Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1999
Volume 11, Number 1

Fr. Michael Baxter on "Catholic Radicalism"

John P. O'Callaghan
Assistant Professor of Philosophy

On Tuesday, January 26, 1999, Father Michael Baxter, from the Theology Department of the University of Notre Dame, spoke at Creighton on "Blowing the Dynamite of the Church: Catholic Radicalism from a a Catholic Radicalist Perspective." The lecture was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, the Catholic Imagination Project, and the departments of Philosophy and Theology. Baxter's fundamental thesis was that contemporary modes of discourse in theology and social theory act to silence the power of the Gospel. To the extent that these fields inform the self-understanding of the Church acting in the world, and to the extent that they are divorced from one another, a divorce often justified from within theology and social theory themselves, the "dynamite" of the Gospel is extinguished. As Christians seek to enunciate a "public philosophy" or "public theology" that can appeal to all sides in a pluralistic society, they necessarily prescind from any "tradition-specific theological terms and categories," with the result that Christian faith and action are privatized, become exclusively "other-worldly," and are rendered incapable of having any lasting effect upon the building of a just social order. In short, without the "tradition-specific" categories, Christian discourse in the larger world is reduced to nice sounding but empty platitudes.

Father Baxter's critique is driven by his commitment to the radical Christian witness of the Catholic Worker Movement founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Against that background, the rhetorical point of Baxter’s metaphor of dynamite should not be overlooked or underestimated. The image of dynamite comes from one of Maurin’s Easy Essays entitled "The Dynamite of the Church" in which Maurin diagnosed how scholars seal off the power of the Church in "an hermetic container," by means of "nice phraseology." Maurin wrote that now is the time "to blow the lid off so the Catholic Church may again become the dominant social dynamic force."

Father Baxter began with a meditation upon the etymology of "dynamite" in the Greek dynamis, the term so often used in the Gospels to characterize "the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, which was to be shared by his followers in their spreading of the Gospel message." But Maurin’s and Baxter’s use of "dynamite" has to be seen against the background of violence that has characterized modern social reform movements. Maurin, Day, and Baxter preach a Gospel centered pacifism against the backdrop of reform movements that have not always shied away from throwing real dynamite, but also the systematic violence they believe to be intrinsic to the modern nation-state, where "war is the health of the state," a general context so well described in John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae as a "culture of death." Father Baxter's fundamental point is that where our constant temptation is to have recourse to the dynamis of violence, hatred, and death as means of social reform, whether good or bad, as Christians we should have recourse to the dynamis of the Cross, which is the power of life and love, the dynamis of the pacifism and hospitality always preached and practiced by the Catholic Worker movement. Rather than throwing bombs, we should be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and comforting the dying, as Christ did and instructed us to do.

Father Baxter’s disconcerting claim is that Christian theologians and social theorists themselves have obscured this vision of the "dynamite of the Church." In so doing they have not challenged, but rather perpetuated and strengthened, however inadvertently, the violent dynamis of our nation-state centered culture, as well as the violence of those movements that would seek to reform or destroy it. By adopting the standards of success characteristic of secular national policy debates and programs that exclude Gospel standards, these theorists make it difficult for the Christ centered radicalism of movements like the Catholic Worker to be heard. In the words of G. K. Chesterton , they teach us "to love mankind, and hate our next door neighbor."

On the contrary, success should be judged by the Gospel, a standard by which movements such as the Catholic Worker are seen as successful. A Gospel inspired and theologically informed social theory would not simply take the nation-state for granted as the fundamental political reality, and would not be one whose purpose it is to legitimate particular forms of political organization of the nation-state over others. On the contrary, it would contribute toward building the sort of local communities capable of actually embodying the Sermon on the Mount, local communities like, but not limited to the houses of hospitality for which the Catholic Worker is known. Quoting Paul Hanly Furfy, a theologian associated with the Catholic Worker, Father Baxter claimed "all true society flows from participation in the inner life of the Trinity." Presumably, for Father Baxter, that inner life is not to be found in the dominant forms of association characteristic of modern capitalist economies and their impersonal, bureaucratic charitable organizations, funded either by the nation-state or large national and multi-national corporations, which too often instrumentalize charity for the sake of the GNP - "charity is good business."

If the thrust of Father Baxter’s attack was thus quite direct, practical, and indeed radical, his talk attempted to diagnosis the theoretical, and for him pathological underpinnings in contemporary theology and social theory that serve to justify this undermining of the Church’s evangelical mission. The pathology is observed in the effort of theologians, most prominently the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, to develop a "public philosophy," then later a "public theology" "that would appeal to all parties in a religiously pluralistic setting; this meant a philosophy not grounded in the beliefs and practices of any specific ecclesial body, a philosophy not referring to the ultimate ends of human existence."

