Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Santayana on the Modernist Heresy

In 1907, Pope Pius X issued the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis, an attack on the heresy of Modernism. (The term 'Modernism' here is a term of art; it does not include everything modern, and indeed the term does not on its own signify anything of what the heresy includes -- it was in fact the name used by some, although not all, of the people who held it.) Obviously there was a great deal of Catholic reflection and comment on the letter. But one of those who saw the encyclical as an occasion for reflection and comment was the philosopher, George Santayana. In some ways his comments, published in 1913 as "Modernism and Christianity", are the most interesting. Santayana himself was from a Catholic family and had a strong aesthetic affection for the Catholic Church. As he says in a letter somewhere, he would count as Catholic for the purposes of the census-taker. He was, however, a nonbeliever, and had been all his life; he regarded the basic doctrines of the Catholic Church as obviously false if taken literally rather than as a kind of pleasant poetry that can sometimes make excellent points even with falsehoods. And however much he might have an affection for Catholicism, he in some ways had a greater affection for paganism, taken as a treasury of myth -- what he liked in Catholicism was what it shared with paganism, or what it had that developed out of its interaction with paganism. He even described himself, in Persons and Places: Fragments of Autobiography, as a "spontaneous modernist". Thus he is the sort of person one would expect to be highly sympathetic to Modernism. In fact, however, he is very critical of it; his sympathies lie with the Pope, whom he thinks is entirely right to this extent: the Modernists err in thinking you can be a Modernist and a believer. Thus if one looks at the three primary interlocked ideas of Modernism -- reason is confined to phenomena, religion is fundamentally a matter of feeling, and religious doctrines admit of indefinite evolution in light of human experience -- he is critical of all of them in the way that Catholic Modernists try to hold them.

What is more, since Santayana is critical of liberalism in general, he is critical of how this situation of Catholics trying to be Modernists arises, since he attributes it to the entrance of liberalism into Christian thought. Liberal Christians generally see themselves as returning to primitive Christianity, and some of what underlies this Santayana is willing to concede. But primitive Christianity, like Judaism, is based on a powerful sense of the interconnection between sin and suffering, and of sin as being so terrible that it was good even to suffer to avoid it, or to repent from it. But liberal Christianity is horrified by this, not because it cannot grasp the notion that sins are terrible but because it is horrified by the idea of suffering. The idea that you might suffer and die -- in martyrdom, perhaps, or in holy war -- for a religious idea is something abominable to it. Its tastes are "for a sweet cohabitation with everybody, and a mild tolerance of almost everything" -- and if the use of coercion by the state is what is required for that, the liberal Christian is willing to use it.

But this sets up an inevitable contradiction with what Christianity is at its heart. Santayana doesn't want to quibble about the precise details of what is essential to Christian faith or not, but, no matter what one emphasizes as the most important element, and no matter how, precisely, one conceives the origin of Christianity, there is one thing with which primitive Christianity can be guaranteed to be completely inconsistent: the notion that the Christian community does not have the authority to proclaim some things as simply factual, even in the face of a world denying them:

To divorce, then, as the modernists do, the history of the world from the story of salvation, and God's government and the sanctions of religion from the operation of matter, is a fundamental apostasy from Christianity. Christianity, being a practical and living faith in a possible eventual redemption from sin, from the punishment for sin, from the thousand circumstances that make the most brilliant worldly life a sham and a failure, essentially involves a faith in a supernatural physics, in such an economy of forces, behind, within, and around the discoverable forces of nature, that the destiny which nature seems to prepare for us may be reversed, that failures may be turned into successes, ignominy into glory, and humble faith into triumphant vision: and this not merely by a change in our point of view or estimation of things, but by an actual historical, physical transformation in the things themselves. To believe this in our day may require courage, even a certain childish simplicity; but were not courage and a certain childish simplicity always requisite for Christian faith? It never was a religion for the rationalist and the worldling; it was based on alienation from the world, from the intellectual world no less than from the economic and political.

