Reconstructing Christian Revelation

The Third Millenniumby David WalshGeorgetown Univ. Press. 256p $65; $22.95 (paper)

Though the title might lead one to dismiss this book as just another in the swarm of apocalyptic writings like those by Tim LaHaye, Jerry Falwell and Grant R. Jeffrey, preying on public anxiety over the end of the world and predicting Armageddon and cosmic meltdown, this work by a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America is fortunately nothing of the kind. Rather it offers serious and scholarly reflections on the spiritual problems faced by modernity as it crosses into the third millennium of Christianity. Like millennialists, however, though for entirely different reasons, Walsh attaches supreme importance to the passage into another millennium. As he puts it rather hyperbolically: "Even the most blasé among us cannot remain unaffected by the promise of a new beginning contained in the millennial opening. It is as if we are back at that most magical first day of creation. We have leapt into a qualitatively different time, and unlimited new possibilities open before us."

The alleged significance of this calendrical transition lies for Walsh not in its portending of an imminent end of the world but in its marking the third millennium of the birth of Christ, whose advent has left an indelible imprint on history, at least in the West. Because of this permanence of Christian influence, two facts are central to Walsh’s proposal. First, despite modernity’s repeated attempts to erase all Christian references from its culture, people in the West continue to live in an anonymously Christian world; second, this anonymously Christian civilization has spread throughout the world, at least in the form of scientific technology and the vindication of human rights, and has found enthusiastic acceptance. Consequently Walsh suggests two tasks for the third millennium: curing the West’s amnesia of its Christian roots and instituting a dialogue between Christianity and other world religions.

Advertisement

That Western modernity is rooted in the Christian worldview is neither a new nor an original thesis. Nevertheless, the first chapter of the book provides a useful summary of the various ways in which, as Walsh puts it, Christian revelation "enlarges" reason: "the recognition of the full universality of human reason, the removal of the burden of intramundane fulfillment, the equidistance of all human beings from divine perfection, and the ineradicable presence of evil in life all derive from the Christian differentiation." For Walsh, this enlargement of reason by revelation is not just an adventitious addition but the fulfillment of its very nature: "Reason is no longer reason when it is divorced from its source in relation to transcendent Being." In spite of its innate orientation toward Being, reason, Walsh contends, cannot reach and unveil Being. Such revelation of Being can be achieved only in the event of the Incarnation: "Only God can reveal God." Hence the paradigmatic role of Christ for reason and, of course, for modernity.

With the theophanic nature of reason in place, Walsh goes on in the second chapter to describe what he terms the "schizophrenia" of the modern world. His diagnosis is that it is caused by modernity’s forgetfulness and/or rejection of its inescapable orientation toward Being, and more specifically, of its roots in Christianity: "Without the language of transcendent revelation, the modern world is unperceiving of its own deepest resonances. Its schizophrenia consists of the disassociation between its reality and its self-understanding." Lacking a language fashioned by the Christian "differentiation of Being," modernity’s scientific project (both the so-called hard sciences and the human sciences) will be endangered, and its discourse on human rights is void of ultimate justification.

The remaining three chapters form the core of this book. In the third chapter Walsh argues for the necessity of revelation and for Christ as the "limit" of revelation, reason, virtue, myth and balance. However, the fact that "the advent of Christ is the event that brings the structure of revelation into focus and, with it, the differentiated order of being compactly expounded in philosophy and the other world religions" does not, Walsh insists, render other religions obsolete. There is therefore the necessity of interreligious dialogue, the theme of the fourth chapter. The final chapter expounds Christ as "the heart of civilization" and in a forceful diatribe against the modern forms of Gnosticism (especially as espoused by Harold Bloom), Walsh shows that Christ is "the balance," "the limit of luminosity" and "fullness of life."

