An Interview with Gregory Baum
“Faith, Community & Liberation”
Adam S. Miller, Journal of Philosophy and Scripture
JPS: In order to
find a place to begin, perhaps we could open our conversation about
philosophy and scripture with a very general question about the
relationship of scripture to the Christian community. In your view,
what role does the church play in the interpretation of scripture
and, conversely, what role does scripture play in shaping the church?
GB: Well, these are,
of course, huge questions. The scriptures were collected by the
church, the canon was constituted by the church, and the scriptures
are read within the context of a believing community. If you were
to give Christian scripture to people outside of the believing community,
they could come to very different conclusions about their meaning.
When the scriptures are read within the believing community they
tend to be interpreted within a liturgical context. And these believing
communities have lived in many different cultures and in many different
historical moments, therefore they read these scripture differently.
The result is that you have a whole history of interpretation. So
I think that the church and scripture belong very much together.
When I say church I do not necessarily mean church authority at
the moment, but just the believing community. The community reads
scripture, and the creativity of God’s word is then revealed in
the never-completed meaning communicated to the believing community
throughout the ages. When the church finds itself in a new situation
it re-reads the scriptures and, because it hears God’s word addressing
the new situation, it hears what its ancestors did not hear.
Sometimes the scriptures
confirm what the church is doing. But sometimes they criticize what
the church is doing. So there must be a willingness to listen, to
be judged and be confirmed. This interests me particularly because
in modernity we are confronted with all kinds of new questions that
the ancients didn’t have, and we trust that we are not without wisdom
regarding these new questions because we read our scriptures, and
we hear in scripture what our ancestors didn’t hear. Gadamer says
that classic texts never stop speaking to us: they have surplus
meaning. To give an example, in the Catholic church we rejected
modernity, we rejected human rights and personal liberties, because
we thought that Christ wanted us to proclaim the truth in order
to rescue people from error. So we did not approve of religious
liberty because it made room for people in error. This was our position
in the nineteenth century. It was thought at the time that this
was being obedient to Jesus and to certain biblical texts. Later,
Pope John XXIII was impressed by the universal declaration of human
rights of the UN, published after World War II with its endless
killing and its endless humiliation of humans. So he decided to
re-read the scriptures and found biblical texts that affirm the
high dignity of the human being, both as image of God in the creation
story in Genesis and as summoned by God according to the Pauline
doctrine that in Jesus God acted on behalf of all humanity. The
high dignity of humans is therefore grounded in the orders of creation
and redemption, This convinced John XXIII that this high dignity
must be respected by the authorities of governments and organizations.
So he found a theological foundation for human rights, not by compromise
with the modern world, but by re-reading scripture.
JPS: I’m interested
in the connection that you made between the reading scripture and
the issue of authority. As you see it, on some occasions scripture
works to give the church the authority needed to make the kind of
proclamations you’ve just indicated, but at other times scripture
operates in such a way as to criticize the church’s claims or beliefs?
GB: Yes, I think that’s
right. I think that often the church is not obedient to scripture.
Take for instance the text in which Jesus says, “Call no man your
father, because God is your father” (see Matt. 23: 9). The Catholic
church has never really reflected on this text. We speak about the
Pope as holy father, we call priests fatherall without really
wrestling with this text, even though it stands over us in judgment.
There are many other biblical texts that challenge us. Some theologians
are willing to be challenged, but the community as a whole often
refuses to take a second look. The texts of the New Testament on
poverty and the exercise of powers have not received the attention
JPS: Many contemporary
continental philosophers tend to locate what is religious precisely
in an experience of being challenged and contested, so that the
moment of contestation appears as the religious experience par excellence.
GB: This sounds very
Protestant to me. Protestants have always emphasized God’s word
as judging us, while Catholics have seen God’s word as both judgment
and new life. Religious experience is an experience of being challenged,
but it is also an experience of being made fully alive in loving
one’s neighbor, in escaping resentment and becoming generous, in
escaping arrogance and becoming humble, in escaping self-concern
and becoming concerned about others. Personal transformations of
this kind are not the work of flesh and blood; they are gifts of
grace. God judges us, this is true; we are again and again challenged
by God’s word, but God is also the new life in us, the Spirit poured
forth in our hearts, the divine empowerment to do good. It is possible
for Catholics to put the emphasis on good works and forget they
are rendered possible by God’s grace. That is why we are grateful
for the Protestant corrective, reminding us of the gratuity at the
center of our existence. As a Catholic in the Augustinian tradition,
I am keenly aware of the gratuity of all that is good in my life.
