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Against the Rising Tide

Why we need to move from reason to theology and how such a move might change our schools and homes

How should Christian classical educators in the early 21st century evolve, and on what points should we stand fast in the face of the rising tide of progressivism and modernism?

I want to focus on one point in particular, namely the teaching of sexuality and sexual ethics. In the last few years, we have seen a rapid change in the behavior of teens amounting to a catastrophic decline of sexual morality. It is hard to see how this might be reversed. How can we teach children in a class of mixed beliefs that one doctrine applies to all?

The answer, if there is one, is to start from a fundamental anthropology. If all men are the same, in some basic respect, we have a reason for treating them the same way. This fundamental anthropology is taught by, or at least implicit within, the great books and the sources of classical tradition. It is one of the elements that are under attack by the forces of progressivism and modernism. And because it goes to the heart of who we are, it is one of the most important.

Broadening of Reason

Corresponding to a universal anthropology is a universal reason or rationality. Logos or “reason” was a recurrent theme in the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, who often wrote on its importance as the counterpoint to his “dictatorship of relativism” (for example in the Regensburg lecture). Only true rationality and intelligence can see through relativism and attain some kind of absolute. But the word “Logos” does not simply mean “reason”; or at least, there are subtleties here that are worth our attention.

In an Endnote to Beauty in the Word, I explain that Logos originally meant speech, account, reason, definition, rational faculty, or proportion. For Heraclitus, logos was the name of the underlying organizational principle of the universe, related to its common meaning as proportion and therefore harmony, but also identified with a material element – cosmic fire. Plato used the word rather more abstractly, meaning an analytical account, distinguishing it from mythos or a fanciful tale of the gods. For Aristotle it meant the definition of a whole, or else reason or rationality, particularly in an ethical context. It could also mean mathematical proportion or ratio (from which we get the word “rationality”). The Roman Stoics employed the word in a way reminiscent of Heraclitus, to refer to the divine principle of organization – the fiery, active seed-force in the universe.

With all this in the background, it is fair enough to translate Logos as Reason. But then the focus becomes the human subject – the consciousness that “tunes into” or grasps the Logos. This may be leading us to miss an important distinction between two types of reasonableness or rationality: discursive (or conceptual) rationality on the one hand, and intuitive rationality on the other. Medieval writers sometimes drew the distinction between upper and lower reason. For Aquinas, the faculty of reason in its upper part touches on the realm of the angels, who know things intuitively (On Truth, Q 16, a 1). He therefore distinguishes reason or ratio, which arrives at knowledge step by step, from understanding or intellectus, which “reads the truth within the very essence of the thing” (Q 15, a 1). This is not Platonism, but it is closer than Aquinas is normally thought to go.

The faculty of understanding or intellectus is not a separate faculty from reason, but we need to distinguish it, and to speak of it, when we come to metaphysics. Benedict says with reference to the Logos, “it leads from empiricism to metaphysics and with this to another level of thought and reality.” But it cannot do so by way of ratio alone. The lower ratio may be able to discover the logoi, but to discover the Logos we need the “upper part” of reason or intellectus, since this grasps unity in diversity, and therefore glimpses the Logos that holds all things together.

Benedict has set us thinking about thinking. The problems of modernity are largely the result of our disconnection from the Logos – our failure to understand what it is and where it may be sought, and by which human faculty. (Ignorance of ourselves goes along with ignorance of the world.) Our need for a philosophy of “metaphysical range,” a philosophy of being as such, was stated by Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio. Without it we fall into the errors of positivism and even materialism. The question is, how do we develop our capacity for metaphysics? How do we re-start a conversation that was interrupted so long ago?

Gateway to Human Sexuality

We need to move from reason to theology. Here we find that the widely debated question of sexual behavior has opened a gateway for us – a gateway leading directly to the Trinity. Pope John Paul II has taken us over that threshold in a way that few other modern thinkers have even appreciated. His thinking is partly theological (because theology is an opening of philosophical thinking to new horizons) and partly scriptural (because theology is based on a penetrating reflection of the Bible). I want to build on my work on the theology of the body in Not As the World Gives (Angelico Press, forthcoming) to explain how the Pope has opened up this gateway to a new understanding of human sexuality.

Without going into too much detail here, ideas derived from theology (itself largely derived from Holy Scripture) can help us interpret the opening of the Book of Genesis in a way that sheds light on the theology of the body. For the earliest chapters of the Bible are not really about the earliest days of the world, the origin of humanity, or even the first nanoseconds after the Big Bang. What these chapters are about is not so much “history” as relationships and meaning. They are about the relationship of the world to God, first of all, and of the parts of the world – especially us – to the whole and to each other. They are about the purpose and meaning of things in relation to God and each other.

The events described in Genesis occur in a world intermediate between time and eternity, among the archetypes of created things. The Fall narrative does not describe events that happened exclusively in the past and are now over. It is the account of a catastrophe that is still happening. The Fall is still going on – “up there,” we might say, or “in here.” This gives the Genesis accounts an immediate relevance and applicability to each of us, and that is how the Church Fathers always insisted on reading them.

With this in mind, John Paul II has given us the “gospel of the body” as a way of healing our souls in a broken society. He tries to read Scripture in the light of the higher reason and the mystery of love, just as he tries to read man and woman in the same light, a light that penetrates to the heart of the world. He focuses much of his attention in the discourses on the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, the Song of Songs, the Book of Tobit, some passages of the Gospels, and the Letters of St Paul (especially Ephesians).