For professional theologians these reflections are of great interest. However, for them, much of what is being proffered sounds pretty much like old news. For example, a central category of Walsh’s argument is the concept of "anonymous Christians." We are told that "global modernity derived from a Christian orbit"; that "all men [sic] are Christians to the extent to which they recognize that their reason is not their own"; that "human sciences...remain implicitly Christian"; and that "philosophy after the advent of Christ must of necessity be Christian philosophy." Though the book never refers to Karl Rahner, it is well known that the German Jesuit was the foremost proponent of the concept of "anonymous Christianity," and by making use of it, Walsh stands in distinguished company. However, Walsh would have strengthened his argument had he been aware of the extensive debate about "anonymous Christianity" and responded to the searching criticism of this concept by both Catholic and Protestant theologians, especially if it is made operative in interreligious dialogue.

With regard to interreligious dialogue, which Walsh proposes as a task for the third millennium, Walsh deserves accolades for insisting on the necessity for Christianity to learn from other religions. But this insistence sounds hollow when coupled with his affirmation that "only through Christianity is the height and the depth of human existence fully disclosed in such a way that we are enabled to live profoundly at home in the world without confusing it in the least with our final home": If the truth of human existence is already fully disclosed in Christianity, why should it bother to learn further from other religions through dialogue? Moreover, Walsh labors still under the Hegelian spell when he regards the goal of interreligious dialogue to be "inclusion without destruction" of other religions within Christianity on the ground that Christianity has developed the most "differentiated" language about being, whereas those of other religions still remain "compacted." While most theologians would agree with Walsh that truth should underpin dialogue and that "tolerance of indifference" must be rejected, they would regard the inclusion of other religions within Christianity a misguided goal for interreligious conversation.

Finally, with regard to the other task of the third millennium, namely, the healing of modernity’s forgetfulness of its Christian roots, Walsh has made a convincing case for the Christian paternity of modern culture, especially in its two most distinctive accomplishmentsscientific technology and human rights. But most probably modernity will not be as disconcerted as Walsh suggests that it would be, when reminded of its Christian parentage. After all, it will rightly point out that it is precisely in its two most significant contributions that it owed least to Christianity, as the church’s condemnation of Galileo and its not-so-long-ago past defense of slavery testify. The real issue, it seems, is not how modernity regards Jesus Christ (indeed, Jesus continues to have a great appeal for many moderns) nor whether modernity is mindful of its derivation from Christianity. Rather it is the attitude of Christianity vis-à-vis modernity. If modernity suffers from schizophrenia in its self-understanding, Christianity suffers no less from split personality in its relationship with modernity and scientific reason. Therapy must be applied to both modernity and Christianity, and whereas the book has prescribed many treatments for the first patient, one looks in vain for an effective treatment for the second.

Whatever one thinks of Walsh’s reconstruction of Christian revelation, there is no doubt that The Third Millennium will provoke a serious conversation about the future of modernity and the role of Christianity within it. It deserves praise for its balanced assessment of the contributions of Christianity to Western philosophy, its vigorous insistence on the unity of reason and faith, its sincere support for interreligious dialogue, its courageous and pointed critique of Harold Bloom’s Gnosticism, and its vibrant faith in the centrality of Christ. It is fervently hoped that readers, not misled by its apocalyptic-sounding title, will pick it up for a careful perusal long after the glow of the millennium celebration fades.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Musician Billy Joel performs during his 100th lifetime performance at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, July 18, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Steven Hyden says he is not a religious person, but he is fervently devoted to the music that he grew up with.
Maurice Timothy ReidyAugust 14, 2018
A much-needed biography of Paul Hanly Furfey (1896-1992): priest, sociologist and urban revolutionary theorist.
Jack DowneyAugust 10, 2018
What happened to Egypt's popular uprising?
Ryan RichardsonAugust 10, 2018
A memoir that includes historical analysis as well as biographical narrative tells the tale of four Mexican-Americans unsure if they belong any longer in their adopted country.
Vivian CabreraAugust 09, 2018