If that is the symptom, then the pathology consists of two related claims made by what Baxter identifies as a corrupt neo-scholastic tradition informed by a deformed reading of Thomas Aquinas. One claim is metaphysical, and the other epistemological. The metaphysical claim is that there are two distinct goals for human life, one a terrestrial natural goal, and the other a heavenly supernatural goal in the Trinitarian life of God. The terrestrial natural goal is understood to be thoroughly autonomous from the supernatural. Baxter would add that once this autonomous terrestrial goal has been posited, in recent thought it is too easily identified with the social, political, and fundamentally economic institutions constitutive of the modern nation-state. The epistemological claim is that our knowledge of these two goals consists of two autonomous fields, philosophy (including presumably social theory) and theology. There is an isomorphism between the metaphysical dualism on the one hand, and the epistemological dualism on the other, with philosophy exclusively concerned with autonomous nature and its purely natural goal, and theology exclusively concerned with graced nature and its purely supernatural goal in the Trinitarian life of God. Since the Revelation of Christ is supernatural, it easily follows that it is exclusively the concern of theology, and has no implications for the content of philosophy and social theory, and a fortiori has nothing to say about the pursuit of the presumed autonomous natural goal of man, particularly as it is pursued in the institutions of the nation-state.

So, it is not that this theoretical dualism, both metaphysical and epistemological, makes it difficult to fulfill the evangelical mission of the Church. Rather, the dualism brings about a reconceptualization of what that evangelical mission is. Indeed this reconceptualization makes preaching that mission all too easy and platitudinous, namely, to preach the heavenly kingdom as something otherworldly, and having little or nothing to do with our reflections upon whether, and how we should order our lives together in the social and political communities characteristic of this world. Father Baxter would urge us to abandon this false dualism, so that we can begin to develop the tools necessary for the dynamis of Christ to inform our lives here and now, and to put us in a position to confront those aspects of our politics that deform and limit the spreading of the Good News of Christ’s love.

While I am broadly sympathetic to Father Baxter’s claims and goals, I think his argument faces a number of obstacles, both theoretical and practical, that he must either clarify or overcome. I can do nothing more than gesture at them here. Father Baxter is right to react to some dominant themes in the neo-scholastic tradition of the past century that did often exhibit more the presuppositions of philosophy since Descartes and Kant, than the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Often enough in modern philosophy, if God had a role to play, it was as a god of the gaps, a deus ex machina brought in to fill in the explanatory gaps in some global philosophical or scientific theory of nature and man, a use of God which for Nietzsche was nothing other than the death of God. This is not Augustine's God, who is "more interior to me, than I am to myself." And it is a far cry from the creator God that Thomas Aquinas argued for, the cause of all being other than Himself, who sustains in existence all those particular beings, their natures, and their acts, studied by the sciences, and without Whom there would be no gaps to be filled by the explanatory successes of our theories of nature and man. It is a far cry from the "love of wisdom" that Aquinas saw in the "philosophers" to whom he attributed a philosophical knowledge of God as creator, in particular Plato and Aristotle.

So, Father Baxter is correct to react to these modern and contemporary philosophies in which God, if He appears at all, appears as so thoroughly transcendent as to be of little or no import for philosophy and in particular social theory. And he is right to react to neo-scholastic treatments that would seek to engage those philosophies, all the while silencing God. But I fear that Father Baxter's overall goal is in danger of being swallowed up by his reaction. Like any reaction, it runs the risk of being so extreme as to fail to understand the ways in which it shares the presuppositions of the position against which it is reacting, and runs the risk of being nothing more than another symptom of the same underlying pathology.

