T.S. Eliot as the solution to American literature

Over the past couple years, I’ve gradually arrived at the probably unfair opinion that most canonical works of American literature are repetitive diagnoses of a single perennial American problem: namely, the loss of transcendence in modern consciousness. Not that I don’t appreciate the brilliant modes by which various writers (Faulkner and James, for instance) express and diagnose this loss. But after a while, I can’t help growing tired and wishing more of them would work constructively toward its remedy.

Obviously, I have primarily in mind writers of the naturalist and modernist movements; but others factor in here as well. Stephen Crane is probably the worst offender, all things considered. His “A Man Said to the Universe” encapsulates, in just five lines, almost everything that bores me about the American canon:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

I don’t even understand why Crane bothered writing stories like “The Open Boat” — this poem gets his point across sufficiently enough. He’s really not interested in working through the problem of man’s place in the cosmos, or in consulting the wisdom of other ages for possible solutions to that problem, or even in fostering a “natural” appreciation of life in the face of that problem (as, for instance, some of the more naturalistically-minded British Romantics did). Nor does he really even consider the possibility, here or in the bulk of his other work, that his naturalistic worldview might simply be incorrect, and that mankind might actually have a transcendent end toward which to strive. He simply takes naturalism as a given and devotes page after page to its pronouncement. And to an unfortunate degree, other major American authors and works (McCarthy’s The Road, for instance) do the same.

A clear exception to this trend is the literature of the South, which tends to retain a certain sense of man’s transcendent orientation that’s lost on writers like Fitzgerald and Pynchon. (African-American Southern literature, in particular, is almost wholly devoid of naturalistic prejudice.) As I mentioned above, I’ve primarily a beef with the naturalist and modernist movements. But even some Southern Christian writers, I would argue, present nature in an all-too-naturalistic way. In the celebrated religious stories of Flannery O’Connor, for instance, revelation and “grace” tend to enter characters’ lives only through rupture and violence, and readers are very rarely left with the biblical impression that creation declares the glory, beauty, and love of the Lord. (I must be missing something here, but honestly O’Connor’s stories strike me as more Barthian than Catholic.)

All that said, I’ve also gradually arrived at the opinion that T.S. Eliot’s poetry is the answer to the perennial problem(s) of American literature. His poetic career begins, in a sense, where Crane, McCarthy, and the modernists lazily finish: with the death of God and the suffocating boredom of modern life (“Portrait of a Lady,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). But unlike Crane and so many others, he almost immediately turns to tradition, history, and foreign wisdom to find a cure for these modern troubles (The Waste Land). And some two decades later, he finds precisely the cure he’s been looking for: sacramental union with the divine (Four Quartets). Such union — or, as he refers to it, a “condition of complete simplicity” — is attained only through “prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action”; and, as history’s greatest saints and ascetics have all attested, it comes at the cost of “not less than everything.” In Eliot’s daunting words, our only hope lies in

Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit (“Burnt Norton,” III)

And he continues:

       In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are,
to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way
wherein there is no ecstacy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way
which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess
what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way
in which you are not.
And what you do not know
is the only thing you know
And what you own
is what you do not own
And where you are
is where you are not. (“East Coker,” III)

And perhaps this is the real reason Eliot’s solution has never gained footing in American literary consciousness: it costs more than American writers are willing to pay.


Why would anyone ask Jerry Coyne anything about religion?

I recently upset Jerry Coyne with some remarks I made on his blog. Long story short, I challenged his theological erudition and encouraged one of his readers to direct questions about religious belief toward those who actually study and practice it. (Coyne posted and replied to my full comment here, and followed up further, with another post, here.) At one point in my comment, I wrote the following:

In almost all cases and circumstances, belief is adopted on the basis of trust and testimony: we believe whatever the people we think trustworthy tell us about the thing about which they’re trustworthy. This is perfectly rational, so long as we choose good people to trust.

And all that said, I’d encourage you (though I’m sure Mr Coyne won’t actually send my words your way) to not trust Mr Coyne and others like him when it comes to the subject of religion. He has not spent any serious degree of time studying theology, or philosophy, or really anything relevant to your question. If you want to understand what the word “God” means, ask theologians (or monks). If you want to understand why people believe “God” exists, ask philosophers of religions, psychologists, sociologists, and historians — don’t ask a evolutionary biologist who specializes in fruit-fly research.

