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Lazarus! Come out! Why faith needs imagination.

Lazarus! Come out! Why faith needs imagination

Richard Cote Published by Novalis Press, 2003 Paperback, pp. 183, ISBN 2895073074 $16.95 CAN

In his book Lazarus: Come Out: Why Faith Needs Imagination, Fr. Richard Cote, the director of the Office of Theology for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, expresses his view that the Catholic Church's vision of reality and magisterial teachings are "superficial" and not conducive to what he feels is necessary for our time: an "inculturated faith." His stated aim is "to rehabilitate the religious imagination in our contemporary faith odyssey ... to interpret the gospel anew for our rapidly changing times."

Instead, while never explicitly stating his goal as being a movement away from orthodoxy, Cote nevertheless implicitly proposes a substantively different alternative, one that is disguised in Christian terminology.

The raising to life of Lazarus becomes, for Cote, a metaphor for raising the imagination to pride of place among the mental faculties to the extent that it supposedly becomes our "natural inborn faculty for transcendence." Three specific areas where Cote feels imagination is lacking today are the liturgy, language and communication, and sacred art.

Throughout the book Cote speaks in a language that appears deliberately vague and ambiguous. Essentially, however, he argues that it is at a core level of "feeling" that the fevered imagination--free from the influence of reason--acts to interpret both reality and faith authentically from self-created images. This is also a moment where in Cote's words the "sharply drawn distinction between the 'sacred' and the 'profane' begins to disappear," at which point a transitional space is supposed to open up that leads the subject to real spiritual growth.

Cote surprisingly equates this moment of freedom with the "dark night" of the senses about which many of the great Christian mystics speak. But it is quite clear that to the extent this new freedom springs from imagination and one's own creativity it remains just a cry in the dark of mete self-affirmation. For Cote, God is no longer a personal God but something "beyond the personal," a kind of spiritual energy. Cote writes: "Instead of King, Lord or Father ... God is envisioned as Source of Life, Ultimate Reality, or Ground of Being."

It is here that dialogue and ultimately truth in Cote's thesis become purely relative. It is not surprising that he enjoins us to imagine "a different Church, a different liturgy, a different way of imagining God and viewing the secular world, and a different way of relating to other world religions."

A major criticism of Cote's book is that he proposes faith as pure "paradox" that can only exist as pitted against reason. Those who disagree he readily dismisses as fundamentalists. Faith, however, is not external to reason. A faith without reason would not be human.

Cote's exaltation of imagination conveniently allows him to re-interpret the Catholic meaning of inculturation, the purpose of which is to purify the particular values of different peoples (Novo millennio ineunte, No. 40). Cote turns this around and suggests that it is the teachings of Roman Catholicism that need to be purified (changed) in order to adapt to our changing culture. A culture, he suggests, that feels it has nothing to "hide" cannot be guilty of sin. To this end, he conspicuously omits from his exhaustive list of present-day evils the primary evils of contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia--evils which our present day culture openly challenges the Church to accept.

Ultimately, and as a subversion to the legacy of the Enlightenment, Cote posits a New Age, anti-rationalist mysticism that, like the old gnosis, pretends to be totally attuned to the various fields of scientific knowledge. Essentially, the Absolute is not to be believed, but to be experienced as something of a "myth." Religion now means the harmony of oneself with the cosmic "whole," the overcoming of all separations--including the distance that separates creature from Creator. In this context, sin becomes something collective "without a clear concept or manageable moral definition." It is at this point toward the end of his book that Cote even calls for a return to the pagan, pre-Christian gods.

Heretofore, revelation has given us no world formula. The logic of the whole is not something we can deduce. Such a concept is plainly counter to the mystery of freedom.

The nucleus of the problem with Cote's synthesis lies in his understanding of freedom. He adopts a concept of freedom that is proper to idealistic philosophy, a concept that, in reality, is appropriate to the absolute Spirit--to God--but not to man.

If we are today living in a moral desert it is precisely because of this "new spirituality" which Cote, along with many others, advocates.

Paul Kokoski studies at McMaster University, Hamilton. His last contribution to Catholic Insight was the article "Suffering," September 2004, p. 19.
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Author:Kokoski, Paul
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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