That is why I prefer to think of religious experience as involving
both challenge and new life, both repentance and freedom,
JPS: In your view,
is it beneficial to read scripture in light of philosophy?
GB: Almost certainly,
yes. We are human beings, and I don’t see how we could not
reflect in some systematic way on scripture. In different periods
Christians have used different philosophical traditions. For the
ancients it was Hellenistic philosophy. Many Protestants and a few
Catholics put great emphasis on the difference between Jerusalem
and Athens. They see Jerusalem as source of divine truth and Athens
as source of philosophical reflection distorting divine truth. I
think that that is unacceptable. Hellenism has influenced the writing
of the Bible itself. Parts of the Old Testament like Proverbs were
influenced by Hellenistic thought. Hellenistic thought influenced
the writing of the New Testament, very strongly in the Fourth Gospel.
One of the fascinating things about the New Testament is that it
is a book of transition from one culture to another. In other words,
the passage from one culture to another and the translation of the
biblical message into a new language are part of divine revelation.
I think that we have not explored sufficiently the transitional
dimension of the New Testament.
Dialogue with philosophy
is necessary. I think it belongs to the essence of the Christian
proclamation to engage in dialogue with people, to take their culture
seriously and respect their wisdom tradition. God is graciously
at work in people’s search for truth and goodness, long before the
Church get there to proclaim the Gospel. That is why we want to
listen to people’s wisdom – critically listen to it, making appropriate
distinctions. Karl Barth wanted to reject all philosophy. When he
saw that the majority of great German thinkers supported the war
of the Kaiser, he thought that there must be something deeply wrong
about their ideas. He wanted to leave philosophy behind, but the
readers of his brilliant theology are not convinced that he did
so. They find traces of Kierkegaard in his thought. Since we cannot
escape philosophical ideas, it is better to become conscious of
them and critically clarify them.
But there are also times
when philosophy takes over and biblical revelation simply functions
as a starting point. Then the intellectual effort of conceptualization
produced a rational theological system. I think that this happened
in Scholasticism. When I was a student at the University of Fribourg,
I was trained in Thomism. It is possible to adopt a narrow reading
of Thomas by focusing on the first question of the Summa
where he defines theology as a science based on the articles of
faith – somewhat as optics is based on the principles of geometry.
Yet such a reading produces a caricature of Thomism. Built into
the Summa are self-corrective principles and explosive insights
that undermine any effort to reduce Thomas’ theology to a closed
system. This was actually done in the production of Neo-Thomism
in the nineteenth centurycalled by us ‘Peeping-Thomisms’which
was marked by the dominant rationalism of that century. Reacting
against Neo-Scholasticism, some Catholic thinkers have lost faith
in philosophy. They prefer to reflect on the scriptures, the liturgy
and people’s religious experiences. This is admirable, but I don’t
think that they are able to escape philosophy altogether. In my
own work as a theologian, dialogue with sociology, especially the
sociology of knowledge, has been of primary importance to me.
JPS: But just as
there are many people who are anxious to keep Athens out of Jerusalem,
there are plenty of people anxious to keep Jerusalem out of Athens.
GB: I am not sure if
I understand your question correctly. Let me reply by saying that
I am constantly impressed by God’s gracious action in non-believers.
I am a person of the left, I am surrounded by left-wing social and
political scientists, and I am in touch with active members of left-wing
political parties in Canada and Quebec. What amazes me is the profound
ethical commitment of my friends, their selflessness, their concern
for others, their generosity and their compassion with the disadvantaged
and marginalized. Yet when I ask them where their values come from,
they don’t know. They have no language for articulating what takes
place spiritually in their hearts and minds. Christians have a language
for this because they belong to a religious tradition. My amazement
before the ethical commitment of my secular friends obliges me to
interpret what goes on in them in theological terms: they are touched
by God’s grace. According to a patristic teaching, the church can
be defined as humanity-as-touched-by-God’s-grace, Ecclesia ab
Abel, the church from Abel on, including all who have been transformed
by divine grace. That the term, Ecclesia ab Abel, was taken
up by Vatican Council II made me very happy.