Because of this, Santayana regards it as an error of reason, and not just of Christian faith, to think that Christianity and the world can be accommodated to each other. Christianity by its nature defies the world, and it is not possible to have any society in this world that is through and through Christian, even if it superficially seems to be so: "When all men are Christians only a small element can be Christian in the average man." All the things that seem to make a Christian society, Santayana regards as the slow self-destruction of Christianity: the world cannot actually be converted to Christianity. But the reverse would be true as well: it is never going to be possible to convert Christianity to the world.

The problem with the heresy of Modernism is that it attempts to do just this: Modernists are people who wish to be Catholics while getting their principles and standards of evidence and probability from the world:

Now the modernists' criterion of probability in history or of worthiness in philosophy is not the Christian criterion. It is that of their contemporaries outside the church, who are rationalists in history and egotists or voluntarists in philosophy. The biblical criticism and mystical speculations of the modernists call for no special remark; they are such as any studious or spiritual person, with no inherited religion, might compose in our day. But what is remarkable and well-nigh incredible is that even for a moment they should have supposed this non-Christian criterion in history and this non-Christian direction in metaphysics compatible with adherence to the Catholic church. That seems to presuppose, in men who in fact are particularly thoughtful and learned, an inexplicable ignorance of history, of theology, and of the world.

Santayana takes this to be a natural tendency of traditional Catholic seminary teaching, aiming at giving a rigorous and adequate account of everything in which Catholic doctrine will be seen as luminously true. The course he thinks this follows, however, is not what one would expect. It arises not because the teaching fails but because the teaching sometimes inspires more than it is intended to inspire. The Modernists are not the people who cannot follow this kind of teaching, but the reverse: they think about the matters more deeply than their education expects of the typical student. And, far from being disillusioned in thinking about it (which would lead them in a different direction entirely), find it confirmed by their experience, and grow deeper in it because of their experience. But here is where the slip occurs. They see the teaching as reflecting the real experience they have, and confirmed by it, but "a report that can be confirmed by experience can also be enlarged by it", and it becomes easy to see the history of theology as a history of expressions and formulations of this underlying experience. And if one has that underlying experience, too, why not consider it to be your task, as well, to add to, refine, even revise, the expressions and formulations on the basis of that experience?

The one who goes this direction becomes, in Catholic terms, a Protestant in principle, basing doctrine on private judgment and on his own experience of God. But the twist is that the Modernist is a Protestant Catholic. How is this possible?

Because, as one of the most distinguished modernists has said, the age of partial heresy is past. It is suicidal to make one part of an organic system the instrument for attacking another part; and it is also comic. What you appeal to and stand firmly rooted in is no more credible, no more authoritative, than what you challenge in its name....But if the age of partial heresy is past, has not the age of total heresy succeeded? What is this whole phenomenon of religion but human experience interpreted by human imagination? And what is the modernist, who would embrace it all, but a freethinker, with a sympathetic interest in religious illusions? Of course, that is just what he is; but it takes him a strangely long time to discover it. He fondly supposes (such is the prejudice imbibed by him in the cradle and in the seminary) that all human inspirations are necessarily similar and concurrent, that by trusting an inward light he cannot be led away from his particular religion, but on the contrary can only find confirmation for it, together with fresh spiritual energies....He feels himself full of love—except for the pope—of mysticism, and of a sort of archaeological piety. He is learned and eloquent and wistful. Why should he not remain in the church? Why should he not bring all its cold and recalcitrant members up to his own level of insight?

