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A Barbarian Philosopher Crosses the Tiber

Its waters are cold, and rougher than expected, even for a wild olive from Northern climes.

My path toward God is that of the philosopher. It’s a difficult one, a spiritually dangerous one, and I’ve come to believe that it’s probably one of the least preferable. St. Thomas’s name speaks truly of the entire profession — we generally believe because we have petulantly demanded to see. We believe because our conclusions allow nothing else — and we therefore often tend to rely on our reason to the detriment of our trust in God.

But it can also be a fruitful path, a path that brings with it a special certainty of the intellect and an ever-deepening insight in the mysterious unity of God and truth — both of which are sorely lacking in these days.

I began working in apologetics in my early teens, as much out of pride as anything else. Having been raised in a revivalist branch of the Church of Sweden, Christianity was a core part of my identity, and the challenges advanced by the nascent New Atheism and replicated in various online forums were felt as an affront against me as well as everything I held dear. They had to be neutralized. Very young I went into the fray, mainly aided by C.S. Lewis and the surprisingly unknown apologist Glenn Miller, and took a few heads for some years, before I encountered the more hard-nosed nihilists who actually knew some basic philosophy.

The need for more tangible expertise eventually brought me down south to pursue theological studies, and here, in the nation’s cultural heartland, I soon became immersed in what can most accurately be summarized as a relativistic philosophical environment and the more liberal strands of contemporary theology. The critique thereof I’m about to present is to fault neither my alma mater nor its faculty, some of whom are truly great and conscientious intellectuals.

The pitfalls of relativism

The causes of this infatuation with relativism and the associated espousal of certain problematic aspects of liberal theology, which was common among my peers, are complex. One important reason was their rhetorical utility within the framework of practical, in-the-field apologetics.

Facing up against militant atheists in the “Dawkinsian” tradition who ardently maintained that the classical arguments for the existence of God were insufficient, I and my fellow liberal Protestants employed a kind of hybrid warfare. The main strategy was to defend the classical arguments rationally, generally supplanting them with cumulative reasoning — but at the same time to utilize a deconstructionist, anti-realist approach intended to undermine the metaphysics and epistemology of their, in our view, hopelessly antiquated, early-modern thought. This approach (according to which the tangible world around us is not actually objective and stable, but more or less created by consensus) was then paired with a mainly apophatic perspective on God — i.e., negative theology. In practice, this meant that after defending the classical arguments, one then moved on to argue that the opponents’ reasoning was suspect and hopelessly misguided. We thereby attacked the framework of their thought, due to its reliance on what we maintained were impossible claims to objectivity completely entangled with ideology, and argued that their feeble arguments against a purportedly supreme object completely failed to do justice to God’s absolutely transcendent nature, the Tillichian ground of being.

In other words, we tossed out both the baby and the bathwater, and then we proceeded to eject the bathtub and tear out the plumbing as well, while insisting that we had simply expanded the house — for how could you coherently discern “outside” from “inside,” anyway?

In retrospect, I do believe there was at least some merit to our approach, which however incoherently combined a rejection of modernist ontology and a critique of its ideological foundations with positive arguments for God’s existence, a fundamental trust in God, and an important emphasis on His transcendent nature. The problem was that many of us thoroughly rejected the objectivity of nature that early-modern philosophy attempted to discern and dissect, in the spirit of Kant’s disbelief in our access to the thing-in-itself, and with this rejection, many another thing followed. I, for one, prided myself on being “an anti-realist in regard to everything except God,” and more or less entered into a gnostic perspective on the world. As a pregnant example, when re-reading George Orwell’s 1984 when I was about twenty-three, I recall actually being bothered by Winston Smith’s famous line: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” My unwittingly self-contradictory conviction was that such claims to objectivity were inherently oppressive, that they failed to adequately regard the almost infinite complexities of our world and its rich variety of stories, relations, connections and experiences, and could readily be utilized to tear asunder, to conquer and enslave.

Nonetheless, I did not consider my insistence that God indeed really exists for everyone and everywhere as questionable in the same sense. This, I argued, was a completely respectable position since God’s transcendent nature necessarily is beyond our understanding, and as God’s nature always eludes being pinned down in static and objective terms, the affirmation of his existence did not as such have any of the oppressive and reifying tendencies that I ascribed to the absolute truth claims concerning created reality.

What I did not realize was that my reaction to modern philosophy still rested on modern presuppositions. Even as I rebelled against them, I was still chained to the Humean sophistry. I was inevitably “returning to the Humean vomit” in parallel with how G.R. Mure pertinently characterized late modernity’s philosophical sterility in his wonderful 1958 work Retreat from Truth, and I was thereby indirectly embracing the flawed and contradictory metaphysics implied by the modernists’ rejection of God’s existence.

