Are We Strange Enough?

The Enlightenment assumptions are so pervasive that we imbibe them as babies. They seem natural, like they are part of the only possible way of understanding ourselves and the world. So we tend to further inculcate that structure even when we teach at a religious college or university, even when we teach in Sunday School or similar classes, even when we talk about faith with our children, even when we read our scriptures and try to understand what they teach us.

Charles Taylor (1931- ) has described our situation as like that of Matteo Ricci (1552-1510), the early Jesuit missionary to China: being a believer is like being in a foreign land trying to communicate with an alien language, trying to understand and make ourselves understood in a foreign culture (A Catholic Modernity?, pp. 15-16). Taylor's analogy is useful. It helps us understand that the task of making ourselves understood is our responsibility rather than only something about the broader culture that needs repair. But the analogy only goes a little way toward describing Christian life in today's world. Unlike Ricci, we are not strangers in this foreign land. We are full citizens, or almost that. If only we were strangers here.

Before we can know how what we want to say differs from what secular culture has to say and how we can be heard by others, we must know what it means to be "fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God" (Eph. 2:19). An important part of that requires that we discover in what ways we are strangers to the Enlightenment heritage of this world.

I'm not sure what this means in terms of how we understand the substance of the world. I'll leave that for scientists, though my impression is that contemporary physics has gone a long way toward giving up the simplified view of matter that came out of the Enlightenment.

But I'm reasonably sure that discovering our foreignness in this world will require that we rethink what reason means and that we give up understanding ourselves as egos, as individual selves. It will especially require that we cease to think that the most important aspect of our being as persons is mind and will rather than love.

Mind and will can be understood with me at their center, but love is necessarily a relationship of person to person. Any particular human love is always preceded by another human love, and they are all preceded by divine love. If I am defined most fully by love, then I am no longer merely an individual. I am, as it were, a node in a set of relations, changing with each change in the relations. I am more than I know about myself. I have the possibility of being better than I am, indeed of being better than I see myself being. And I have those possibilities because I am related to others, and particularly to God, by love.

If I understand what it means to be human in terms of love, I can use that rethinking of human being to rethink reason. In accord with its roots (per + suadeo: "what is made pleasant or sweet"), persuasion is a matter of being brought to see something as attractive. Mathematical reason has its place in that activity, but it is not its essence. Mathematical certainty and probability become subordinate to attraction by what is genuinely desirable. Reason is understood as a function of human thriving rather than the reverse.

Christians have intimations of our alien existence. Few of us feel fully comfortable here. But today the problem of Christian life in the secular world is not that we are foreigners in that world and, so, do not know how to explain who we are. The bigger problem is that we are not yet foreigners, not yet strange enough for that issue to fully arise. Only after we make ourselves stranger(s) will we be able to make sense of religion in today's world. Not before then can we begin to do the work of Ricci for the culture in which we find ourselves.

12/2/2022 9:09:22 PM
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  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.