The central doctrine under discussion at Nicaea and for the next century was the “Incarnation.” The Church declared that the man Jesus was “God.” It was this doctrine that grounded Christian claims to superiority over all other traditions. Not only did it function to suppress dissent in Christian lands, but beginning in the 15th century it was used to justify the systematic conquest, brutal subjugation and shameless exploitation of non-European people across the globe. It was “God’s will” that all become Christian, and it was only “just” that they pay for the privilege. It continues to function today to prevent serious participation by Catholics in dialog with other traditions.
I was preparing a piece with the title “The Incarnation is a Metaphor” when I realized that I had already introduced the topic. The following is section 5 of the essay “Reflections on Catholic Revisionism: Garry Wills’ Why Priests’”? posted on this blog March 31, 2013. References are to Wills’ book “Why Priests? A Failed Tradition,” Penguin, 2013.
Wills wants to tinker with doctrine and still remain “Catholic.” That’s the way with revisionists. I can understand the temptation. We Catholics cling to our Catholicism with an intensity that reveals the ethnic energies that feed all religious phenomena. We believed that to abandon it would mean to abandon who we were. On top of that, we were subjected to a formation that elevated Catholicism to divine status. For us, the Catholic Church was the very place on earth where “God” himself exclusively resided and infallibly taught eternal truths to his people.
It’s time all this foolishness ended. The Catholic Church is one organization among many that brokers relationship to the sacred. It is no more divine than any other religious club and just as prone to superstition, venality and abuse of power. We are learning from scripture scholars and historians that the ultimate source of the absolutism that has characterized our Church was not Jesus of Nazareth who eschewed being called “God,” but the ancient Roman Theocracy — the belief that the Empire was diva Roma, divine — chosen by the gods to rule the earth. Rome was the Empire; the sole ruler of the known world. When Rome chose its “church,” it automatically became “the Church,” the religion of “everyone” — kat’olica.
Wills insists that he is Catholic and takes pains to list the doctrines to which he holds fast; they are adduced to prove his orthodoxy and guarantee his membership. Here they are, copied directly from page 256. Wills says:
But if I do not believe in popes and priests and sacraments, how can I call myself a Catholic? What do I believe? I get that question all the time. Well, I will tell you what I believe. The things I believe are not incidental or peripheral, but central and essential. They are:
The Creation (which does not preclude evolution).
The Mystical Body of Christ (which is the real meaning of the Eucharist).
The Second Coming.
The Communion of Saints.
I notice there is no mention of “Original Sin,” and “Redemption” — a conspicuous omission given the focus on “sacrifice” in his book, and no clue as to why. The “doctrines” that remain on the list are some of the metaphors our western culture has generated to express the mystery of existence. Other cultures with different histories and different poetry have generated other metaphors that are directed to the same existential issues, sometimes in ways that are recognizable to us, sometimes not. Religion is a universal phenomenon because the insecurity of existence — an existence that our flesh is programmed to cling to but which is inexorably moving toward death — is absolutely universal. Religion will always be with us because of that inherent contradiction: it affects us all, we can’t help it.
Christianity has never acknowledged that its doctrines and practices are metaphor. Born in Greece at a time when science in the form of rational philosophy had swept away the pantheon of the gods, Christianity was embraced by the Greeks as the ritual expression of a “scientific” Platonism, and its narratives objective history. That is still true today. Garry Wills is a Christian literalist whose critique of the Catholic doctrines of “sacrifice” and “priesthood” is based squarely on challenging their factual authenticity. He meets literal claims with literal refutations.
Catholic doctrine is, however, pure metaphor, and its practices, structures and rituals — all of them — are poetry.
Wills does not agree. For him, it is literal. When Wills provides us with this list of “what he believes,” he is not saying that this is a list of acceptable metaphors … and that “sacrifice” and “priesthood” are not acceptable metaphors. Not at all. He is saying this is a list of “realities,” things that are really, literally “true,” and that “sacrifice” and “priesthood” are not among them,
… but the Incarnation is …
Let’s take the Incarnation. If Wills accepts the Incarnation as real in the sense that the Church has traditionally proclaimed it, then he is also saying that Jesus is literally “God” exactly as the “Father” is “God” — homoousios, defined at Nicaea — and therefore it was “God” himself who founded the Christian Religion.