I grant that my tone was harsh, but I honestly thought this a fair (and relatively inoffensive) suggestion. Coyne thinks otherwise:

Frankly, I’m tired of people claiming that those of us who have read considerable theology and philosophy, or were believers in our earlier lives, aren’t qualified to say anything about religion because we’re neither priests nor monks. One thing that we do have is evidence—the evidence that supports scientific contentions—and one thing that theists have is NO EVIDENCE: no evidence supporting the existence or nature of any god. That should be the end of the discussion.

I’m continually amazed at how believers are able to be so vehement in their attacks on atheists when, after all, we’re simply pointing out this lack of evidence. The more I see of theists, the more I see them as a group of scared people, clinging to a superstition that they see slipping away: a security blanket that is being removed by atheists and skeptics. And so they grow angry and dismissive, and attack the credentials of anyone who dares comment on God or religion.

And then, to make matters worse for me, I was conclusively “pwned,” as several of Coyne’s readers triumphantly announced, by an anonymous “credentialed theologian” and reader of Coyne’s:

I am a credentialed theologian! At least, that is what I was told after graduating with my BA in theology from St. Gregory University, a Benedictine school in Shawnee, Oklahoma […] I can tell you that my few years at the undergraduate level was enough to divest me rather completely of the notion that theology was the study of anything solid, that there was an object to this subject. […]

My study of theology made me aware of the fact that there was no objective, empirical underpinning to the field. Nothing on which you could hang your hat. Just the promise of some hint at the divine through the contemplation of “mysteries”–or absurdities lent an air of sanctity by dint of tradition […]

We can only solve problems we experience in this world by reference to the world, not to otherworldly spirits whose existence has never been verified.

I’m not sure what this theologian’s point was (since I didn’t write a single word about the legitimacy or veracity of religious belief in my comment); nor am I sure why Coyne furiously digressed into a rant about why religion is false and has “NO EVIDENCE” to support itself (since, again, I said absolutely nothing about whether “religion” was supported at all, evidentially or otherwise). And I’m even less sure how Coyne managed to rationally or “evidentially” deduce from my comment that I’m a member of a “group of scared people, clinging to a superstition that they see slipping away: a security blanket that is being removed by atheists and skeptics.” As a couple of his readers helpfully noted, I didn’t even take a stance in my post — I only recommended that a reader ask religious questions of individuals with some degree of real religious knowledge. And for what it’s worth, my conviction that Coyne is not one such person actually has nothing to do with his lack of BAs in theology and other external “credentials” and everything to do with what I’ve seen him say regarding David Bentley Hart and classical theism.

Most other bits of Coyne’s response wobble haphazardly in similarly irrelevant directions: he points out that he didn’t personally try to answer the religious question at hand (he didn’t, but that has no bearing on my advice to the inquirer), he condescendingly notes that there are multiple factors motivating religious belief (who would ever suggest otherwise? I certainly didn’t), he exhorts me to “get out of the seminary and monastery” (I live in Los Angeles, have never attended seminary, and have never set foot in a monastery), and concludes — most forcefully of all — by pointing out that, “as any fool knows,” various theologians, rabbis, and imams will give various answers to religious questions (I will personally buy Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact if he can find me a single human [without severe mental disabilities and with a junior high diploma] who thinks otherwise).

All this to say: the entirety of the theologian’s response and the vast majority of Coyne’s response were completely irrelevant to what I actually wrote. Even so, Coyne did raise one point that pertained to my comment:

[W]hy is it only monks and theologians who are qualified to say what the word “God” means? What about what the word means to the regular believers, who make up the vast bulk of religionists? (Note the denigration of my qualifications by saying I do “fruit-fly research.”)

(For what it’s worth, I actually meant no disrespect to Coyne’s research. The study of fruit-flies is obviously helpful and worthwhile, I appreciate Coyne’s commitment to and achievements in the field. My point in mentioning it here was simply that Coyne’s specific area of study has almost literally nothing to do with theology, or philosophy, or sociology, or any other relevant discipline. It’s not even as though he studies the emergence of consciousness in rational creatures, or some other scientific subject that has some degree of substantial overlap with God-related questions. But I guess this is all beside the point.)