Let me add that the
messianic longing of my friends and their inability to be reconciled
with the injustices of the world are, in my mind, an inheritance
from the Bible. There are in fact (non-believing) sociologists,
like Karl Mannheim and Ernst Bloch, who acknowledge that the messianic
yearning for justice in the western revolutionary tradition is an
echo of the biblical promises. Why, then, are these people totally
uninterested in Christianity? I think they associate Christianity
with conservative and even reactionary political forces, today deeply
identified with capitalism, the rule of money and a society of winners
JPS: One of the questions
we might ask is whether or not it is possible for a biblically grounded
messianic yearning to undergo a kind of secular purification without
losing something essential along the way.
GB: Yes, I think so.
This has been a theological preoccupations of mine. I have argued
that Christians should take seriously the radical critiques of religion
offered by Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. Some Christians fear that
these critiques spell the end of religion. In my mind, these critiques
can be “grafted onto” the prophetic literature – the expression
is David Tracy’s – and lead to a purification and clarification
of the Gospel. I have defended this position in my book, Religion
and Alienation. While Marx believed that all of religion was
an ideology legitimating the existing society, subsequent sociologist
have shown that in addition to ideological currents, there are in
religion also emancipatory impulses. And while Freud regarded religion
as a collective neurosis that made people sick, subsequent psychologists
have shown that in addition to the pathogenic currents in religion,
there are also therapeutic ones. It is the task of the churches,
helped by theologically-sensitive Christians, especially pastors,
to preach the Gospel as a message of human rescue and liberation
from the many prisons peoplewehave created for themselves.
JPS: But do you think
that it is possible to become wholly secular, to come out on the
other side of the critique and abandon religion all together, without
having lost something essential?
GB: Let me introduce
the term “the dark night of the soul” used in the mystical tradition.
The mystics claim that in the process of opening themselves to God,
there comes a timesometimes a long timewhen they are so much
aware of the obstacles to God in their heart, so much aware of their
inner fragmentation and outer superficiality, that God seems to
disappeared altogether for them, so much so that they wondered if
they had become atheists. They called this the dark night of the
soul. But they also say that you have to wait patiently in the night,
for it will end through the opening of a new and surprising window.
Today, I have the impression, many Christians pass through a different
dark night of the soul. They are deeply disturbed by the suffering
in the world, the cruelly unjust maldistribution of wealth and power,
and the indifference of the official churches to this scandalous
situation that they find it increasingly difficult to believe in
divine providence. They feel that they are becoming atheists. Some
Christiansfriends of mine among themhave never left the dark
night. They became non-believers because they were unconsolable.
They became agnostics for theological reasonsfor which God will
reward them. Yet other Christians pass through this night and eventually
come out of it. They learn that God is in solidarity with the victims
of history. A Jewish rabbi once wrote that the Holocaust has brought
the end of “untroubled theism.” The more we believe that God is
love, the more difficult it is to believe that God exists. We don’t
want a faith that does not raise uncomfortbale questions. We long
for a faith that is both serene and troubled.
JPS: To emerge from
the dark night of the soul, is it sufficient to maintain a passionately
secular hope for justice, or does this messianic yearning need to
take an explicitly religious form?
GB: Sociologists like
to distinguish different kinds of hope. There is a secular, materialist
dream of the future which is nourished by advertising on television
recommending the right clothes for you, the right house with a garden
and beautiful furniture, the right car and so forth. We have here
a messianic dream that has problematic personal and political consequences.
Sociologist call future dreams ideological if they sustain the present
order and make the victims of society invisible, and they call future
dreams utopian if they de-legitimate the existing order and create
the yearning for a more just society. Of course, utopian dreams
could become dangerous. Ernst Bloch became more specific when he
defined “a concrete utopia” as the image of an alternative society
that is close enough to the unrealized potential of the present
to sustain a realistic historical project.
