Fighting the Last War

Don’t get trapped fighting the last war, I often find myself thinking recently.

Fighting the last war is a great expression of ambiguous origin.  It captures a simple matter of fact coupled with a warning or criticism.  It is a mark of rationality to base our decisions on experience; it is a mark of irrationality to stay trapped in the past.  Fighting the last war is a refusal to account for the changing circumstances in your field.

In the realm of theology, it makes you irrelevant.  Fast.  Trying to convince someone by the arguments of questions they are not asking and don’t care about: fighting the last war.  It’s an interesting thing, being trapped by your own experience.  It was valid once!  But dead fish, up-stream, etc.

A monk I know–actually, several–sees himself as a corrective to the doom-and-gloom, excessively negative piety of typical American Catholics: those rules-oriented, missing-the-point Catholics who slavishly do as they are told.  One problem: all those people are dead.  The room full of teenagers he’s teaching has never been under the pall of that defect; their parents probably haven’t since their childhood; they don’t even know what fasting is.  He’s fighting the last war when we need to be introducing children to the very idea of fasting.  When I teach it to my 9th graders they think it sounds a lot like Islam!

Biblical Studies

The modern history of biblical studies shows this in interesting ways.  I recently read a passage in Nietzsche (h/t: Laudator–I love that guy) blasting the Christian scholars of his day for reducing every damn thing in the Old Testament to a type of Christ.  Like all Nietzsche, it is well worth the read.  I set aside for now the accuracy of his complaint–he’s running together Catholic and Protestant scholarship–to speak about a Catholic response.

“Everyone knows” that Catholic biblical studies was slower to adopt the emerging historical-critical methods of philology.  They were stuck in the last war, so to speak, addressing a secular world of Nietzsches and Schopenhauers just as they would the faithful or their Protestant antagonists.  The next generations of Catholic scholars (possibly even stung by the reproach of Nietzsche and others like him) did increasingly embrace the historical-critical methods until they were the very model of a modern philologist.

The only problem was that in so doing, they lost contact with the supernatural element of Scripture.  Those typological readings were important–not to Nietzsche, sure, or to any other non-believer, but the Catholic Church is not a philological society–and were too quickly jettisoned to preserve the letter from violence.  Entire generations of Catholic scholars fought harder and harder to be better East Eggers than any East Egger could ever dream of!  They fought the old war, which was in many respects a deeply misguided one, long after interest in the methods cooled and the need for a new synthesis was no longer urgent.

The irony is that now, as we enter a much-delayed period of synergy between the Catholic tradition and the historical-critical methods, Catholics find themselves champions of a largely empty field.  The culture is abuzz with a very different secular objection to the Church and Christianity: the low-brow atheism that knows not Moses and insists that the Bible is a single witness, biased, and therefore discardable as a valid testimony to the historicity of Church, the identity of Jesus, and even his very existence.  When Catholics deploy their Egyptian spoils of h/c methods, they are viewed with condescending suspicion–the Catholics and the methods both.  What a trite little dodge, an ad hoc set of reasoning to support your religious delusions!

What’s the right move in that war?  Not sure.  A lesson is emerging, but let’s look at another, related theater of the war first.


Take a summary of Catholic dogma like Ott’s marvelous Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma.  What a useful little reference!  On sheer volume, in comparison of topics, the dogmas about the nature of the Church predominate.  A moment’s reflection should be enough to see why: ecumenical councils and formal pronouncements typically come in response to challenges to ancient belief or practice, to controversy, to heresy.

Our body of doctrine about the Church has been built up largely because of the antagonism of Protestantism, itself a multi-front struggle.  And when you look at the standard textbook approach to teaching the Church you find a lot of Scriptural foundations (both Old and New Testament) and a lot of historical analysis and pains to show continuity of belief and practice through the ages.  You find, in short, a robust apologetic against Protestants.

Well my students are not Protestant.  Or they are,  but not in the way that this approach can touch.  They are modern, skeptical secularists.  If they already believed in the divine authority of Scripture this approach would be fine.  But what my students want is an entirely different foundation.  The right way to understand John 6 is a waste of time to them; give them natural ecclesiology or give them death!

What’s the Lesson Here?


I’m torn between two take-aways from this flight of fancy.

On the one hand, keeping up with the world is a fool’s errand.  The world is passing away, says everything from Ecclesiastes to St. Paul.  Trying to think like a madman makes you one and the Church will never, ever make the world happy but for rare accidental moments of convergence.

That is, as my students say, the dark lesson.  I think it’s important not to toss it aside since we can look back at every effort at rapprochement with the world and see that it didn’t work.  Did Vatican II really get Church and World talking on the same page again?  Yeah, it went greeeat three years later with Humanae Vitae.  Besides, there’s a principled reason to think that the world will always reject the Church: Jesus warned us it would happen, and the world killed him.

Still, that’s just one lesson.  Valid, sure, and probably timely.  But I have to teach kids and plan a curriculum.  When I try to figure out how to get them to hear the Gospel, I remember this other lesson: the Church is the greatest anthropologist the world has ever known.

As we reach back through our history we find a cohort of saints who understand what it means to be human at the most profound level.  They combine a powerful insight into the universal human condition with a fully-embraced understanding of their audience, the culture of their time.

That’s what we have to be when we teach the Gospel: timeless and fully invested in the present, traditional and highly adaptive, fixed on the far-distant eternity but noticing every detail of the present.  And know how to sift the important from the junk.  And be funny.  And serious.  And compelling.  But not too pushy.  But not soft-pedalling cowards.

And yes, the world will still hate the Gospel and the Church will be under siege until the very end.  But we don’t shrug and watch the world burn.  We start convincing people to get out of the burning building.  And that means answering the questions they are asking, not the ones they asked long ago.

Where’s one to find such a secular-suitable ecclesiology?

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