How can Catholics be faulted, then, for drawing the inescapably logical literalist conclusion, a century before Augustine’s time, that “outside the Church there is no salvation”? You can’t blame logic, it is only an obedient tool that validates conclusions. If the conclusion is invalid — and we know that it is — it must mean the premise was wrong … incorrect as stated or as understood … not true. Where does that leave the “Incarnation” … and Wills’ “Catholicism”?
Belief in the literal Incarnation has entailed the “exclusivism” and “infallibilism” of Catholicism that Wills surely rejects. Catholics are on the horns of a dilemma: if they want to avoid saying that the Catholic Church was founded by “God”-in-person, and to that end declare that the Incarnation is only a metaphor, they stop being Catholic. On the other hand, if they want to remain Catholic, they have to live with “exclusivism” and “infallibilism” as acceptable conclusions from the premises they support … and just hope and pray that the “Holy Spirit” will deter the authorities from acting on its implications. But think what that means: it implies that we are praying that the Incarnation not be taken literally — that it be treated as if it were a metaphor!
The contrary to exclusivism, whether as applied to sectarian Catholicism or to all of Christianity, is universalism, i.e., a recognition that all religions provide similar metaphorical vehicles for their people.
Doesn’t the realization that even if Christian doctrine like the Incarnation were literally true, that it can only avoid contradictions like “exclusivism” when treated as metaphor, … doesn’t that very fact compel acceptance of the poetic nature of religion and therefore, paradoxically, argue for religion’s universal validity?
However you ask it, the question highlights the metaphoric, esthetic, non-literal character of the religious phenomenon. Religion is a work of the imagination, and Wills’ entire study in Why Priests?, by pursuing the question of sacrifice and priesthood in the same literalist terms that philosophical theology has used since the days of Augustine, does a disservice to the evolution of religious thought in our time. We are learning that religion — all religion — is symbolic, part of the virtual world we create with our heads to override the indeterminacy of life. Priesthood and sacrifice are historically and regionally conditioned metaphorical expressions of the religious relationship. But so is Incarnation. If for some reason I no longer wish to embrace the first two doctrines and still accept the third, I have a perfect right to do so, but not on the claim that one is a “fact” and the others are not. None of them are “facts.” They are all metaphors; they are all poetry. And, yes, we have the right to choose the poetry that inspires us, to listen to the music that expresses our feelings and to surround ourselves with the art and buildings that represent our relationship to that “in which we live and move and have our being.” But once you admit that, you have entered the universalist dimension because that’s what every religion does.
In our time we are thankfully beyond “state religion,” by which I mean some obligatory imposition of “objectively true” propositions from and about another world, administered by a social / political elite which controls our destiny here and hereafter. We have finally discovered what religion really is — ancient poetry — and we have made it ours. We have entered an era where the power of the religious poetry of multiple traditions has been made available for the enrichment of us all. In our time the universal respect for all religions is our celebration of the profound insights and luxuriant expression heretofore denied us by the erstwhile pre-emptions of our “only true” religions. Religion is human poetic insight functioning at some of its deepest levels. We are now learning that religion does not come from “God,” it was a human creation from the very beginning; and we are now declaring our rights of ownership! These are depths that our ancestors pioneered and we will not be disinherited.
We are not going back where we came from. We have entered a universalist age and any religion that earns our loyalty will have to acknowledge it, perhaps even in the form of “official” declarations. Such a universalist proclamation on the part of a seriously reformed Catholicism would have to insist not only on the repudiation of its own traditional religious arrogance and claims to superiority, but also actively encourage its members to taste and share the poetry, ritual and relational attitudes of other traditions even as we offer to share ours with them. For Wills to attempt to breathe life back into the moribund corpse of an unrepentant exclusivist sectarian Catholicism by separating “orthodox” from “heterodox” literalisms and bypassing entirely the metaphoric nature of all religious expression, is myopic and atavistic. It is revisionism at its worst. Derogating the priesthood and challenging the validity of the doctrine of “sacrifice” on which it rests, however valid, is to my mind, too little, too late and too narrow. Wills’ proposals are hardly different from the reforms sought by the Protestants in the sixteenth century. If those reforms had been embraced by the Church at Trent in 1545, it may have averted the bloody European nationalism and brutal, dehumanizing colonialism that characterized the last 500 years of “Christian” history.
It’s too late for that. Now is not the time to “revise” Catholicism or even Christianity; it has had its day for good or bad — now is the time to transcend it all and a Catholicism that would remain relevant has to embrace it and proclaim it publicly.
A Catholic universalism will demand many changes in the formulation of doctrine, but the first and most basic is the acknowledgement that the “Incarnation” is a metaphor.