To dream of an alternative
society where peace and justice reigns is a good thing, even if
it is not a concrete utopia. St. Augustine’s famous distinction
between the city of Man (the proud city) and the city of God (the
humble city) provided a utopian dream. He thought that the great
society, the empire, created by love of wealth and power, could
not be reformed, it was doomed; but small communities defined by
love of God and neighbor, created by co-operation and commitment
to the common good, could anticipate God’s glorious reign. The church
has been inspired by a utopia. But because it has called itself
holy, the bride of Christ or his mystical body, the church found
it increasingly difficult to come to self-knowledge. The church
fathers still had a realistic view of the church: they spoke about
it in paradoxical terms, calling it, for instance, casta meretrix
(the chaste whore). Still, the Augustinian dream remains valid:
yearning for a community of love and co-operation is nourished by
the Gospel. I think that today’s counter-cultural movements have
inherited this dream. Like Augustine, they do not believe that the
great society, the empire, can be reformed, but they try to create
on a small scale a community defined by principles at odds with
The modern, liberal
dream of industrial capitalism produced by hard work and reliance
on techno-scientific reason produced a certain faith in necessary
progress. Yet this dream had many dark sides. Max Weber studied
several of them. One of them was, according to Weber (though I am
not sure if he was serious), that death had become more anguishing
in modernity. People work so hard, spend all their energy on getting
ahead, don’t take time to live and reflect, and forever postpone
their happinessso that at the time of their death, they recognize
how foolish they have been and feel that they have been cheated.
In other cultures, Weber thought, people lived more deeply, had
more joy and more suffering, and when the end came, they were quite
ready to begin the long sleep. The modern anxiety over death has
marked even the philosophers: it was central for Heidegger and even
influenced sociologists like Alfred Schutz and Peter Berger.
What is President Bush’s
vision of the future? An important government document, ‘The National
Security Strategy of the United States of America,’ published in
September 2002, sees the US as a power of unparalleled military
strength and economic and political influence, set in a world where
liberty is threatened by terror. The document says that the US government
will not allow other nations to acquire power equal to its own,
and if the US government detects preparations in other countries
for attacks against the US, it will wage pre-emptive warviolating
international law. Since the future of our civilization depends
on oil, since the shrinking resources of oil are largely located
in the Middle East, and since the substitutes for oil are not promising,
military intervention in the Middle East is important, even if the
provocation is fictitious. I will not develop the scenario in detail.
The point I am making is that the dream of the future, in this case
President Bush’s dream, has political and social consequences.
JPS: It occurs to
me that one of the ways in which philosophy may prove itself useful
to a reading of scripture is, precisely, in the political arena.
Insofar as religion wants to step outside of itself and offer a
publicly accessible political position, might not philosophy be
especially useful to the extent that it enables religion to step
outside of its narrative particularity and formulate a more universal
GB: Philosophy is useful
both for incarnating religion in a particular culture and in making
its message understandable. While I have problems with Existentialism
for political reasons, I have to admit that it has provided many
Christians with a language for speaking about the meaning of their
faith. Humans are not simply givens, they are not substances, for
the crucial decisions they make, including the act of faith, constitute
them as historical beings. Philosophy can help us to incarnate faith
in a particular culture and, secondly, as you suggest, it can also
help us to articulate the universal dimension of religion. I strongly
believe in the universal message implicit in the Gospel. The churches
are meant to contribute the reconciliation of the deeply divided
humanity in justice, forgiveness and peace. I have Jewish and Muslim
friends who interpret their own religious mission in the same way,
as contributing to the pacification of humankind. Philosophical
reflection helps us to draw from the stories we regard as divine
revelation messages that have universal significance.
Dialogue with Plato
in the early century and dialogue with Aristotle in the middles
ages have been of enormous importance to Christians. You couldn’t
imagine Roman Catholicism without them. This is really one significant
difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. Catholicism was
shaped by the culture of the Mediterranean as the creative and original
fusion of biblical dreams and aspirations with the piety and the
philosophical ideas of the Mediterranean world. This fusion , I
believe, does not necessarily betray the biblical inspiration. I
think there is a humanism implicit in every great religion. This
is demonstrated today in the World Conference for Religions for
Peace, an inter-religious council, meeting at regular intervals.
At these meetings, the representatives of the world religions confess
that, in the past, their religion has often blessed injustices,
violence and wars, but that the deepest aspirations of their religious
tradition support justice and peace. In many such cases, philosophy
has enabled religious people to clarify these universal ideas.