What distinguishes the Modernist from the Santayana is that the Modernist thinks, like a good Catholic, that the Catholic faith includes all good things; he is a reformer, a reviver of the faith, and he feels that this must be so, because he feels, as Santayana says, love, and mystical interaction with God, and archaeological piety. The Modernist does not see himself as rejecting the traditions of the Church; to be an actual Modernist, you must see yourself as renovating them, restoring them to the form appropriate to them, wiping away the obscuring accretions. Where will you find the Modernists? Among people who insist that they are restoring the Church to the way it should be. That is the inevitable breeding ground of Modernism; the Modernist is just the person who judges the way the Church should be on the basis of his feeling and experience. Will you find them among the merely lukewarm and nominal? No. Modernists are more pious than is typical, more devoted, in the sense that everything they are is based on their own feelings of piety and devotion, on their feelings of love for God and for the Church and its traditions. [This is perhaps worth emphasizing, since it is a point on which Santayana is at least roughly right, and it is a point that is often forgotten. Remember, the name Modernism is not given to the heresy because it necessarily has any particular love of the modern! The Modernist may well see himself as casting aside the new in order to restore the old to its proper conditions -- that's the archaeological piety. There is nothing, for instance, strictly preventing someone being a Modernist while identifying himself, sincerely, as a supporter and rescuer of Tradition -- but the notion that you can be something merely by sincere self-identification on the basis of your own experience is itself a fundamentally Modernist error.] But the feelings and the experiences involving them are the standard for the Modernist understanding of God and the Church and the traditions of the Church.

Santayana himself, of course, is in agreement with the notion that Church doctrines are kinds of fables that, while false as they stand, can be seen as valuable insofar as they express purely moral truths. But the Modernist errs, he thinks, in not recognizing that, however much Christianity may be a lovely moral fable in fact, it is certainly not so in intention. And in ignoring this fact, the Modernist inevitably tries to accommodate Christianity to the world in one way or another. But the Church is by nature against the world; its power lies in the fact that, while it cannot convert the world, it can be in the world, leavening it. If it cannot convert the whole world, it can nonetheless modify it while remaining itself essentially the same:

The modernists talk a great deal of development, and they do not see that what they detest in the church is a perfect development of its original essence; that monachism, scholasticism, Jesuitism, ultramontanism, and Vaticanism are all thoroughly apostolic; beneath the overtones imposed by a series of ages they give out the full and exact note of the New Testament. Much has been added, but nothing has been lost. Development (though those who talk most of it seem to forget it) is not the same as flux and dissolution. It is not a continuity through changes of any sort, but the evolution of something latent and preformed, or else the creation of new instruments of defence for the same original life....The mise-en-scène has changed immensely. The gospel has been encased in theology, in ritual, in ecclesiastical authority, in conventional forms of charity, like some small bone of a saint in a gilded reliquary; but the relic for once is genuine, and the gospel has been preserved by those thick incrustations. Many an isolated fanatic or evangelical missionary in the slums shows a greater resemblance to the apostles in his outer situation than the pope does; but what mind-healer or revivalist nowadays preaches the doom of the natural world and its vanity, or the reversal of animal values, or the blessedness of poverty and chastity, or the inferiority of natural human bonds, or a contempt for lay philosophy? Yet in his palace full of pagan marbles the pope actually preaches all this. It is here, and certainly not among the modernists, that the gospel is still believed.

The Modernists wish to be Christian for un-Christian reasons. And what they regard as a weakness of the Church, its failure to conform to this or that element that they, in their age and time, have discovered, is a weakness in light of the standards of their age and time. But times and ages change. What is a weakness now may be a strength in a few generations. And the proposals to correct those weaknesses are themselves inimical to what gives the Church a power to transform hearts in the first place:

In a frank supernaturalism, in a tight clericalism, not in a pleasant secularisation, lies the sole hope of the church. Its sole dignity also lies there. It will not convert the world; it never did and it never could. It will remain a voice crying in the wilderness; but it will believe what it cries, and there will be some to listen to it in the future, as there have been many in the past. As to modernism, it is suicide. It is the last of those concessions to the spirit of the world which half-believers and double-minded prophets have always been found making; but it is a mortal concession. It concedes everything; for it concedes that everything in Christianity, as Christians hold it, is an illusion.

Santayana himself, again, has views that are very similar in many ways to the views of Modernists; it's not the content of the Modernist view of the Catholic Church that he criticizes. What he dislikes is the attempt to have their cake and eat it too. The rational course would be for them to stop trying to pass themselves off to themselves and others as Catholic believers. They would be more consistent, he thinks, as freethinkers with benevolent views of religion than as people trying to be believers while always explaining away the beliefs.

In any case, it's an interesting non-Catholic view of a set of issues one almost only ever finds discussed by Catholics, and relatively few Catholics at that.

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