When I was student in the seminary, I had two kinds of teachers: One kind, precisely because they were fiercely loyal to all that is Christian and Catholic, would have us read great secular thinkers but always with the intent of wanting to help show where these thinkers were wrong. Our intellectual task as a Catholic seminarian, they would tell us, is to be able to defend Catholicism against the kinds of criticisms found in the writings of these secular, sometimes, anti-Christian thinkers and to keep own faith and teaching free of their influence. The second set of professors approached things differently: They would have us read great secular thinkers, even if they were bitterly critical of Christianity and Catholicism, but with the intent of seeing what we could positively learn from them. These are great minds, they told us, and, whether sympathetic to Christianity or not, we have something to learn from them. Do not read uncritically, was their challenge, but still read with the intent of being instructed.
Early on as a seminary student, because I was still insecure intellectually, I leaned more towards the self-protective approach of the first set of professors and read most secular thinkers defensively. I have to smile now as I look back on the idealistic, but naïve and intellectually frightened, young man I was then, a nineteen year-old undergraduate trying to poke holes in the likes of thinkers like Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, Durkheim, and Lenin. I imagined myself, David fighting Goliath. It seems misguided and grandiose now, but I still have a fondness for that nineteen year-old who was engaged in this battle.
Later on, precisely because some of the valuable insights in a number of great secular thinkers began to break through, despite my resistance, I began more and more to lean towards the approach of the second set of professors who had invited us to learn from others’ insights, no matter the cloak of the author. Now as I age, both chronologically and in ministry, I find that I am richer and more compassionate to the exact extent that I can do that, namely, remain faithful to the truth wherever I find it, no matter its source. Hence, today I find myself drinking from intellectual wells of every sort, particularly from secular novelists and essayists, my critical faculties are still patrolling like soldiers on duty, but now with a thirst for the insights these writers have into life and the soul. I no longer read with the intent of trying to prove someone wrong, even if that author is anti-Christian. I have too much to learn.
Sometimes in our fear of being tainted in our orthodoxy we forget that many of the great theologians in Christian tradition were unafraid to pick up pagan thinkers, mine their insights for truth, and then blend these with their faith: St. Augustine did this with Platonism. Thomas Aquinas, in the face of considerable ecclesial criticism, did the same thing with Aristotle. Ironically, centuries later, we now take many of their intellectual categories, which they originally took from pagan thought, as our very criteria for orthodoxy.
More recently, Liberation Theology, at its best, has done this with Marxist theory; just as, Feminism, at its best, has done the same with secular social theory. But much of these efforts have been, in the name of orthodoxy, viewed with either suspicion or positive rejection. Dare one say that Jesus did the same thing? He picked up parables and stories that were current in his culture and tailored them to further his own religious and moral teachings. Moreover, he taught, and with precious little equivocation, that we are to honor truth wherever we see it, irrespective of who’s carrying it.
But isn’t this syncretism? If one picks up truths from diverse pagan and secular sources and harmonizes them with one’s Christian faith, how does one avoid the accusation of being syncretistic?
Picking up truth from a variety of sources is not syncretism. Syncretism is combining insights gleaned from everywhere in a way that is uncritical of internal contradiction. But we must not confuse tension with contradiction. Tension is not necessarily a sign of contradiction; it’s often the opposite: True faith is humble enough to accept truth, wherever it sees it, irrespective of the tension it causes and irrespective of the religion or ideology of whoever is speaking it. Big mind and big hearts are large enough to contain and carry large ambiguities and great tensions. And, true worshippers of God accept God’s goodness and truth wherever these are manifest, no matter how religiously or morally inconvenient that manifestation might be.
God is the author of all that is good and all that is true! Hence, since no one religion, one church, one culture, one philosophy, or one ideology contains all of the truth, we must be open to perceive and receive goodness and truth in many, many different places – and we must be open to the tensions and ambiguity this brings into our lives.