In particular, it seems that Father Baxter's discussion shares both the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of the neo-scholastics he would criticize. First, Father Baxter appears to share his opponents' metaphysical assumption that if there is to be a natural human goal apart from the Trinitarian life of God, it must be purely autonomous in the sense of excluding any place for God as intrinsic to natural human happiness. But after he rejects such an autonomous nature, and before he "supernaturalizes" the goal of human nature in the Trinitarian life, he must first exclude another possibility that he has not considered. He must exclude the possibility that human nature has as its goal a union with God which is not at the same time a union with the Trinitarian life of God. Here he could draw more heavily upon his own Catholic tradition in the persons of Augustine and Aquinas. In that context, grace would not so much "supernaturalize" human nature, as "Trinitarianize" it (forgive me the linguistic barbarism); human nature is apt for such a transformation by grace because it is already naturally open to the supernatural as constitutive of its happiness

Father Baxter also shares his opponents’ epistemological assumption that philosophy is exclusively concerned with the natural, while it is theology that has epistemic access to the "supernatural." This common assumption is shown in his use of "supernatural" as a theological, non-philosohical category. However this assumption about philosophy betrays the powerful influence of modern philosophy upon contemporary theology generally, not just of the "corrupt" neo-scholastic variety. Subject to the correction of specialists, it strikes me that ‘supernatural’ is not a theological category proceeding from Divine Revelation, but rather a borrowing from Greek philosophy. Here one might think of Aristotle’s Physics complemented by his Metaphysics, which is not to exclude all the other Greek sources for these categories. But for many of the Greek philosophers, the supernatural was the pre-eminent focus of philosophy, the love of wisdom. And of course Father Baxter’s own Church teaches that some knowledge of God can be had apart from the Divine Revelation of the Incarnation and God’s Trinitarian life. Indeed, if no knowledge of God is possible apart from Divine Revelation, it is difficult to see how the ways in which Divine Revelation is mediated to us as human beings can be accepted as resting upon the authority of God. In addition, Thomas Aquinas asserts that it is a deliverance of the natural law that God should be worshiped, the natural law being those precepts of human action that can be known by the exercise of reason apart from Divine Revelation, conformity to which is a necessary condition for any human being to achieve his or her individual and common good, which is his or her happiness. Here it is very important to attend to the fact that Aquinas does not assert that it is a dictate of the natural law to worship the Trinity; presumably that requires Divine Revelation. Yet Father Baxter seems to treat discussions of the natural law as part and parcel of the corrupt neo-scholasticism that has no room for God. So, after Father Baxter has rejected those philosophies in which God is dead, and before he can assert that philosophy is inadequate for talking about human happiness and must be informed by theology, he must exclude the possibility of philosophies that presuppose and develop knowledge of God sufficient for understanding the natural law requirement to worship God.

Attention to these problems would cast Father Baxter’s thesis that there can be no "true" society apart from participation in the Trinitarian life of God in a different light. "No true society" suggests that any society other than a participation in the Trinitarian life of God is false, or failed, or defective, or even bad. But this is to counsel despair in our social and political life with others who do not accept the Revelation of Christ. "Imperfect" can suggest "failure," and so on, but it does not do so of necessity. Perhaps it would be better to assert that there is no "perfect" society apart from participation in the Trinitarian life of God. "Perfect" and "imperfect" are a much more fluid set of terms than "true" and "false." Take, for example, a claim that Thomas Aquinas might make, namely, that with regard to the angels human beings are imperfect, while with regard to God the angels are imperfect. But there is no suggestion that human beings are failed or false angels, or that angels are failed or false gods. If human beings are failures, they are human failures, not angelic ones. The perfection of angels is greater, but it is not ours, and we should not attempt it since our good is the good of embodied creatures of God. As St. Augustine writes, "but instead of staying still and enjoying [the inner beauties] as it ought to, it wants to claim them for itself, and rather than be like Him by His gift it wants to be what He is by its own right." Here grasping after the more perfect, angelic or divine, may well be a damnable sin. In the case of the divine, accepting it as offered may be blessedness.

Apart from the nation-state, isn’t it possible that in neighborhood and school associations, small and personal charitable organizations, economic cooperatives, gaming clubs, and so on, we can and sometimes do jointly act for the common good, and achieve some measure of imperfect happiness with those who do not share our faith, the faith by which in this life we participate imperfectly in the Trinitarian life of God? My answer would be yes, so long as these communities do not exclude, but rather even promote the worship of God dictated by the natural law. Note that such worship need not be a bland unitarianism, but may well be quite tradition specific among the various groups that make up such a community, as for example, Jews, Muslims and Christians, among others. In the end, should a Christian rest content with the Philosophy and the natural human happiness that I have gestured here? No; in the end, Father Baxter is on target, despite the issues I have raised above. Christians know that a perfect happiness involving the Trinitarian life of God has been offered to them, and to all those with whom they may form imperfect human communities. It is a perfect happiness that they cannot naturally attain, but that is offered to them in Christ's death and Resurrection, and a perfect happiness that can only be offered to those who are naturally capable of an imperfect human happiness that knows, loves, and worships God. Grace perfects nature, it does not destroy it. That is our hope.