Last night I gave a talk at the young adults event Theology at the Pub in Melbourne, which was more or less a repeat of a talk I had given in May at Guinness and God in Canberra. The talk was called ‘Faith in a Postmodern World: Insights from Benedict XVI’. The talk looks at modernity, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s critique of modernity’s concept of knowledge, and some of Benedict XVI’s seminal ideas about the narrative structure of faith, beauty and the encounter with the God of love.
I was trying to offer a logic for faith in a world that remains suspicious of claims to knowledge that lie beyond the scientific method.
My analysis of Lyotard owes a lot to James K. A. Smith’s clever book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church. Thanks to everyone who came out for the talks, and thanks especially to Daniel who allowed me to quote part of our email conversation about atheism in the talk. Here’s the video of the Canberra talk (with thanks to CatholicLIFE and ACU):
Over my summer holidays I watched Series 6 of ‘Bones’. The gooey flesh dropping off the skeletons is pretty creepy, but I’m a sucker for a whodunnit and it isn’t usually too tricky to guess the murderer. I’ve also got to confess that it’s the characters that keep me coming back for more: I enjoy the banter between the forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel), and her FBI partner Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz). The supporting cast is fun too, especially the ‘squint squad’: the lab interns that provide much of the comic amusement in the show.
I think that Brennan’s character is particularly interesting. Bones is a scientist, and she sees the world solely through the lens of her empirical worldview. She thinks that feelings are only chemical emissions in the brain, and that relationships can be completely explained by the cultural constructs of mating rituals and inter-tribal dynamics. She ridicules religious faith as magic and superstition. And while she frequently misses the pop culture references from her colleagues and friends, she is also often oblivious to the other social dynamics that most of us take for granted. This provides part of the humour of the show, and it has been fun to watch her learning from Booth even as she continues to dismiss his intuitive hunches.
She is also dismissive of the insights of Dr Sweets, the psychologist on the team. And it’s through Sweets that we are given a psychological explanation for Brennan’s behaviour. Sweets diagnoses that Bones has retreated into a hyper-scientific rationalism as a protective mechanism against the trauma of being abandoned as a child by her parents, which also serves as a safeguard against her ongoing fear that someone else that she loves will hurt her again by leaving.
There’s a rich irony in the fact that while Bones is an anthropologist, she often doesn’t understand real human beings. She is often depicted alone at the lab staring at human remains where she is clearly more comfortable. And whether Dr Sweets has accurately diagnosed the cause of her troubles or not, it’s clear that the principal issue is that Bones has a myopic vision of the human person. By believing that all human interactions can be explained by biological processes and the insights of (a somewhat outdated) cultural anthropology she has found an explanation of human behaviour that allows her to retain the illusion of control. As a consequence she can not only misunderstand what is going on around her, but she maintains an attitude of superiority over others who do not have her intellectual capacity.
But it all comes unstuck in Series 6 because Bones has realised that she is in love with Booth, and for most of the series he is in love with someone else. And she has stopped explaining that in terms of biological necessity, evolutionary survival of the species or the social dynamics of the tribe. She’s in love, and she’s having to learn some new categories for understanding her emotions and desires.
One of the central metaphors in the Gospels for coming to faith is of the blind receiving their sight. Brennan is not having a religious conversion in Series 6, but she is gradually coming to discover that her empirical worldview has left her blind to some of the deeper realities of life. In some ways she is experiencing an intellectual conversion to a richer, fuller understanding of what it is to be human. This intellectual conversion does not mean that Bones needs to completely jettison her commitment to scientific endeavour. It is only the new atheists and the Christian fundamentalists who require us to completely choose one side or another in the so-called conflict between science and religion. What Bones does need to acknowledge for her intellectual conversion to be complete is the limits of scientific knowledge, and that an all-embracing scientism that excludes the place of faith and love cannot do justice to the mystery of being human.
And (if she wasn’t a character on a prime time tv show), such an insight could also be the precursor to a conversion of heart. As Pascal put it, the heart has its own reasons that reason does not know, and so by acknowledging that this is true Brennan is one step closer to discovering that it is only in the God revealed in Jesus Christ that we can truly be anthropologists – people who are discovering in and through Christ what it is to be truly human. At the end of Series 6 we learn that Bones is pregnant. If the show were real life we might say that here is a providential opportunity for Bones’ conversion to continue.
I leave tomorrow for a parish mission in Holy Spirit parish, Sandy Bay- Taroona in the Archdiocese of Hobart. There are twelve of us going from Melbourne for the mission: myself and three of the MGL brothers in formation for the priesthood, two of the MGL sisters, four single men and women and a married couple from Disciples of Jesus Community. The mission begins on Sunday July 10 and finishes on Sunday July 17.
The first event for the mission is a pub talk that we have called “Questions of Faith, Reasons to Believe.” In the talk I am going to try to tackle some common objections to belief in God today, such as:
Can I really believe in a God who I can not see, cannot touch?
Have scientific discoveries like evolution disproved Christianity?
Isn’t ‘God’ the projection of my fantasies onto an imaginary super-being?
How can I believe in God when in the past it has led to the oppression of those who have disagreed with the Church?
How can a loving and all-powerful God allow evil in the world and the suffering of innocent people?
Is Jesus the only way to God?
It is a Q and A session though, so the night will go where the questions lead!
One of my main aims in the talk will be to demonstrate the intellectual credibility of the Catholic faith, in order to show that belief in God does not require jettisoning one’s mind. At the same time, I also hope to at least hint at the truth that the heart of the Catholic faith is not a great idea, but an encounter with Jesus Christ:
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est