So why can’t “religionists” define the word “God,” instead of theologians and monks? This question would be fair if we were speaking in purely sociological or cultural terms. But we’re not. In the original post on which I commented, a reader was fairly earnestly asking what motivates so many people to believe in “God,” despite the impressive advances of modern science. My point in suggesting that Coyne’s reader ask theologians and monks what the word “God” means was simply that the vast majority of religious believers throughout history — be they Christian, Jewish, Neoplatonic, Sikh, Hindu, etc. — have understood the word “God” to have almost nothing directly to do with the inquiry or discoveries of the natural sciences. Theologians and monks spend their lives studying (and, in the latter case, devoting themselves to) these religious and philosophical traditions, and are, by and large, in no way adherent to the crass creationist, “God-of-the-gaps” form of religiosity Coyne’s reader describes.

But whatever. Coyne knows all this — or at least, he has absolutely no excuse to not know this if he has actually ever read David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. I personally suspect that he only furiously skimmed it, since his critiques of the book (at least two of which were written before even he claims to have read it in full) no less than completely misunderstand almost every single point Hart makes. But I guess there’s no point in going on here either, since all this has been said before (here, for example) by writers incomparably better than both myself and Coyne. After all, if Hart, Douthat, and Feser can’t stop Coyne from claiming that the God of classical theism is a God-of-the-gaps, what could I or anyone else possibly do to help him?

For the sake of Coyne’s readers, though, who may not have had the fortune of reading Hart’s book, here’s what Hart has already said, and what Coyne has already read, in response to the above question about popular “religionists”:

[T]he more persistent sort of skeptic will often then assert that … it hardly matters what the philosophers and theologians may think, because the “common believer” has only a hazy notion of any of that, and “most people” think of God in a much more primitive way. On the one hand, this is an entirely irrelevant argument. It is always true, for any shared body of knowledge, conviction, and belief, that the principles and logic of the whole “system” are more fully known only to a few individuals who have gone to the trouble to study them. As a rule, for instance, most persons have only a vague, metaphorical, and largely pictorial understanding of the findings of the sciences … That would hardly make it intellectually responsible for, say, a young earth creationist to reject the evolution of species or the vast antiquity of the earth based solely on the crude, indistinct, popular misconceptions that “most people” have about such matters … An honest and honorable critic of any idea will always seek out and try to understand the strongest possible formulations of that idea, as well as the most persuasive arguments in its favor, before attempting its refutation.

On the other hand, however, I have to note that in this case the skeptic’s complaint is not really true anyway, or at least not nearly as true as he or she imagines. Certainly the average believer may have very little knowledge of the history of metaphysics or the technical language of philosophy, and might not be able to formulate propositions regarding the logic of divine transcendence with the practiced ease of some saturnine old Jesuit in some Midwestern Catholic college’s philosophy faculty … Nevertheless, if one asks that average believer certain questions about what he or she understands God to be, the answers will often be in principle perfectly concordant with the more arcane formulae of the metaphysicians: that God is Spirit, incorporeal, not an object located somewhere in space, not subject to the limitations of time, not a product of cosmic nature, not simply some craftsman who creates by manipulating materials external to himself, not composed of parts, but rather residing in all things while remaining perfectly one, present to us in the depths of our own beings … (and so forth). As a practical reality, the God of faith and the God of the philosophers are in many crucial respects recognizably one and the same.

And, as anyone who has so much as furiously skimmed Hart’s book knows, this general picture of God — however noteworthy and important the diverse particular theological claims about this “God’s” nature, actions, and character may be — is common to practically all major religious and philosophical traditions. So yes, if one asks a priest and a rabbi whether God was ever born of a virgin in human history, one will receive two different answers. And of course this is theologically and philosophically important. But it in no way invalidates my advice to the young reader; nor does it somehow lend any credibility to Coyne’s religious learnedness, since the vast majority of reasons that even “religionists” believe in God are common to all theological traditions: they have seen “God” transform human lives in inexplicable ways, they have experienced “God” in private devotion, they have recognized that there is no coherent atheistic way to explain why something exists rather than nothing, they are committed to the intuitive conviction that their moral sensibility has some objective grounding (and thus that there is always something really wrong with, say, rape regardless of whether the majority of present humans find it tolerable or not), they perceive a natural but naturalistically inexplicable need in themselves for a transcendent “God” (and thus infer “God’s” existence in much the same way that Coyne infers the efficacy of his own rationality), they recognize that only “God” can account for the fundamental intelligibility of reality and structure of intentional consciousness, they don’t much feel like dismissing the experience of almost all humans (and especially of the most interesting and brilliant humans) throughout history as purely “delusional” and “primitive” in comparison to their own … and so on and so on.