JPS: So you think
that philosophy may contribute to inter-faith dialogue as well?
GB: I think that the
notion of dialogue is really a modern idea. The willingness to put
yourself into the shoes of the othersto listen to what they have
to say and to interpret what they say not from one’s own point of
view but from theirsis something new. Philosophers were the first
to write about this dialogue: Franz Brentano, Martin Buber and Gabriel
Marcel. In the past, conversations among theologians and philosophers
were always about what is right and what is wrong. In dialogue,
you begin by bracketing the truth issue: you start by trying to
understand what the other has to say from his or her point of view.
Mutual understanding is the aim of dialogue, a process that changes
all partners. The ecumenical movement of the Fifties was for me
the great experience of dialogue. I discovered that dialogue is
a form of love because you are willing to shut up, put your convictions
into parentheses, and listen carefully to what the other has to
say. In dialogue God is digging a new ear into the participants
that allows them to learn and be transformed. Philosophy and theology
are able to clarify the experience of dialogue.
Philosophy can also
be a source of useless intelligence. There are philosophy departments
where linguistic analysis and philosophy of science are used to
persuade students that the deep questions about human existence
are meaningless. I find that sociologists are sometimes more concerned
about the great questions than philosophers. I have also quarrels
with the “linguistic turn” in postmodern thought. You cannot eat
words! The linguistic turn corresponds to middle class preoccupations:
it is of interest to people who have never suffered from hunger
and thus makes the material basis of human existence invisible.
Unemployment is not a purely linguistic issue either. I regret that
so many philosophers are unwilling to ask themselves how their thought
is related to their social location and what the social implications
of their discourse are.
Karl Manheim in Ideology
and Utopia says that we cannot fully understand a sentence unless
its social context has been clarified. A sentence by itself has
no clear meaning. You must know on what occasion it is said, to
whom, and under what conditions. When I teach this, I always give
the example of the German anthem, “Germany, Germany Above All.”
In 1848, this was the song of the German revolution, and it meant:
Germany above all the feudal structures. After Germany became an
empire in 1871, the same song acquired an aggressive political message.
“We shall overcome” was the song of the powerless who hoped that
justice would prevail: if the police department adopted this song,
its meaning would be quite different. Thought is always related
to a social base. Philosophers sometimes think that thought floats
above history and above the economic order, but this is not true.
In a context marked by grave inequalities and patterns of exclusion,
thought either questions the existing order or contributes to its
JPS: I think that
you are right to say that something remarkable has happened insofar
as genuine dialogue has become possible. But perhaps we can say,
having opened the possibility of dialogue, our task is now to repose,
within that context, the question of truth?
GB: Dialogue is carried
on only by a minority of people. It is wonderful to hear of their
experiences, but they do not represent what is going on in the world
as a whole. We are a deeply divided humanity, each part making caricatures
of all the others. I am influenced by the Frankfurt School which,
in the 1920’s, saw the early Enlightenment as a marvelous movement
possessing rich resources of creative reasonincluding substantive
reason dealing with ends and instrumental reason dealing with means.
Substantive reason reflects on values and purposes, and instrumental
reason generates science and technology. The Frankfurt School argued
that in the middle of the nineteenth century, scientific positivism
began to take over. Under the weight of the industrial capitalism,
Enlightenment reason collapsed and was reduced simply to instrumental
reason. The only rationality left to us is about means. As a result,
the Enlightenment has become an obstacle to human liberation. We
have become individualists and utilitarians We can no longer deal
with questions about ends. Our civilization is in crisis.
Yet the Frankfurt School
differed from postmodern thought of the 1980's. While the Frankfurt
School denounced what the Enlightenment had become, they did not
reject it. The Franfkfurt philosophers opposed conservatives, existentialist
and fascists of their day who rejected the Enlightenment and its
great achievements, democracy and human rights. The Frankfurt School
negated the Enlightenment ‘dialectically,’ which meant that they
wanted to retrieve the substantive reason of the original Enlightenment.
