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Miguel Brugarolas, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Navarra, Spain

Where do Christian intellectuals debate?

Tue, 01 Dec 2020 10:29:00 +0000 Published in The Independent

For some weeks now, a discussion opened by two philosophers and columnists, Diego S. Garrocho and Miguel Ángel Quintana Paz, and to which many voices have been adding their voices, has been arousing B interest. Where are the Christian intellectuals, or where are these intellectuals "hidden"? Garrocho testifies in a way that is difficult to refute that "in the war for the story today all sensibilities concur... they are all, absolutely all, in an exercise of symphonic tuning, all except the Christian intelligentsia". Quintana Paz agrees with him in that nobody wields in public the philosophical, sapiential or moral value of the Gospel of John, Ecclesiastes or the letters of St. Paul. What he wonders -although it is more of a sting than a question- is whether the "enormous resources" that the Church has in the field of communication and Education are really being used in such a way that it is possible to "go well equipped to the intellectual war". 

The first thing we should try to clarify is what we mean when we talk about the public space in which the voice of the Christian intelligentsia is not heard. What is the arena in which the cultural battle is being fought? And not only what is the game board, but also what are its rules. It could be that the Christians have disappeared, as can be deduced from Garrocho's article , or hidden, as Quintana Paz thinks; but it could also be that the Christians are fighting the battle on another board, or that the rules agreed upon for the game do not allow them to play their trump cards.

That the place of contemporary society, at least in Europe, is characterized by post-Enlightenment rationality is clearly evident. What this rationality consists of is another matter. For the sake of brevity, we could adduce, as it is well known, what Alasdair MacIntyre says: the post-Enlightenment mentality is not interested in truth or goodness, but in rules of approval or reprobation and systems of power. We live in an era disguised as a scientific and social diagnosis, but deep down essentially ideological and anti-cultural. Perhaps Ratzinger is one of those who has been able to explain it best. When the relationship of things with the truth no longer matters (call it relativism, post-truth or whatever you want), another relationship is imposed: that of things with power. At first, in disguise, under an illusion of freedom, later, with the coarse character with which today the single thought is imposed. Eloquently, in some of his latest writings, Ratzinger no longer speaks of the "dictatorship of relativism", but of the "dictatorship of the present time". If there is no truth, the different truths are not worth the same; the one that really counts is that of the powerful. That is why today's prevailing rationality has not been able to overcome Nietzsche; and that is also why, alluding to Erick Peterson, monotheism will continue to be a political problem.

This is, in my opinion, the game board. Everything Christian is either absorbed as one more element of post-Enlightenment rationality, or it is excluded altogether. The case of Porfirio comes to report , which is that of an intellectual aligned with power. He did everything he could to combat Christianity (among other things he participated in the consilium principis after which Diocletian unleashed his terrible persecution), because the Christian claim to universal truth was unacceptable to him. It was necessary to make Jesus Christ one more among the gods of the empire, to absorb him into the rules set by Hellenism already then decadent, or to eliminate him completely from society. It is true that many centuries have passed, but even now the Christian is required to accept the rules of the new (ir)rationality, in this case not Hellenic but post-Enlightenment, or abandon the social space he occupies and remain enclosed in the private sphere. These are the board and the rules of the game, the world, the world of which the Gospel of John says that Jesus entrusted to the Father: "I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one... that you sanctify them in the truth" (Jn 17:15-17).

And what do Christians say to all this? In the 20th century, Catholic theology has rediscovered the meaning of these Johannine verses, reading them in the light of the universal call to holiness and of a positive theology of the world. The Christian finds himself before the mission statement of transforming human realities from within in order to give them back their genuine orientation towards God. Now, to continue with the same comparison, what are the trump cards with which Christians can play this game?

The writer Natalia Sanmartín Fenollera has pointed out that, in this discussion, we do not only have contemporary intellectuals, but also "centuries of thought to choose from". Whoever does not know history does not know anything, as one of my teachers used to repeat. It is certainly possible to learn from what was done in antiquity by those who defended themselves against the intellectuality associated with power (I mentioned Porphyry earlier... but there is no shortage of examples). Great thinkers such as Origen or Gregory of Nyssa identified very well what were the "enormous resources" they possessed for the construction of a Christian culture: the absolute primacy of God and the relationship with Jesus Christ who, like that leaven in the dough, takes all that is human and transforms it. The Christians of the first centuries were devoid of the material resources that Quintana Paz sees unforgivably squandered. And yet, they were aware of possessing the only wealth strictly necessary to build a Christian culture: the faith that fertilizes intelligence and charity, the vertical love for God, from which is born the horizontal love for their brothers and sisters. They did not waste their strength trying to win the favor or the receipt of the powerful, they did not seek at any price to accommodate their convictions to the dogmas of the time.

The early Christians (like so many others) played their trump cards very well "behind closed doors", to use José María Torralba's expression in his diagnosis of the problem; they managed to be people of very deep convictions. They possessed an unshakable theological understanding of the world and of man. It was clear to them that, if man excludes the transcendent, he is doomed to become a god to human measure, and this entails despising man in his highest capacity and possibility. With these resources (enormous, meager?) they built a Christian civilization outside their doors. Their main wealth was not in their material means, but in the height and depth of their Christian being. For this reason they were able, without disregarding anything human, to show the world effectively the wisdom contained in Scripture, the beautiful coherence of the Christian faith and the meaning that all human things acquire in the light of Jesus Christ.

Msgr. Luis Argüello, Secretary of the CEE, expressed the wish that this discussion would serve as a revulsive, a challenge. The question is perhaps not where are the Christian intellectuals, what spaces do they occupy, but what means are we putting in place to make them truly so. Educational institutions that, preoccupied with occupying spaces in the rankings and for their presence in the reputation agencies, neglect their soul. Dioceses that, in order to reach all the parishes scattered geographically throughout the emptied Spain, forget the great parish of culture and intellectual training . Programs of teaching of faith and theology -at all levels- that end up reconverted in decaffeinated plans of programs of study , incapable of putting in vibration the spiritual life of students and professors. It is time to rethink these things, it is time to play our trump cards, those that are more authentically ours and that the world (in the sense that John gives it) cannot take away from us.