Theologians and monks are superlatively aware of these and countless other motivating reasons for religious belief. They have experienced many such reasons first-hand. Of course theology is not a precise, objectively “empirical” discipline in the vein of the natural sciences. But even a passing glance at religious history indicates that it’s also not a wholly arbitrary or haphazard discipline, and that — cultural, dogmatic, and linguistic differences notwithstanding — a legion of the same moral, experiential, spiritual, and metaphysical conclusions have been drawn by the majority of major traditions of religious thought, practice, and inquiry in civilized human history.

And, I’ll ask in closing, what possible incentive could anybody (intelligent but misinformed 13-year-old blog-readers excluded) have to ask Jerry Coyne about them? I don’t think Coyne is a dumb man; I just don’t think he’s a reliable source of religious knowledge. Why would anyone dispute this? And why is this even an offensive thing to say? I’d sincerely like to know.

Do flies go to heaven? Hart, Feser, and Maximus on the beatific vision

David Bentley Hart and Edward Feser have been at it again (here, here, here, and here), this time with regard to question of whether animals (and other parts of non-human creation) will be redeemed and sustained in the eschaton. Hart says yes, Feser says no. In his most recent post on the matter, Hart writes the following:

The issue is not whether animals can “see God” … [R]ather, it is whether we can see God apart from cosmic nature. In The System [of manual Thomism], a medievalist of my acquaintance likes to say, “God is a species of discursive knowledge, the ultimate Concept,” while the vision of God is essentially ratiocinative, a kind of eternal Q.E.D. For Feser, certainly, the final human knowledge of God is indissolubly bound to a capacity for abstraction.

As Denys or Maximus would say, however, God is … the source and end of all knowledge and desire, sensible, appetitive, or rational, present in all as beyond all, and yet as more original than all. And, of course, even for the deified intellect, God could never be simply an external object of rational cognizance, some external “other thing” delivered over to theoretical contemplation; as Nicholas of Cusa says, creatures “see God” precisely by seeing God’s act of seeing all things, and so by participation in God’s knowledge of himself in his Logos. And this must entail, for embodied finite creatures, seeing everything that lives and dwells and is held together in the Logos in its final glory, the whole fabric of creation transfigured and finally made complete [emphasis added].

Though he never, as far as I can tell, explicitly responds to Hart on this point, Feser disagrees sharply: “the beatific vision … rather leaves everything else in its dust. And I submit that if you won’t miss sex when you’re in Heaven, it’s a safe bet that you’re not going to give much thought to Fido either.” Besides, he challenges in one of his follow-up blog posts, would those in Hart’s camp really argue that not only dogs and horses, but bacteria and flies will play a role in the beatific vision? If not, why not? How, in principle, would the situation of flies differ from that of dogs?

I can’t speak for Hart, but Feser’s question seems like a fair one. Hart’s position, as far as I can tell, does require him to affirm the eschatological durability of flies. And more generally speaking, this question about eschatological buzzers highlights an important difference (in emphasis if not in substance) between Thomistic and Orthodox thought.

Following Aquinas, Feser takes natural creaturely essences to be the sorts of things described by Aristotelian metaphysics: composite quiddities formally instantiated in material particulars. As such, the essences of creatures can be known — for the most part — through the medium of natural reason (though, to be fair, Aquinas himself acknowledges that of our own power we cannot so much as exhaust the essence of a fly).

Orthodox thought has no issue with understanding creatures in this manner, but considers this approach profoundly inadequate and incomplete if undertaken in isolation. This is because, from the Orthodox perspective, the truest and most properly natural knowledge of creatures is the kind afforded only by noetic vision and obtained only through ascetic contemplation; such knowledge is not only of formal structures and characteristic functions, but of the divine logoi in and by which creatures exist. As Andrew Louth explains,

Natural contemplation is so called because at this stage the mind is able to contemplate the logoi that lie behind the natural order. In Christian usage, this notion of the logoi can be traced back to Origen: they are the principles in accordance with which everything in the cosmos was created through the Word of God, the Logos.