He concentrates less on the first creation account in Genesis, the narrative of the Seven Days, than on the second account, which starts in Chapter 2 of the Sacred Writings. This account adopts a different ordering of events. St Augustine in fact thought that while Chapter 1 described creation from the perspective of the Angels, Chapter 2 described it from the point of view of Man.

The first account of the creation (Gen. 1:1–2:3) describes the creation of light and even of living plants as preceding that of the sun, while man appears at the end, as a kind of culmination of the process, after which God rests. But the second account (Gen. 2:4–25) is rather different. Man comes first, followed by plants, animals, and finally woman. Both accounts describe the same archetypal creation. The first, however, describes it from an objective, angelic, or divine point of view; that is, from the point of view of the ontological center. The component parts of the world are set out in relation to man, as though for his sake: the world reveals its human meaning. Man is formed from the earth; the plants are raised up to create a garden for him to dwell in; the animals and birds are formed to give him companionship and help. The day ends with a night, or at least a sleep, in which woman is drawn out of man.

The Three Temptations

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (v. 6). These are the three perennial temptations, or rather the beginnings of those temptations that Jesus experiences in the desert in a particularly intense form – to turn stones into bread, to delight people with miracles, and to rule the world like Solomon. The three aspects of the temptation correspond also to the three elements of the human being: body, soul, and spirit. John Paul II calls this the birth of the “man of (threefold) concupiscence.” In this way the passions of man are set free, and the result is that by being indulged they grow stronger and end by consuming us altogether (Man and Woman, p. 284).

Pope Benedict said that St Maximus “demonstrates that man finds his unity, the integration of himself, his totality not in himself, but in surpassing himself, by coming out of himself. Thus, also in Christ, man, coming out of himself, finds in God, in the Son of God, himself. Adam – and Adam is us – thought that the “no” was the apex of liberty; that only he who can say “no” is truly free; that to truly realize his liberty, man must say “no” to God. Only in this way, he thinks, he is finally himself; he has arrived at the summit of liberty. This tendency was also present in Christ’s human nature, but he overcame it, because Jesus saw that “no” is not the greatest liberty.” “The greatest liberty is to say ‘yes,’ to conform with the will of God,” the Holy Father underlined. “Only in saying ‘yes’ does man really become himself.”

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (v. 7). To hide from each other? What has become of the pure self-giving of their original innocence? John Paul II says that they have lost the sense of the image of God in themselves. The fear that the man and woman feel for the first time after the Fall is partly a response to the emergence of lust, as a result of their separating themselves from God by disobedience. The initial purity and transparency of self-giving love has been compromised.

Lust begins, however, not with the naked human body, but with the fruit. The spiritual dimension of these three temptations is due to the fact that they each represent a turning way from God, seeking fulfillment in taking instead of receiving. The consequences of this threefold sin quickly become evident in the changed relationship of man and woman, a relationship now shaped by desire and power rather than mutual delight (3:16). The three temptations are only finally defeated by human nature in the person of the Son, who rejects them in the wilderness (Matt. 4:3–11), making possible the restoration of Marriage for those who join themselves to him in Baptism.

Woman reveals Adam’s own nature to him. At the same time, she differs from him, and the nature of the difference is due primarily to fecundity. In this potential fecundity lies the divine image to which Gen. 1:27 refers. In other words, the divine image is only perfected by dividing man into male and female in such a way that a third, a child, can be born of them. In this fact John Paul II sees both an implicit revelation of the Trinity and a revelation of the nature of marriage as covenant, as well as a revelation of the nature of man as oriented to self-gift.

“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (v. 24). A covenant is a union in the flesh, which overcomes the separation between two individuals without destroying the difference between them. In fact it depends upon the difference between them. This is an image both of the Trinity and of the union between divine and human natures in the person of Christ – which extends itself into the union of Christ and the Church. But the covenantal union of marriage is not automatic or mechanical; it requires the deliberate pouring out of the one into the other (in a vow expressing mutual consent to self-gift, and eventually in the sexual act). In this, too, something is revealed of the Trinity’s nature as love – infinitely joyful, overflowing with an abundance of life. “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”

The Great Book of Genesis

From all this it is possible to read the first two chapters of Genesis as one of the greatest of the great books, and Pope John Paul II invites us to teach it as such. Read in this way, it reveals the basis of a Christian anthropology that underpins the teaching of sexual morality in the modern age. It also explains the best way to live our sexuality. Any other leads to the trivialization of sex. Relationships that could be profoundly life-changing begin to dissolve into the flux of modern life. They mean nothing. The sadness of autumn begins to pervade them.

Morality makes no sense if taught as a list of do’s and don’ts, which are easily swept away on the tide of progressivism. In my book I have tried to go further, but here I can only offer a series of hints. John Paul II teaches Original Solitude, Original Unity, Original Nakedness, and Original Sin, as aspects of the original state in which Man discovers his own nature. Christian anthropology explains how we are easily caught up in the three temptations, leading us into a relationship shaped by desire and power, and reveals the consequences of breaking the Trinitarian image that shows human nature as oriented to self-gift. Nothing but Christian anthropology, in fact, can explain the reasons behind the teaching of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (1968) – the encyclical that, more than any other, represents and defends the great tradition in which the great books stand.

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