This is just a quick note to any regular visitors, to say that yesterday’s post will be my last for a while as I shall be taking an extended break from blogging from here on in, as part of an overall attempt to minimise the amount of distractions in my life and try to focus more on discerning what sort of direction I should be going in (a bit ambiguous I know, but I can’t really go into any detail without ending up writing a full-blown and highly self-indulgent essay!) Anyway, I shall still look in to the blogs that I follow, and I shall hopefully return to writing here at some point in the not-too distant future (probably sometime after Easter Sunday – it may be longer than that, but is very unlikely to be sooner), so shall see you all again then. God bless, and thanks to all have visited, particularly those who have shown their support with some very kind, encouraging comments, and those who have shared my posts through re-blogs and twitter.
It is one of the joys of earthly life to take comfort in familiarity – the particular feel of a favourite chair, well worn by years of use; certain scents or sounds that evoke happy memory; the re-reading of books that have nurtured our imaginations in the past and continue to feed them in the present – and the joy we take in such things reflects the more general delight we take in the concrete and particular. The experience of fully encountering this moment – this place and these things at this time – communicates to us not only a feeling of assurance but also a sense of the sacred (and perhaps the former because of the latter). What degree of continuity will there be though, if any, between these experiences and life in Heaven; and what are we to make of the tension between our love of the concrete and our being called to renounce attachment to things in general – can that tension find a resolution?
The first thing to note is that, due to the Incarnation, Christianity is necessarily committed to the material – it is a deeply sacramental religion, with the hypostatic union of the human and divine natures in Our Lord providing the foundation for a system of mediated grace that flows from the Church (itself a thoroughly material entity) via the sacraments which it has received the authority to provide. Whilst the deeply physical nature of the means by which we receive grace to aid us on our way to God is denied vociferously by a great many Protestant churches (as well as the need for there to be any mediation at all) this remains a basic fact of historic, orthodox Christianity – a fact that is of great importance for understanding how God intends to bring us into relationship with Him, and which bears continual witness to the nature of the Incarnation itself.
This being the case then, our love of material things cannot be wholly wrong, even if it may need some qualification – matter, already in some sense hallowed by virtue of it being created by God and said by Him to be good, has received further consecration due to God having united to Himself our human nature, entered into our material world, and further blessed it by setting apart certain elements of that world (bread, wine, water, oil) for the effective communication of His own divine life. Such qualification that may be required is where the question of attachment comes in – if matter is something good, and even blessed, it is not our enjoyment of it that may lead us astray, but our being attached to it to the extent that we need it to be happy. If we take pleasure in sitting in an old armchair, this is a fine thing in and of itself, but if we begin to seek out such a feeling, then we have become, in a small but significant way, addicted to it – it is not the chair, nor the feeling of comfort that it gives us that is the problem, but the placing of our happiness in the re-creation of that feeling.
The attachment we feel towards such experiences and things (whether they be good, like the reading of a favourite book in a beloved armchair, or sinful, like drinking ourselves into a stupor) is due to our concupiscence – the preferring of lower goods (or even the perversion of good things) in contrast to the things reason tells us make for our highest good. Basically, we give too much of our affection and desire towards the things God has made, instead of He who made them; and this is due to a prior flaw in human nature, which is born of Original Sin. So, the problem is not our delight in the things of this world (the concrete is, as we have seen, not only good but is further blessed by virtue of the Incarnation) but our forgetfulness of where these particular goods receive their goodness from. Enjoying creation is a good and holy thing; preferring it to the Creator is not.
With respect to familiarity then, and our taking comfort in it, there should not be a problem in our doing so as long as we enjoy such things with a spirit of gratitude – if each time we nestle down in that favourite armchair of ours (sorry for repeating this example, but I really do love a good, well-worn armchair; the enjoyment of a bacon sandwich would work equally well) we recognise that these things, indeed anything is a gift of God, and thus our enjoyment becomes properly expressed within the context of thanks that He has provided us with them. This then ties into the question of what continuity there might be between these concrete experiences, mediated by our senses, and the heavenly life; as if our enjoyment of earthly things is properly ordered only when it is rightly aligned to their Provider, then any continuity between them and life in Heaven must be on that basis too.
