De Lubac: Is Religion Bad?

Let’s talk about argument by association, where you don’t make a case directly, but by putting two things next to each other and waggling your eyebrows suggestively. In The Discovery of God, Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac makes two quite similar arguments within a few pages of each other. First, he criticises the idea of rejecting religion just because some religious people are bad:

“To reject God because man has corrupted the idea of God, and religion because of the abuse of it, is the effect of a sort of clear-sightedness which is yet blind. For surely the holiest things are inevitably destined to be the victims of the worst abuses. Religion, which is its own source and origin, must continue to purify itself.”

A couple pages later, he writes about the hypocrisy of any given person towards the divine:

“Let us admit that three-quarters, and perhaps more, of all that man says and thinks of God in his worship and his prayer is infected with hypocrisy and superstition, childishness, convention, and routine repetitions. Yet we must be on our guard against contemptuous judgements, because they are the most blinding of all. This enormous wastage must not blind us to the spark of truth that burns in the innermost recesses of the soul. Even when it conceals it from us, it is not always stifled, and from time to time it can be seen glowing and bursting into a pure and upright flame.”

Obviously these two arguments are quite similar. One is about judging the hypocrisy of individuals, the other about judging the hypocrisy of organised religion. It’s the same thing said on both a communal and an individual level. De Lubac even uses the same term to define the problem – in both cases, he describes being overly critical as blindness. Rejecting religion because of evil priests is clear-sighted yet blind; contemptuous judgements are the most blinding, they blind us to the spark of truth. Your mileage might vary on those actual arguments, but we can identify the link between them. Again, I mentioned this when we talked about de Lubac and his ideas around approaches to God, but this book is made up of a series of fragments and extracts. It’s not one cohesive, linear argument – it’s a series of nodes or entries, creating a network of argumentation rather than a single thread. In that instance, the repeated term of ‘blindness’ stands out as part of the linkage between different entries.

Because these two entries are so similar, we might expect them to be right next to each other, as they’re essentially talking about adjacent topics. However, they’re separated by a third entry, which doesn’t immediately seem related to either. In this third entry, de Lubac talks about how everything derives its nature from God, but is nevertheless reduced to utter insignificance when set in contrast to Him. “The heavens proclaim the Glory of God – and yet that Glory extinguishes the light of the stars and reduces everything to dust … every creature is an image or vestige of the Creator – though nothing resembles God.” That is, flowers (for example) are beautiful, and they’re beautiful because they derive their nature from a beautiful God, and yet in direct contrast to God they seem like nothing – like a desert, de Lubac says.

And there maybe are some links we can tug out from these juxtaposed entries. De Lubac talks in the middle entry about the mystical ladder, our pursuit of the divine, where at every new stage we can only discover that our conception of God is incorrect – that this is not the God we’re looking for. That idea might speak to the concept of hypocrisy in worship – obviously our worship will be superstitious and childish, purely by virtue of God’s inscrutability. It’s an encouragement to pursue the divine, to acknowledge our limits and the necessary insufficiency of all that we think and say about God. And it’s a reminder not to be too judgemental about where other people are at in their journey – because our thinking is ultimately no better – and no worse – than theirs. The enormous wastage must not blind us to the divine spark.

We might also say that the same argument by association applies to critiques of religion. The enormous wastage of corruption and religious abuse should not blind us to the divine spark, to the genuine and true mission of the church. This is where the association maybe starts to stretch a little. In the individual instance, the contemptuous judgement that de Lubac warns against is where you look at an individual believer and notice that they’re a bit of a moron – that their understanding of God is immature and superstitious. In the communal instance, the contemptuous judgement is where you look at the church as a whole, and decide that it can’t possibly be a good place – that God can’t possibly be found within those walls. It’s where you recognize not just the individual problems of immaturity and superstition, but the collective, hierarchical problems of corruption and abuse. In one the problem is ineffectual, limp worship, and in the other it’s malevolent cruelty, it’s genuine suffering doled out upon the church by awful religious leaders. It’s not just wastage, it’s pain.

The gap between superstitious worship and religious corruption puts strain on de Lubac’s observation – and maybe opens up additional ways of thinking about the church. Perhaps this constant warning against the contemptuous judgement of the church is itself over-emphasising the church’s relationship to the divine – over-emphasising the bride of Christ as the image or vestige of the Creator, and soft-balling its ultimate insignificance. Divine glory extinguishes the light of the stars and reduces everything to dust – maybe including the church. “The grace and beauty of creatures are a supreme dis-grace compared with the Grace of God,” de Lubac says. “The passage from the world to God is thus affected by a double dialectic. On the one hand there is negation, on the other construction. The one suppresses, the other develops. The one is refusal and rejection, the other is acceptance and enhancement.” De Lubac presents this dialectic as the way to God, but maybe it also should apply to our understanding of the church. For every act of construction, perhaps there should be an act of tearing down. For every act of acceptance, every act of patience, maybe there should be an equal act of refusal and rejection. Against the pure, uncompromising standards of the divine, arguably the church is contemptible. Perhaps the real problem with the contemptuous judgement is that it fails to retain some sort of balance, some center between the outer poles of grace and disgrace, held in permanent tension.

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