Maximus the Confessor elaborates that “When the intellect naturally apprehends all the logoi in beings and contemplates within them the infinite energies of God,” it comes to consider scientific inquiry “ineffective and its method useless, for it provides the intellect with no means of understanding how God … is present in the logos of each thing in itself, and in all the logoi together, according to which all things exist” (Ambiguum 22). Only insofar as the human intellect understands creatures (1) as expressions of God the Logos and (2) in their unique, divinely intended logoi does it truly understand them at all. And, given the Fall, such understanding is borne only of ascetic struggle and freedom from irrational (alogikos) passions.

For Maximus, then, creaturely essences are not exhaustively or adequately dealt with by, say, Aquinas’ On Being and Essence. To know dogs qua dogs means knowing the logos of dogs, which cannot be sufficiently perceived by analysis of genus, species, and so on. These categories and this approach can only describe essences as they are perceived in fallen creatures and from the natural vantage of fallen intellects. What they cannot do is describe creatures in a truly or naturally essential way.

Which brings me back, finally, to Feser’s question about flies and the beatific vision. It seems entirely plausible to me that flies — as divinely intended creatures — will afford saints vision of God in the eschaton. It also seems plausible to me, however, that our vision of flies in their intended logos will differ drastically from our vision of them in our fallen, passion-ridden, and sinful state. This difference will be due not to God’s altering of their fundamental nature (as Aquinas would likely suspect), but to the renewal of our minds before the logoi of God.

According to Maximus, the logoi are no less than “portions of God,” and it is therefore unintelligible to speak, as Feser does, of a vision of the God apart from His logoi. As he writes in Ambiguum 7,

One Logos is many logoi, and the many logoi are one Logos. According to the creative and sustaining movement of the One outward to the world, in a way that is appropriate to God, the One is many; according to the thoughtful, pedagogical elevation of the many to the one, God’s Providence as if to the ultimate cause of all things or to the center of the straight lines that proceed out from him . . . the many are one.

Seeing the Logos certainly will therefore involve “seeing everything that lives and dwells and is held together in the Logos”: to see the many logoi simply is to see the one Logos, and vice versa. And this final vision will very possibly involve seeing not only dogs but even flies (however strange this prospect appears from our present vantage), all united indivisibly with ourselves in Christ, by whom the Father has “reconciled all things to Himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1.20).

St Symeon the New Theologian on self-examination

At all times you should fear God, and every day you should examine yourself to see what good things you have done and what bad things. And you should forget what was good, lest you succumb to the passion of self-esteem. But where what was bad is concerned you should weep, confess, and pray intensely. This self-examination should take place as follows: when the day has ended and evening has come, ask yourself how, with God’s help, you have passed the day. Did you judge anyone, speak harshly of anyone, or offend anyone? Did you look impassionately at anyone, or did you disobey your superior with regard to your duties and neglect them? Did you become angry with anyone or occupy your mind with useless things while in church? Or, overcome by lethargy, did you leave church or depart from your rule of prayer? When you see that you are guiltless on all counts — which is impossible, for ‘no one is free from stain, not even for a single day of his life,’ and ‘who will boast that his heart is pure?’ — then cry out to God, full of tears: ‘Lord, forgive me all my sins, in thought or act, conscious or unwitting.’ For we offend in many ways, and do not know it. (Practical and Theological Texts 121)

Athanasius, Aquinas, and Chesterton on the tangible evidence of Christ’s work

Athanasius wrote that the proof of Christ’s saving work “is clearer through visible facts than through arguments,” and proceeded to demonstrate it as follows (in De incarnatione 30 and 46):

For since the Savior works so many things among human beings, and daily in every place invisibly persuades such a great multitude, both from those who dwell in Greece and in the foreign lands, to turn to his faith and all to obey his teaching, would anyone still have doubt in their mind whether the resurrection has been accomplished by the Savior, and whether Christ is alive, or rather is himself the Life? Is it like a dead man to prick the minds of human beings so that they deny their father’s laws and revere the teaching of Christ? Or how, if he is not acting — for this is a property of one dead — does he stop those active and alive so that the adulterer no longer commits adultery, the murderer no longer murders, the unjust no longer grasps greedily, and the impious is henceforth pious?

