Fanaticism vs. Devotion

In a comment on my last post Michael Bolin does a good job of defending the Newman passage that I used to show that one should not be for moderation in religion, even in false religion. Nevertheless, I think Samantha Cohoe is right that the passage is not applicable to the case of St Paul before his conversion. Even after one has dismissed the bogus moderate/extreme distinction in religion one still needs to be able to distinguish between the false zeal of the pharisee and the true zeal of the saint. Jeremy Holmes provided the following distinction on Facebook (quoted with permission):

It seems to me that fanaticism (or “extremism” or “fundamentalism” or whatever other unsatisfying word you put on it) always involves a fear of the ambiguity that comes from real engagement with questions and with people. It is a need for black and white and a fear of gray. It puts on a mask of violence and physical fearlessness to hide its great fear in the face of spiritual questions. Because secularism promotes questioning all religious tenets, it seems to be the opposite of fanaticism. But the true mean is not fanaticism (which can’t ask the question) or secularism (which only questions to destroy) but something else for which I don’t have a name–some kind of fearless religion (which boldly asks questions to find the truth). Ratzinger’s writings have always seemed to me to embody this last virtue.

As well as fear, there also seems to be pride here, which is indeed often the root of fear. To quote Jeremy again, “pride identifies what shall count as good (my ideas, my self image, my private good) and then fear reacts to a threatened deprivation of that good.” Instead of being docile to reality, “fanatics” pridefully identify their own proper conceptions with reality. There is a “fundamentalist,” irrationalist version of this that identifies it’s private opinion about revelation with revelation itself. But there is a also an intellectualist, sophisticated version of this that substitutes its own cleverness for real contact with reality. This is similar to building what Charles De Koninck calls a “system,” in his brilliant lecture “Three Sources of Philosophy.”

To the secularist there is of course no real distinction between these two: Saul of Tarsus fighting the new way and St Simeon taking the child Jesus in his arms, and confessing that this poor little baby is the light of nations are both equally “extremists,” who take religion way too seriously. But in reality they are quite different. On the one hand you have St Simeon’s humble docility to reality, and on the other you have the violent trimming of reality to fit the Procrustean bed of an ideology. So one might call the fanatic an “ideologue,” talking ideology in Eric Voegelin’s sense of a “secondary reality.” Or one might call him a “religious chauvinist”— since what made Chauvin so laughable was his inability to give up on Bonapartist ideology even after events had thoroughly falsified its pretensions.

Since the proper object of the intellect is truth, complete certainty about something can only be had in two ways: by Aristotelian epistêmê, or by divine revelation. It seems therefore, that whenever someone thinks that he certainly knows something to be true that is in fact false, there is some defect in the will.

And this leads me to a sense of “moderation” that is applicable in religion. Obviously one cannot be excessively devoted to the infinite goodness that is God, nor can one ever do to much for him, but St Thomas teaches that one can do the wrong sort of thing for him, and this he calls a kind of “excess,” since it is an unnecessary and in fact evil thing.

Pope St John Paul II is said to have once asked his secretary Msgr. (now Cardinal) Dziwisz, “What are French Catholic integralists [intégristes]?” Dziwisz is said to have responded, “People who always do God’s will, whether God wants them to or not.” Whether this was a fair assessment of French traditionalist integralism is questionable. It’s a phenomenon that one can find everywhere. Nevertheless, as someone who defends a version of integralism myself it’s an accusation worth thinking about. In a slightly muddled, and on the whole not very convincing essay against integralism, Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it even more provocatively:

We all know the powerful traditionalist movements. Whether they are (as they think) at the heart of the Church or on her periphery, in negotiations with Rome; whether their concept of tradition allowed in the Church or not. The mark of both groups—the one in the mainstream of the Church as well as the one on the fringe—is there rigidity and self-righteousness. The consciousness of their integral Catholicism gives them the right to sovereignly condemn every position that differs from their own. They are in the right and only they. Why? Because ‘tradition’ is on their side. And what is tradition? That which always was. The present can be discounted. Let us recall that every schism in the history of the Church was traditionalist. That which was more or less accepted among the Ante-Nicenes must be valid today, and so the Arians leave the Church. That which was accepted at Nicea must remain without addition at Ephesus: the Nestorians leave the Church. That which was accepted at Ephesus must be preserved without addition at Chalcedon: the Monophysites of every kind isolate themselves. The East-West schism: everything up to Nicea II, but not a step further. The Reformation: only that which is (literally) contained in the Bible, but sine glossa. The Old Catholics: that which until now was not dogmatically defined must remain undefined.  […] These groups already know everything, and are therefore unmoved by all well-meaning attempts at dialogue. When Rome tries to approach them, they say ‘just wait, we will be vindicated.’ And when Rome doesn’t capitulate to them 100%, then Rome is of course in the wrong as usual. (pp. 226-227)

Balthasar is exaggerating—few of the schismatic movements that he mentions were really all that ‘traditionalist’—but he is right that some traditionalists identify there own interpretation of tradition with tradition itself, to the point of rejecting the authoritative interpretation given by the teaching office of the Church.

4 thoughts on “Fanaticism vs. Devotion

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  3. The Balthasar quotation is typically snarky and very inaccurate. What impresses me the more I read the Fathers of the Church is how they attack the heretics for NOT saying what everyone has always said before, but for saying something NEW. For example, when the Arians came along and said the Son was less than the Father — that there was a time when he was not — Athanasius can say: This is not what Catholics have said and believed in the past. And so with all the other examples. It’s true, of course, that in the effort to explain and defend the apostolic faith, it is necessary for the Fathers (and at times the Councils) to devise new language — but the new language is always in service of the old truths, not for the sake of bringing out new things that no one has seen before. (See my post this week at NLM:

    Here is a great quotation from St. John Damascene that conveys what I’m talking about: “For as what is small is not small, if it produces something big, so the slightest disturbance of the tradition of the Church that has held sway from the beginning is no small matter, that tradition made known to us by our forefathers, whose conduct we should look to and whose faith we should imitate.”


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