Saint Augustine, in the concluding chapters of his De Civitate Dei, considers what life in Heaven might be like, and thereby the related question of what our resurrected life might be like – for another corroboration of the goodness of materiality is that we, along with the rest of the creation, will be reinstated and transfigured; Heaven will not be a place of ghosts, but of substance. What that substance will be, and the way in which our substantial but spiritualised bodies will interact with that new world, is what Saint Augustine goes on to consider (in Chapter 29 of Book XII), and in doing so (particularly in the second part of the excerpt below) he provides some illumination on this question of continuity:
‘If the eyes of the spiritual body have no more power than the eyes which we now possess, manifestly God cannot be seen with them. They must be of a very different power if they can look upon that incorporeal nature which is not contained in any place, but is all in every place. For though we say that God is in heaven and on earth, as He Himself says by the prophet, “I fill heaven and earth,” we do not mean that there is one part of God in heaven and another part on earth; but He is all in heaven and all on earth, not at alternate intervals of time, but both at once, as no bodily nature can be. The eye, then, must have a vastly superior power – the power not of keen sight, such as is ascribed to serpents or eagles, for however keenly these animals see, they can discern nothing but bodily substances – but the power of seeing things incorporeal…
…Wherefore it may very well be, and it is thoroughly credible, that we shall in the future world see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognise God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual, and shall see Him, not as we now understand the invisible things of God, by the things which are made, and see Him darkly, as in a mirror, and in part, and rather by faith than by bodily vision of material appearances, but by means of the bodies we shall wear and which we shall see wherever we turn our eyes. As we do not believe, but see that the living men around us who are exercising vital functions are alive, though we cannot see their life without their bodies, but see it most distinctly by means of their bodies, so, wherever we shall look with those spiritual eyes of our future bodies, we shall then, too, by means of bodily substances behold God, though a spirit, ruling all things.’
The City of God (2000), pp.861-863, Modern Library.
Saint Augustine goes on to elaborate as to how this transparency of the material to the Spirit underpinning and vitalising it will lead to an increased intimacy between all created things – because God will be vividly apparent to us in and through the new heavens and new earth, each part of this realm will be for us something upon which our gaze may (as George Herbert writes in his poem The Elixir) ‘through it pass, and then the heav’n espy’; also communication between persons will be clear and immediate, unencumbered by the self-possession of sin, and enabled by the prior communion with God which all shall enjoy. Furthermore, in Chapter 30 of the same book, Augustine goes on to describe something of the freedom we will have in this communion, with its concomitant lack of attachment to things for their own sake:
‘What power of movement such bodies shall possess, I have not the audacity rashly to define, as I have not the ability to conceive. Nevertheless I will say that in any case, both in motion and at rest, they shall be, as in their appearance, seemly; for into that state nothing which is unseemly shall be admitted. One thing is certain, the body shall forthwith be wherever the spirit wills, and the spirit shall will nothing which is unbecoming either to the spirit or to the body. True honour shall be there, for it shall be denied to none who is worthy, nor yielded to any unworthy; neither shall any unworthy person so much as sue for it, for none but the worthy shall be there. True peace shall be there, where no one shall suffer opposition either from himself or from any other. God Himself, who is the Author of virtue, shall there be its reward; for, as there is nothing greater or better, He has promised Himself.’
Whereas in this life we experience God only partially, and do so through the things He has made, in Heaven we shall ‘see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognise God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual’ – everything will be a window onto Him, and thus we shall enjoy all the things of the new heaven and earth precisely because they show us the divine life, not because of the things themselves. Furthermore, concupiscence will no longer be an issue, for ‘the body shall forthwith be wherever the spirit wills, and the spirit shall will nothing which is unbecoming either to the spirit or to the body’ and so nothing will stand in the way of that perfect alignment with the life of God that is our true destiny.
Therefore, if what Saint Augustine writes is correct, our enjoyment of the concrete and particular will not only find continuity with the heavenly life, but will thereby find its perfection – if the goodness of such earthly experiences can be located in our recognition that they come from God and to some extent bring us closer to Him, then how much more will the goodness of those very same things be realised in a context where they show us their dependence upon Him completely. In Heaven then, just as our sensory experience will be taken to a level beyond what it is now, so that we will be able to thereby know spiritual truth as well, so will the mediatory role of the rest of creation find its perfection.
