Thursday, September 03, 2009

James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 3)

Here is a third excerpt from Part 8 (“A Call for Vatican III”) of James Carroll’s book, Constantine’s Sword. You may recall how in the previous excerpt I shared Carroll’s contention that “revision, criticism, dialogue, and conversation are far more relevant to truth-seeking than conformity to dictation from above. This flies in the face not of Catholic tradition but recent Catholic tradition.”

You may also recall that I concluded the last installment with a number of questions posed by Carroll: “[Are] we condemned to a mindless pluralism that is ready to equate the shallow with the profound, the stupid with the wise, the cruel with the kind, all to avoid the monotony of the “one voice,” the tyranny of the self? Does subjectivity condemn the person to the tyranny of the self? Does subjectivity condemn the community to, in [theologian] David Tracy’s phrase, “the void of sheer fascination at our pluralistic possibilities?”

Following is how Carroll responds to these crucial questions.


Fearing the answer to [such] questions had to be yes, the Church set itself against democracy, and still openly regards pluralism with suspicion. But [William] Lynch, [David] Tracy, and others suggest that the antidote to the equivocation of modern skepticism is not the univocal but the “analogical imagination,” which, in its approach to truth, as Lynch puts it, “insists on keeping the same and the different, the idea and the detail, tightly interlocked in the one imaginative act.” Instead of a dualistic universe, with nature and grace impossibly alienated, or conformed into the mold of one or the other, the analogical imagination posits a world in which every affirmation contains its own “difference, without ever suffering the loss of its own identity.” Difference, therefore, is to be respected, not condemned.

This idea, rebutting the excommunicating either-or of scholasticism, returns us to the both-and mind of Abelard, whose Sic et Non affirmed doubt and ambiguity as essential to the theological method. And recall that, in that crusading era, Abelard stood apart from his peers in his inbuilt positive regard for Jews, as reflected in his Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian. Alas, he too stood by a road not taken, but, with Nicolaus of Cusa, he lives on in the memory of the Church as a reminder that the road is still there.

Tracy explains the vivid connection between such a frame of mind and the respect for a formerly hated other: “We understand one another, if at all, only through analogies. Each recognizes that any attempt to reduce the authentic otherness of another’s focus to one’s own with our common habits of domination only seems to destroy us all, only increases the leveling power of the all-too-common denominators making no one at home. Conflict is our actuality. Conversation is our hope.”

Conversation is our hope. In that simple statement lies the kernal of democracy, which is based not on diktat but on the interchange of mutuality. . . . There is a special tragedy in the fact that, for contingent historical reasons, the Catholic Church set itself so ferociously against the coming of democracy – tragic because Christianity began its life as a small gathering of Jews who were devoted to conversation. . . . The assumption among the followers of Jesus was that they were all endowed with the wisdom, insight, maturity, and holiness necessary to contribute to the pursuit of the truth of who Jesus had been to them.

The religious language for this assumption had it that all believers were endowed with the Holy Spirit, which was seen to reside in the Church not through an ordained hierarchy but through all. That is why the apostolic writings are nothing if not manifestations of pluralism. Indeed, there are four Gospels, not one. Each has its slant, and each slant, in this community, has its place. “That there is real diversity in the New Testament should be clear to any reader of the text,” David Tracy comments, and he goes on to note that the first Christians could admit the validity of positions not their own – from the characteristics to the apocalyptics to the zealots to the prophets. There is even a diversity of images that disclose the meaning of Jesus’ life, with some giving emphasis to the ministry, some to the death, some to the symbolic assault on the Temple, some to the expected return. There are those who emphasized bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles and those who insist on the Gospel’s place within the hope of Israel. And because the texts gather all of this, honor it, and declare it all sacred, nothing could be further from the mind of the early Church than making its subjects conform to a narrowly defined “objective truth.” The Spirit was seen to be living in all, and the truth, for all, remained shrouded in mystery.

NEXT: Part 4

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 1)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 2)
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Genuine Authority
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
Beyond Papalism
Thoughts on Relativism
Many Voices, One Church
“Something Exciting and Joyous”
What It Means to Be Catholic
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
Dialogue is Key in Moving Past Theological Impasses


Richard Demma said...

thanks for this. I'm quite a fan of this book, as well as David Tracy and William Lynch - and Roger Haight who took much inspiration from Tracy and Lynch.

Liam said...

Constantine's Sword got well slammed in scholarly circles as tendentious and overly reliant on cherry-picked secondary sources and conventions of higher criticism that have themselves been subject to scholarly debunking. Even Commonweal, which one would expect to be a sympathetic eye, saw its limits. It represents a sincere point of view, but don't rely on it as serious history. For all of its erstwhile concern for the Church's treatment of Jews, the author himself is pretty harsh with Judaism.

Suzanne Gould said...

I enjoyed this very much, as I always do when I come here.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Liam,

The excerpts I'm sharing aren't specifically dealing with the Church's treatment of Jews - even though that is the main focus of Carroll's book.

I don't see the criticisms that you (and apparently others) level at Carroll applying to the part of the book I'm focusing on. This particular part ("Part 8: A Call for Vatican III") discusses the relevance of Catholic reform and the different ways the Church has viewed truth. In this exercise in both theology and history, Carroll draws from the primary sources that are writings of thinkers and theologians such as William Lynch and David Tracy.



Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks, Jayden and Suzanne.



Jayden Cameron said...

I would agree (with everyone, ha). I read it as 'pop' history, with the negative reviews in mind, but still found it a stirring overview. The third part, his call for a Vatican III, is by far the most interesting part of the book (from which Michael has drawn his excerpts.) And of course the book did inspire the 2008 documentary of the same name, which has been endorsed by a great many Jewish groups, but has also received very mixed reviews.