They called for a cultural conversion to solidarity. But since the
moral resources of society were so limited, the Frankfurt School
was near despair. Still, their passionate wish to recover universal
solidarity makes them totally different from postmodern thinkers
who repudiates the Enlightenment ‘non-dialectically,’ giving up
justice and emancipation for the excluded as a dangerous modern
illusion. Yet the conversion to universal solidarity is not absent
from among us. The movements for an alternative globalization, meeting
regularly at the World Social Forum, are haunted by this dream.
And so are the world religions. Hans Küng has argued that a new
paradigm in emerging in the world religions making them see their
sacred mission as a commitment to foster the reconciliation and
pacification of humankind.
Because of this, to
return to our original point, I see dialogue as going on among a
minority, as something that runs counter to the mainstream. I have
a dark interpretation of what is presently going on in the world.
What does philosophy have to do? I don’t know, I’m not a philosopher.
But I think that philosophy must unmask what is taking place, and
postmodernism doesn’t do this. Americans are too shy to pronounce
the word ‘capitalism.’ They shy away from taking seriously the impact
of the unregulated market on culture, values and religion. It seems
strange to an outsider that the highly moralistic evangelicals in
the US never explore the impact of the capitalist market on cultural
values and human behavior. I have the impression that for Americans
capitalism is something sacred: therefore to question it is taboo.
And philosophers often plays along with this. There are, of course,
JPS: Part of what
I had in mind with the previous question has precisely to do with
postmodernism. It seems to me that part of the virtue of postmodernism
is the way in which it exposes itself to the other, to that which
is not the self. The difficulty is that postmodernism fails to ever
return to the question of truth.
GB: Well, I think that
postmodernism misses the importance of ‘the other.’ I just read
a passage from Derrida in which he argues that not only is God wholly
other, but that every other person is wholly other. I find this
frightening. This works against dialogue. In fact, Jean-François
Lyotard, who began the postmodern wave in 1980's, called dialogue
“the illusion of modernity.” Why? Because dialogue presupposesso
that communication can take placethat we share something with
the other, some form of reason. For Lyotard, this precisely is the
modern illusion. If others are totally other, dialogue is not possible.
More than that, after the experience of fascism, to insist on the
otherness of others sounds politically dangerous and frightens me
personally. The French postmodernists were embarrassed when Jean-Marie
Le Pen with his party, le Front National, promoted hostility to
immigrants, especially Muslims, arguing that they were totally differentthe
postmodern sloganand hence could never be integrated into French
society. Of course, the postmodern thinkers wanted the differences
between peoples to be respected, but they could not say this, for
then “respect for otherness” would be a universal virtue, which
they had so dramatically rejected. Some of them, including Derrida,
began to counter Le Pen by advocating hospitality.
In the present situation
dominated by many structures of exclusion, I argue that every sentence
that recognizes the otherness of others should be followed by a
sentence that recognizes their similarity. Postmodern ideas in an
empire are particularly dangerous!. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of
civilisation” is based on the false idea that the world religions
are bearers of incompatible values and that, for this reason, the
civilizations to which they gave birth will clash and war is almost
inevitable. This is dangerous non-sense. A multitude of inter-religious
councils and institutions have demonstrated empirically that this
is not true: religions are living traditions capable of reacting
creatively to new historical situations and engaging in fruitful
dialogue with one anothers. The postmodern thinkers are quite wrong
when they think that others are totally othersbut they don’t recognize
the political danger of their discourse. We wan to respect the otherness
of Native peoples, but also celebrate our common humanity.
JPS: But insofar
as we are concerned with returning to the question of truth, of
restoring a substantive, end-oriented notion of reason, then you
see religion and scripture as having a particularly positive role
to play in that project?
GB: I don’t have a ready
answer for this question. The Frankfurt School has argued that an
inquiry can discover the truth only if it is preceded by an emancipatory
commitment. If not, the result of the inquiry will simply stabilize
the status quo with its oppressive features. Inquiry must begins
with negationnegating the awful things that are happening. This
reminds me of biblical prophecy which pronounces God’s judgement
before it offers the divine promises. It also reminds me of the
refusal of the church fathers to separate knowledge and love. Scholasticism
did not sufficiently protect this great tradition. What is truth?
What truth do I share with the President Bush who says Jesus is
Lord and what truth do I share with non-believers who are consumed
by universal solidarity? If truth is ultimately related to love,
then in a sinful world truth is an eschatological promise.