Undoubtedly, notwithstanding the basic trust in God that I still retained, my philosophical approach toward God in many ways amounted to a denial of much of what has been revealed to us concerning His will and His nature, leaving little more than a blank canvas one could freely project upon.

And sure enough, in unreflective supplication to the Enlightenment heritage I tried to oppose, “freedom” had taken center stage in my worldview. The idea of an unimpeded, boundless liberty, approaching license, had usurped an important part of my ethics and idea of salvation — as much a consequence of the old dichotomy between faith and works as of the theological atmosphere aptly summarized in the Swede Archbishop Hammar’s contention that he did not possess the truth, but rather merely sought it.

Predictably, a certain ethical slackness of mine ensued, increasingly barbarous, which, in time, brought the conflicts embedded in my worldview to the surface. Denying the objective reality of nature, and more or less maintaining that mankind possessed no foundation of absolute truth, how feeble was not the raft upon which I attempted to sail through life? If God was so utterly other as to have no describable relation to the world around me, which itself had no permanent, objective attributes, what did it really mean to say God exists, and how could I really know this to be true? Most importantly, how could I be certain of the goodness of God, not to speak of the rightness of my own actions? My world now appeared formless and hollow, and all of our voices seemed, in Eliot’s words:

… quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Starting Over

Struck by the existentialist’s horror, I had to begin anew. Holding on to nothing but the basic trust in the living Spirit I had received in baptism, I was forced to construct sound foundations of first philosophy in the absence of any doctrine, impeded by much of the ideological baggage of my academic studies, yet at the same time aided by many of the critical tools I had received from my mentors. This painstaking and difficult work took its good time, but to summarize, it eventually led me to discover the necessary truth of the most important classical arguments for God’s existence, which in turn enabled me to understand and fully embrace the orthodoxy of classical theism and to reject the modern aberrations. God’s necessary existence, I realized, is his perfection, and his utter, undivided perfection is that which is Good in itself.

When this was granted, all else followed. The irresponsible and incongruous metaphysics I had entertained evaporated, much like a nightmare at the break of dawn, and the fundamental incoherence of modernity’s ontologies as well as their relativistic spawn at once became obvious.

At the same time, however, I unexpectedly saw all the more clearly the actual merits of our non-realist reaction against modernity and its insistence upon the value of the subjective and contextual which had been lost in the reductionist paradigm. These aspects of our world were indeed defended by postmodern idealism and the associated forms of subjectivist metaphysics, but in such an imbalanced way that the implicit end result inevitably was nihilism. The discovery that Catholic theology and metaphysics manage to perfectly balance realism with the irreducible presence of the subjective and spiritual aspects of being was a relief beyond words.

Now, yet in an entirely new sense, I was free to acknowledge the robust and unyielding reality of all particular contexts and the unique subjects populating them, in contrast to the postmodern view, which approaches the natures of everyone and everything as amorphous and arbitrary, held together by little besides will and desire.

Anthony Esolen argues that Christianity as a form of religion is unique in that it never distorts or disrupts the cultures into which it enters. Rather, he rightly maintains, Christianity refines and completes them, bringing out their unique goods, rendering them more fully true to themselves.

In a similar fashion, I found that authentic Catholic metaphysics preserves and raises up all the valuable contributions of the anti-realist critiques, whose main impetus always was to guard the subjective and particular against the onslaught of reductionism. At best, here is found a particular form of humility whose insistence upon the value and unassailable dignity of the local, individual and particular, finds its proper home in the central Christian truth of the incarnation and its irreducible historicity.

The wellspring as well as the perfection of all that ever was good within modernity and its offshoots lies in nothing but Christ Himself.

Curiously, a few years back, I read that one of my old heroes, the iconoclastic Paul Feyerabend, approached somewhat similar conclusions at the end of his life. Normally considered something of an arch-relativist, his formidable critique of the arrogant scientistic naturalism of late modernity was a great inspiration for my early apologetic work. A philosopher of science, who steadfastly insisted that there were more things in Heaven and Earth than could possibly be dreamed of in atheistic scientism, was invaluable to me at the time.