When did human beings begin to abandon the worship of idols, except since the true God Word of God came among human beings? Or when have the oracles amongst the Greeks and everywhere ceased and become empty, except since the Savior revealed himself upon earth? … And when, in short, did the wisdom of the Greeks become foolish (1 Cor 1.18-24) except when the true Wisdom of God revealed itself upon earth? For formerly the whole inhabited world and every place were led astray by the worship of idols, and human beings regarded nothing else but idols as God. Now, however, throughout the whole inhabited world, human beings are deserting the superstition of idols, taking refuge in Christ, and worshipping him as God … And, what is amazing, is that while there were thousands of diverse objects of worship, and each place had its own idol, and that which was called a god by some had no power to pass over into the neighboring place to persuade those of the neighborhood to worship it … only Christ is worshipped by all as one and everywhere the same. And what the weakness of idols could not do — persuade even those dwelling nearby — this Christ has done, persuading not only those nearby, but simply the entire inhabited world, to worship the one and the same Lord, and through him God, his Father.

Aquinas picked up on this theme in Summa Contra Gentiles 1.1.6:

[The] wonderful conversion of the world to the Christian faith is so certain a sign of past miracles, that they need no further reiteration, since they appear evidently in their effects. It would be more wonderful than all other miracles, if without miraculous signs the world had been induced by simple and low-born men to believe truths so arduous, to do works so difficult, to hope for reward so high. And yet even in our times God ceases not through His saints to work miracles for the confirmation of the faith.

And Chesterton, finally, concluded his Everlasting Man along the same lines:

For this is the last proof of the miracle; that something so supernatural should have become so natural. I mean that anything so unique when seen from the outside should only seem universal when seen from the inside.

[…] The mystery is how anything so startling should have remained defiant and dogmatic and yet become perfectly normal and natural. I have admitted freely that, considering the incident in itself, a man who says he is God may be classed with a man who says he is glass. But the man who says he is glass is not a glazier making windows for all the world. He does not remain for after ages as a shining and crystalline figure, in whose light everything is as clear as crystal.

But this madness has remained sane. The madness has remained sane when everything else went mad. The madhouse has been a house to which, age after age, men are continually coming back as to a home. That is the riddle that remains; that anything so abrupt and abnormal should still be found a habitable and hospitable thing. I care not if the sceptic says it is a tall story; I cannot see how so toppling a tower could stand so long without foundation. Still less can I see how it could become, as it has become, the home of man.

[…] If it were an error, seems as if the error could it hardly have lasted a day. If it were a mere ecstasy, it would seem that such an ecstasy could not endure for an hour. It has endured for nearly two thousand years; and the world within it has been more lucid, more level-headed, more reasonable in its hopes, more healthy in it instincts, more humorous and cheerful in the face of fate and death, than all the world outside. For, it was the soul of Christendom that came forth from the incredible Christ, and the soul of it was common sense. Though we dared not look on His face we could look on His fruits; and by His fruits we should know Him. The fruits are solid the fruitfulness is much more than a metaphor, and nowhere in this sad world are boys happier in apple trees or men in more equal chorus singing as they tread the vine, than under the fixed flash of this instant and intolerant enlightenment, the lightning made eternal as the light.

Peter Leithart and the problems with (some) Protestant ecumenism

Throughout the past year, Peter Leithart has written frequently about ecumenism and Protestant-Catholic/-Orthodox dialogue on his First Things blog. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) I have deep respect for Leithart’s work in general, but these blog posts strike me as oddly and uncharacteristically unhelpful. Helpful or not, though, these posts are very much representative of contemporary ecumenical conversation in general, in that almost every one of them hinges on two ecclesiological assumptions that are as problematic, from the Catholic and Orthodox perspectives, as they are ubiquitous.

The first assumption at work is that church “schism” necessarily and simply equates to church “division” (and therefore that both parties involved in a schism are always, to at least a comparable degree, guilty and arrogant). This assumption leads Leithart to make declarations like these:

Division is childish. It’s childish to retreat into our safe places, where everyone is like us.

