Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Book Recommendation: A Journey With Jonah, Part 2 - The Themes of Jonah in Non-Catholic Cultures

By What Authority? Understanding the Persuasiveness of Argument from Authority to Transform the Culture

A Journey with Jonah - The Spirituality of Bewilderment by Fr Paul Murray O.P. including God Took Pity a commentary of the Book of Jonah by Joseph Ratzinger. Pub Word on Fire Institute, 2021.

I am recommending this short book, just 84 pages long, as part of a formation in the Faith for creative artists who wish to contribute to the evangelization of contemporary culture. In part 1, posted last week, of this three-part article I summarized the message of the book of Job itself. This week, I will consider the value of the wide range of commentators and biblical authorities whom Fr Murray presents in The Journey with Jonah in order to illustrate his points. He draws on sources both Catholic and non-Catholic, and from the early days of the Church until now. Finally, in part 3, I will consider how artists might apply this understanding of common ground, and differences between different groups in society, to channel their creativity into the making of artworks that engage with all people through contemporary culture and draw them to the Faith.

The value of citing a variety of sources
Fr Murray quotes a wide variety of sources, some commenting on the book of Jonah, while others are more broadly theological writers whom he uses to illustrate the broader points he is making himself. He cittes, for example, both Catholics such as Augustine, Methodius, Jerome, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Louis Reau, and Protestants such as Luther and John Jewell from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as more recent figures like Geoffrey Bull and Hans Wolf. He draws also on medieval rabbis and Islamic commentators, and contemporary secular theorists such as Erich Fromm (a Marxist who helped develop critical theory), psychologist Carl Jung, and philosopher Martin Buber. He does not, of course always endorse their views; sometimes he is quoting them so as to illustrate non-Christian counter-arguments that he wishes to address.

What is the value of doing this? Why not stay firmly in the Catholic tradition, by, for example, relying solely upon early Church Fathers?

The answer lies, I believe, in the desire to demonstrate the book of Jonah’s broad appeal, and what it has to say about the human condition to all cultures and times. In many ways, each of the people he quotes is representative of beliefs and cultures of the time and place that they lived in. It is by understanding both what those outside the Church believe, as well as orthodox Catholicism, that Christians are able to engage with others constructively.

By ‘constructively’, incidentally, I do not mean in order to seek agreement, so that we might respect each other (although that might be a starting point for discussion); rather, I mean engaging with people with evangelization and their conversion to Catholicism as the end in mind. As a Catholic, I want to persuade others to agree with the Church and become Catholics too, so that they might also be blessed with the joy that comes with the fullness of truth. We should never apologize for our apologetics!

In order to be able to do this, we need evangelists who not only know and believe what the Church teaches, but also know (or at least be prepared to find out) what their colloquist believes, and consequently, what the differences and similarities in belief are. We use this knowledge first to connect by highlighting the common ground, and then we aim to convert by demonstrating, where there are differences, the error of their stance, and the correctness of ours. By focusing, with the help of this book, on how this all applies to the book of Jonah, we learn to develop this approach as a skill that can be applied in many other scenarios.

As one example used in this book, after describing the passage from Jonah in which he is asleep below decks while the storm is raging, Fr Murray looks to Martin Buber to articulate an error of the modern age that we can seek to understand for the purposes of evangelization, that is the tendency of people to identify themselves as ‘spiritual’ and not religious:
There is a new fascination amongst our contemporaries amongst the things of the spirit. Unfortunately, that interest doesn’t always translate into a capacity to attend to the living voice of God or to surrender with faith and hope and love to the transcendent beauty and pressure of divine revelation. Instead, there is a tendency to live one’s spirituality within the bubble of the self, and practice what Martin Buber has called, in a memorable phrase, ‘the religion of psychic immanence’.
Buber describes this further, Murray writes as
An exclusively immanent spirituality at least in extreme manifestations, and represents a regress back to a safe, controlled environment, a ‘return to the womb’. In terms of religion, it is nothing less than a spiritual manifestation of ‘the Jonah syndrome’.
Spiritual but not religious! 
If we recognize this and explain the good of reaching beyond the self to God, and demonstrate in our lives the joy this brings to us, then those who accept this will convert.

Both religious and spiritual
This approach to evangelization, if applied well, will be successful; of this there is no doubt. And on the face of it, it all sounds quite simple, but there is one big problem. How do we find people who want to talk to us and are open to the persuasion of such an approach?

This is where the artist steps in and helps us. It is the role of a contemporary Catholic culture of beauty to open people’s hearts so that they are willing to engage with us. An authentic Catholic culture that manifests these themes with grace and beauty will open people’s hearts so that they desire to know more about the source that inspired such beauty. When knowledge is imparted in this way, the more people know, the more they want to know, and this ultimately will lead them to Christ.

