his book, "Protestant, Catholic, Jew," Americans are privately very religious, but then in public we all agree to subscribe to the virtues that make us good democrats and good free marketeers, so that faith becomes essentially a fragmented, private reality. In effect, we're private theists and public atheists.

Do you have one particular source of apprehension and one special source of hope as the century closes -- from a Catholic theological perspective?

Grounds for hope? Americans are religiously sincere and morally generous. This country has a tremendous energy and abundance of good will. In the light of God's infinite mercy, that's always a good reason to hope.

My fear is that we don't see the subtlety of how -- as the pope says in Evangelium Vitae -- democracy can invert into totalitarianism. We have the illusion that we're free because no one tells us what to do. We have political freedom. But at the same time, a theological and philosophical set of assumptions informs our freedom, of which we're unconscious. A logic or "ontologic" of selfishness undermines our moral intention of generosity. We don't have the requisite worldview that would help us address abortion or the more general, current threat to the family.

Can we unmask the assumptions of our culture and deal with them in a way that will free the latent generosity of the culture? Or will those hidden assumptions overcome our generosity? This is the real battle, both globally and in America. It calls for a new effort of evangelization -- which consists, above all, in first getting clear about the ideas in Evangelium Vitae; understanding the logic of self-centeredness in a post-Enlightenment liberal culture. Alasdair McIntyre has a great line: that all debates in America are finally among radical liberals, liberal liberals and conservative liberals. That's how I would sum up. If we don't come to terms with liberalism.

But liberalism in what sense? Quite a few people who would describe themselves as conservative or neoconservative are, in fact, liberal . . .

That's the point: They're the conservative wing of liberalism. And in a sense, they wouldn't even deny that, insofar as their project is to show that a benign reading of American liberal tradition is harmonious with Catholicism. That's what I'm challenging. Their approach doesn't go to the roots of our [cultural and spiritual] problem, as identified in this pontificate and in the work of theologians like De Lubac and Balthasar.[Contemporary U.S. culture is rooted in] self-centeredness. A false sense of autonomy centered in the self; an incomplete conception of rights. So we need to reinstate a right relation to God on all levels -- not only at the level of intention, but at the level of the logic of our culture. Our relation to God has to inform not only our will, but how we think and how we construct our institutions.

(This interview is condensed and adapted from the full audio recording, available in RealAudio 2.0 at www.archden.org/archden. Audiocassette copies are available for $6.95 from the Communications Secretariat, Archdiocese of Denver, 200 Josephine St., Denver, CO, 80206. Please enclose a check made payable to the Communications Secretariat.) Archdiocese of Denver
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