We cannot have mature Christianity in the midst of our divisions, because maturation is maturation toward unity. So long as we remain divided, we remain children.

But there’s an obvious problem here: Neither Orthodox nor Catholic believers exactly believe (or at least, according their respective traditions, ought to believe) that the Church is “divided.” They believe, generally speaking, that other groups have separated themselves from the Church, and therefore that those other groups ought to return to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church whence they departed.

Of course this doesn’t mean that all non-Catholic or -Orthodox communions are equally “schismatic” in doctrine or even lineage (there’s a clear difference between Lutherans and Mormons); nor does it mean that these communions don’t often contribute worthily and superlatively to the theological conversation. But it does mean that Leithart’s declarations about “church division” only hold water from the perspective of a radically Protestant ecclesiology — which quite straightforwardly asserts that the Catholic and Orthodox communions sorely misunderstand themselves. All Leithart is really doing in making such declarations, then, is re-stating Protestant first principles and dubbing immature those (read: Catholics and Orthodox) who disagree with them. This is neither a helpful nor a charitable strategy.

Besides, putting practical considerations aside, how far is Leithart willing to extend the logic of his claims? Was the Church “childish” in dividing itself from, say, the Arians or Montanists? Are all schisms really divisions, or only some? And how might one distinguish truly “childish” church divisions from properly excommunicative schisms? Obviously, Leithart is discontent with the job the Catholic and Orthodox churches have done in distinguishing schisms from divisions, and believes himself to have somehow arrived at a better means of doing so … but this is just to say (again) that Leithart’s ecclesiology is Protestant, and that his ecumenical desire is for Catholics and Orthodox to abandon their traditional self-understandings and come to understand themselves in a Protestant fashion.

Not that any of this is offensive or necessarily wrong. It’s simply crucial to note that the same basic ecclesiological “intolerance” is operative in Protestant writers no less than Catholic and Orthodox ones. Protestants understand Orthodox in terms of Protestantism, just as Catholics understand Protestants in terms of Catholicism.

The second assumption at work here — distinct but certainly not separable from the first — is that doctrinal agreement is essentially equivalent to ecclesiological unity (and therefore that all churches are basically on equal ecclesiological and/or sacramental footing, being “divided” only insofar as they choose to disagree with each other). There’s not much that needs to be said here, since the foregoing paragraphs all address this assumption indirectly, but at least one point is worth making.

Unless I’ve missed something, Leithart never once mentions apostolic succession in his ecumenical posts. Nor does he mention (much less grapple with) the Cyprianic understanding of the episcopate as the center of ecclesiastical unity and sacramental validity. This is ecumenically problematic. From the Orthodox and Catholic perspective, apostolic doctrine is inseparably bound up with apostolic succession, and one cannot properly discuss one without the other. Thus to speak of “church unity” without any reference to apostolic succession or sacramental validity is, again, to speak in a radically and distinctively Protestant — i.e., non-Catholic or -Orthodox — way.

My point in all this is not to complain about Leithart (whom, again, I really do respect, and whose opinions I apologize for presenting extremely). I’m simply worried that the ecumenical movement he represents all too often masks its ecclesiologically dogmatic intentions with a welcoming rhetoric of “receptivity” and “unity.”

Of course the Orthodox and Catholic churches have much to learn from Protestant communions, in both belief and practice; and of course the division of the Christian world is tragic and, in a real sense, “childish.” But the mending of that division is unlikely to come from Leithart’s approach, which seeks (however subtly) to begin the conversation by demoting the Catholic and Orthodox churches to the status of Protestant denominations. Ecumenical dialogue must revolve around and wrestle with — rather than assume or ignore — the fundamental points of ecclesiological contention: sola scriptura, apostolic succession, the papal claims, and so on. The best way to do so, I submit, is to start the dialogue at the beginning of our shared Christian story, with the earliest bishops and martyrs of the Church’s life.

I’ll close this long-winded post with the far more charitable (and ecclesiologically precise) words of Gregory of Nazianzus, who so exceptionally attained the balance of truth and love that all ecumenical dialogue requires:

We seek not conquest, but the return of our brethren, whose separation from us is tearing us apart.