Upon revisiting my old mentor in a new light, it now became obvious that “relativist” was a misnomer. Feyerabend, most fundamentally, rather displayed a deep humility with regard to truth and was mainly skeptical toward to our ability to finally possess and dominate it.  It was his rejection of reductive naturalism and scientism that in the eyes of many became equivalent to relativism. Actually, this rejection of his had at heart been inspired by a passion for justice, a search for robust truth, and finally — which can clearly be seen in his posthumous Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being — by a love for the Real, a love for something he regarded as a living entity we can never fully comprehend, but whom we may well come to know if we approach and ask. From still further sources, it seems that Feyerabend actually espoused theism in his later years.

In spite of the atheist adversaries of my youth, reason herself was never the enemy of faith. To their credit, however, neither was the vigorous realism I once had more or less rejected, which they passionately sought to defend from what they saw as a hostile and precarious idealism. We both had our points. Reason in the sense of a consistent and honest search for truth ultimately leads us to God, its final goal, while our trust in and communion with Him who is manifest to our hearts and in the sacraments lastly allows us to behold the truth of the very real world around us.

Yet reason in terms of man’s usurpation of truth in service of his own appetites, the instrumental reason where the search for truth is submitted to worldly ends rather than our sanctification, will in the end divide us from faith.

Parting Ways with the Church of Sweden

For all of her virtues, I found that the old state church within whose walls I had been raised was not sufficiently anchored in these perennial principles for me to remain therein. I deemed much of its leadership too heterodox, and the restoration of my worldview led me to eventually embrace the doctrines abandoned in the Protestant Revolution. Not least of these was the necessity of dogma as such, already implied by the very admission of absolute truth, which in turn makes indispensable a central magisterial authority in the heart of the Christian community. Once the authority of unbroken tradition came to supplant sola scriptura, there was simply nowhere to go but across that river.

To be sure, the Lutheran Church of Sweden is an embattled bastion of Christ, boldly striving to bear witness in a fractured world, albeit often forced to play by its own conflicting rules. It is entangled in a kind of guerrilla war in a secular milieu that for many decades has been either indifferent or outright hostile to its purpose, even as it has happily exploited many of the church’s societal functions. Were it not for the heroes within her confines, faithfully performing their duties, long-suffering in the Lord, it would surely be a breached rather than merely a flawed and beleaguered bastion.

None of my old friends really questioned my decision to join the Catholic Church, which did surprise me but perhaps shouldn’t have. Five hundred years since the Reformation, the situation is in many ways a new one: even if the Lutherans among whom I was raised perhaps saw them as too strict, formal or even to some extent prejudiced, they nonetheless always held Catholicism and Orthodoxy in high regard, and considered them bearers of the same fundamental faith and animated by the same Spirit — a sentiment duly encapsulated in C. S. Lewis’s well known lines from Mere Christianity:

It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is a something, or a Someone, who against all divergencies of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.

 While this might be a strange and tempestuous time to approach Rome as a convert, I have no apprehensions. The disturbances within the Church may be grave, and the challenges daunting, but the treasures and truths she is set to guard are perennial — and what’s infinitely more, I know that He truly lives in the midst of them all.

My ancestors first entered Rome with sword in hand. They were then grafted into the Tree, just a few hundred years prior to the Swedish Reformation brought about by the whims of politics, princes, and kings, in spite of acts of militant resistance such as the Dacke War and the ambitious counter-propaganda of Archbishop Olaus Magnus. Today, a small but steady stream of modern Swedes are returning to the Catholic Church to march under her banners once again, joining the already significant minority of immigrated Catholics of various rites, mainly from Poland, the Balkans, Central Africa, the Philippines, and Syria.

It is my hope that this trickle of defectors whom I now join will still preserve an affection for their old Christian family, and in their renewed faith fervently pray for those who once raised them, so that this act of conscionable abandonment will help bring growth and renewal for the whole of the Church and help heal what there is of resentment and strife. May such converts paradoxically be ambassadors for unity and a fruitful ecumenism through their resurgent love for Christ and their brethren.

I approached their ranks and entered a Catholic church for the first time in my life in November 2015. Its architecture was modern and somewhat peculiar, like many Swedish churches from the ’60s onward, and the liturgy I encountered was at once exotic and familiar. But here was a reverence unlike anything I was accustomed to, with parishioners actually genuflecting and praying intently in the pews before and during the Holy Mass. While the ceremony progressed, I stilled myself, hoping to receive whatever He deemed fit to give me. And then, as silence engulfed and I joined the parish on my knees, silently praying that I might somehow be near to His glorious presence together with the others, in spite of my unworthiness and inability to partake in the Communion, there He was.

Before my naked heart came the Spirit I had known since long before my earliest memories — a Person of complete and unconditional love, reaching out His hands for me to touch His wounds, to find that He has truly risen. My Lord and my God.

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