We need creative artists who are capable of creating such a contemporary Catholic culture. Next week, we will discuss in more detail how reading this and other books like it might help them in their formation to be capable of fulfilling such responsibility.

The risk of quoting a variety of non-Catholic or heterodox sources
The risks of this approach are that, like it or not, in quoting someone, the author is also giving each person the status of some sort of authority on the matter, and this can create dangers. For all that an argument from authority is considered weak in logic, it is often the most persuasive. Propagandists and advertisers make use of this principle all the time, because they know that most people rely on authorities for their opinions and understanding of most things that they claim to know. In short, we think something is true, usually, because someone has told us that it is. Most of us simply don’t have the time to test every assertion by running through the train of logic from first principles.

So in the case of A Journey with Jonah, most readers will not judge the validity of the assertions made as a Scripture scholar would judge them, for they are not academically equipped to do so. Instead, they try to make a judgment as to whether or not they can trust the source who is making the claims.

For example, I am for the most part assuming that I can trust the book, not because I know Fr Murray (I had never heard of him before), but because it accords with the little bit of Scripture interpretation that I do know and received from other trusted sources; because I trust the publisher; and because I trust the other contributor, Joseph Ratzinger.

This is not a bad thing in itself, but there is a risk, therefore, in using non-Catholic sources. Catholics who are uncertain in their faith may, on seeing quotes from Luther or Jung made by a Catholic, assume that these non-Catholics might be trusted on other matters too and so be prone to accepting error from them. The result of this is, in extreme cases, a universalism that undermines the Faith and leads people out of the Church - why remain Catholic when I believe, albeit falsely, that Lutherans and Jungians believe what Catholics do? For similar reasons, it might communicate a message to Lutherans and Jungians that there is no point in becoming Catholic, as they may conclude that Catholics think that Luther or Jung have as much authority as the Church does.

On the other hand, there may be Catholics who are pious believers, and who are accustomed to relying unthinkingly on authorities they trust as sources for the Truth, perhaps their local priest. They may not likely be swayed from their faith by a statement from Luther or Jung. Rather, being unable or unwilling to make a critical judgment for themselves as to its validity, their knee-jerk response may be that Luther and Jung can’t be trusted as a source of information on any matter, and therefore conclude that Fr Murray is heterodox, pandering to the woke mob by trying to be culturally diverse. They might simply not bother to read the book further and miss out on the value of what it contains. The result of this general attitude, incidentally, is the reinforcement of the Catholic-ghetto mentality that leaves people within it less able to engage self-confidently with contemporary culture.

The way to counter all the above risks is, it seems to me, to make explicit the principles by which truth is being judged. As we know, without an understanding of the Tradition of the Church, even Scripture is robbed of its authority. Tradition is the measure of the truth of any personal interpretation of the modern age. An emphasis on the Scriptural interpretation of the Church Fathers is foundational to establishing this, the assumption being that those who lived close in time to that of the Apostles, and those who had direct contact with Christ, are likely to reliably reflect Tradition. Fr Murray assumes an awareness of this, but does not make it explicit. This is fine for the narrow and highly Scripturally literate readership for whom it was originally intended, but not for a wider readership. However, the hope in republishing it now, one imagines, to appeal to a readership beyond the narrowly academic, and I am guessing this is why the publisher included the Joseph Ratzinger interpretation in this edition. Aside from the great value of its content, the weight of authority attached to his name for many Catholics might also reassure the doubting and guide the credulous. 

A 12th century mosaic of St John Chrysostom, the “golden-mouthed” interpreter of Scripture, who lived in the later 4th century and early 5th century.

The risk is necessary
The fruits of looking discerningly at commentaries and ideas from outside the Church go beyond the ability to understand their way of thinking so that we can convert them. We should always be ready to concede that sometimes non-Catholics, and even non-Christians, may have fresh insights that we can learn from. Again, the caveat applies that such insights cannot be contrary to Tradition and must be in harmony with it. Christianity has always looked to incorporate the good, the true, and the beautiful from other intellectual traditions and other cultures - including visual art, as I will discuss in part 3 of this posting - and it is the better for it. It is well known, for example, that St Thomas cited Aristotle as an authority whom he quoted so often that he simply referred to him as “the Philosopher”. I will admit I hadn’t realized until recently that he also regularly quoted the 12th-century Jewish commentator Maimonides, as well as Cicero, an authority with whom he at times agreed and at others disagreed (for example, ST IaIIae Q24,2), and the Islamic philosopher Averroes, whom he quoted so often that he simply called him “the Commentator”. 

If we are to build a Christian society once more, one that is founded on Christian teaching, we must continually refresh the presentations of the Faith to tell the story anew to each generation. Self-confidence in the truth of the Faith as we engage with others outside the Church, and as displayed by St Thomas, Fr Murray, and Benedict XVI, is a necessary component of this. 

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