This then would provide a definite point of continuity for us, linking the partially revelatory joys of familiar things and experiences to the unmitigated glorification all creation will provide in Heaven. However, although the prominence that is accorded to Saint Augustine is well-deserved, and his arguments here cogent, his is still but an opinion (albeit a very learned one), and the true nature of Heaven must by the nature of the case remain mysterious to us – how much stock can we actually put in what he says? It seems to me that, although it is true that we know vastly less of Heaven than we ever can hope to know in this life, that the arguments put forward by Augustine are based on sound dogmatic principles (i.e.; the goodness of creation, the resurrection of the body) and also that the central point of his conclusion cannot really be disputed.
The key to all he says is this – that whatever we encounter in Heaven will be in some way, though in truth we know not how, continuous with this life, but that the root of this continuity is God. If anything of this life survives into the next, it will be because it spoke to us of God; if any experience or mode of being finds some analogy in Heaven, it will be because it showed us Him – what makes Heaven the blessed place that it will be is God alone, because ‘as there is nothing greater or better, He has promised Himself.’ All things in Heaven will be there to glorify Him who is our greatest, and, in the end, our only good. That many things in this life already do speak to us of Him in part should give us some confidence that they will therefore also play a part in the hereafter; but whatever the reality is, we will find that it fulfils and far exceeds all that has thus far given us joy.
In an essay entitled Our English Syllabus – which can be found in Rehabilitations (1939) – C. S. Lewis discusses the difference between education and vocational training, as well as the more subtle difference between education and learning. He begins by reflecting upon the assessment of the late medieval/early modern mind (via Milton) and the corresponding assessment of the classical mind (via Aristotle), which is that the primary purpose of education is to produce the ‘good man and the good citizen…the man of good taste and good feeling, the interesting and interested man, and almost the happy man’ – the task of the educator is to awaken and sharpen the logical and moral faculties latent in mankind, by exposing them to all the wisdom that culture has to offer; it is not primarily geared towards setting the student up to perform a particular duty or becoming well skilled in a specific area of expertise.
The duty of the trainer however is precisely this, and so the trainer’s brief is essentially utilitarian and narrow. This is not said to disparage vocational training or vocational trainers, but merely to make an important distinction – vocational training has a very different end in mind to education (or at least what was considered to be the essence of education until fairly recently). Lewis’ essay is designed to alert the reader to the fact that education has become not only conflated with training, but to a great extent subsumed by it – when we think of education nowadays, it is usual to see it as a stepping stone on the way to getting a job. Now, this is to a certain extent inevitable, as the prior concept of education was based on societies where hierarchical inequality was assumed and where education was therefore limited to those with enough free time to devote to it. In our own time though, we must aim to find a balance between the two ways:
‘When societies became, in effort if not in achievement, egalitarian, we are presented with a difficulty. To give everyone education and to give no one vocational training is impossible, for electricians and surgeons we must have and they must be trained. Our ideal must be to find time for both education and training: our danger is that equality may mean training for all and education for none-that everyone will learn commercial French instead of Latin, book-keeping instead of geometry, and ‘knowledge of the world we live in’ instead of great literature. It is against this danger that schoolmasters have to fight, for if education is beaten by training, civilization dies. That is a thing very likely to happen. One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost…
…And if you press to know what I mean by civilization, I reply ‘Humanity’, by which I do not mean kindness so much as the realization of the human idea. Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end,’ and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes that potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.’
taken from Our English Syllabus
Whilst it is true that equal opportunity for social betterment must be afforded to all, we are making a grave mistake if we conceive of this opportunity only in terms of making available more means to earn money by storing up ‘useful’ techniques and bits of information. For it is precisely the useless things in life that make us most human, that make civilisation civilised. The ‘dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century optimism’ do not though, even after the horrors of their full-scale implementation in various twentieth-century regimes and the similarly horrific warning signs to their contrary in that same century’s great wars, seem to have lost any of their hold over us – we are still of the mind that secular, materialist progressivism will save the day, and continue to pour all our efforts into perpetuating that vision of things, particularly in our schools.
