Saturday, February 08, 2003

How Us Liberal Catholics Get It Wrong, Pt. I

Around my neck of the woods there are two Catholic Churches that I attend. The first is my parish Church. Built during the Great Depression and completed after WWII, it much resembles, not in architecture but in its art and atmosphere, the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington; a Church built during the same era. Both Churches have a bit of almost everything from Catholicism, not kitschy, but politely busy. The second church is a neighboring parish that we attend on hot Sunday summer afternoons if the sleeping-bug had hit us. The distinction between this church and my parish church, other than the air conditioning and the church having been built "in the round," is the lack art and atmosphere. The walls are painted off-white and there is no art in the main section save a beige tapestry of the crucifixion and a plain wooden statue of the church's patron saint. I am not knocking the architecture, that's fine, but what is missing is a story of the Catholic faith. In one church, you cannot help but being knocked over by the mythos of the Catholicism. In the other, you cannot help being knocked over by want.

The contrast of these two Catholic church buildings highlights how us liberal Catholic get it wrong. We liberals get hung up on logos; cool, clean and rational. What gets lost with this drive toward the scientific and rational is the stories that shape the faith. Faith is not passed down through the generations using scientific formulas. Faith belongs to the realm of the mythical, the narrative, the story.

The tendency of our age is to discount mythos. If a story is not factually true, it gets relegated to the dust bin. Ask a high school student about the meaning of Genesis and chances are they will say it is just a myth. Of course, and unfortunately, they are taught that myths are falsehoods. To them, Genesis is wrong and if Genesis is wrong, then almost everything that they are taught about Catholicism is false. While high schoolers can be an extreme example of this logic, it is a logic that we liberals tend to delve into. We can take scriptural studies and bleed the life out of Jesus' words and deeds. If a certain saying of Jesus is thought to be attributed to the early community and not to the historical Jesus, then somehow, that saying loses weight; if Jesus did not say it, then any use of such saying to explain a matter of faith negates the doctrine. We liberals can get so caught up in the details of study, or the rational explanation, that we lose the mythic concern or deeper meaning of the good news.

We liberals tend to add an extra level to the mythos' burden of proof and buy too easily into the rational and scientific. This tendency is problematic because the logos of the modern sciences cannot express value and morals. With us liberals negating (either consciously or unconsciously) or devaluing the story or the mythos of faith, we lose the meaning and moral grounding of faith. When mythos is eliminated all that remains is an a-moral rationality that cannot convey a deeper meaning. As an example of this dynamic in action, we can look at how liberals use St. Augustine's outlook on human sexuality. We can get caught up in Augustine's seemingly negative statements on human sexuality and make statements such as: since Augustine's negative viewpoint is wrong, as demonstrated by philosophic and scientific inquiry, everything he had written should be discounted. If this is the case, therefore, the entire content of the Church's teaching on human sexuality should be discounted because it was built upon Augustine's faulty foundation. The mentality is like that of the high schooler, if one part of the story is rationally wrong, then the whole is not true. While Augustine may have been wrong on the level of expression, he was not necessarily wrong in the deeper meaning of the values and morals he was attempting to convey. On the flip side, we will extol the virtues of every scientific study that demonstrates that all forms of human sexuality are neutral, and therefore, should be accepted by society and the Church. If one thing of science is good, then it is all good.

The problem that we liberals need to face is that we are trading in rich symbols for cheap and easy signs. While my parish church is busy and visually messy, it does convey a rich story of Catholicism. But in our time, we are too enamored by the crisp, clean, and easy and we do not like the messiness of stories. However, it is within this mess that the meaning and purpose of our lives is discovered. I do think that us liberals do play a valid role within the the life of the Church, but that role is grounded and found within the Church's mythos and not in the logos of the scientific age.

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