The results of these efforts are not only that people in the West are increasingly alienated from the riches of their own cultural heritage, but that they are also becoming less skilled in the utilitarian arts as well – each year we read that numeracy and literacy levels are decreasing and that we are producing fewer engineers and scientists with the skills necessary to compete in the global market. There seems to be something analogous to Matthew 6:33 here – that if we seek first the path of virtue and wisdom (i.e.; of education), all the skills needed for meeting vocational standards will be added to us, but if we aim for training alone, we lose out on both fronts. The goal of education is to produce someone who, by being steeped in the wisdom of the ages, has had their critical faculties honed so well that they can turn their mind to any task – thus it acts as a foundation for engagement with vocations of any kind.
The goal of training however, is to deliver a limited set of information and/or skills to the student in order to perform a task or set of tasks – thus, when meeting said tasks, and encountering the range of difficulties that most jobs present (and this is particularly so in today’s world, when so many disciplines overlap) there is not always present in the actor the depth of insight and range of critical faculties required to meet those difficulties satisfactorily. In summary, you could say that training equips the student to meet this task, to fit this role, whereas education provides the student with the aptitude and powers of judgement to meet any task or fit any role. This ties in to what Lewis has to say about the difference between education and learning, where he contends that the latter presupposes that the student has already had his appetite for knowledge shaped by the former. On those who have been so shaped and thus desire to know more, he writes:
‘Now it might have happened that such people were left in civil societies to gratify their taste as best they could without assistance or interference from their fellows. It has not happened. Such societies have usually held a belief-and it is a belief of a quite transcendental nature-that knowledge is the natural food of the human mind: that those who’ specially pursue it are being specially human; and that their activity is good in itself besides being always honourable and sometimes useful to the whole society. Hence we come to have such associations as universities-institutions for the support and encouragement of men devoted to learning…
…The schoolmaster must think about the pupil: everything he says is said to improve the boy’s character or open his mind-the schoolmaster is there to make the pupil a ‘good’ man. And the pupil must think about the master. Obedience is one of the virtues he has come to him to learn; his motive for reading one book and neglecting another must constantly be that he was told to. But the elder student has no such duties ex officio to the younger. His business is to pursue knowledge. If hi pursuit happens to be helpful to the junior partner, he is welcome to be present; if not, he is welcome to stay at home. No doubt the elder, of his charity, may go a little out of his course to help the younger; but he is then acting as a man, not as a student.’
The ‘elder student’ Lewis speaks of is of course the university tutor, as he considers that at this point both professor and undergraduate are, having both been formed by education, embarked together upon the journey of learning – of pursuing knowledge in order to deepen understanding. Thus, whilst the tutor may (and no doubt ordinarily will) aid and accompany the undergraduate on this journey, they are in it together – it is the case of a more experienced traveller giving advice to someone just starting out on the trail, and assumes that the novice has already had their mind and will educated in order to respond to and learn from what the journey will present along the way. Lewis goes on to point out that in his own time Oxford had already become a place of continuing education, not primarily of learning. He also notes that this is not completely a bad thing, if it occurs as a by-product of Oxford’s primary occupation as a place of learning:
‘What do these changes mean? They mean, I think, that a temporary immersion in the life of learning has been found to have an educational value. Learning is not education; but it can be used educationally by those who do not propose to pursue learning all their lives. There is nothing odd in the existence of such a by-product. Games are essentially for pleasure, but they happen to produce health. They are not likely, however, to produce health if they are played for the sake of it. Play to win and you will find yourself taking violent exercise; play because it is good for you and you will not. In the same way, though you may have come here only to be educated, you will never receive that precise educational gift which a university has to give you unless you can at least pretend, so long as you are with us, that you are concerned not with education but with knowledge for its own sake. And we, on our part, can do very little for you if we aim directly at your education.’
Again, there is something of Matthew 6:33 here; that we have become a society which aims to achieve the useful or immediately desirable without aiming for what makes for wisdom and virtue – i.e.; the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The story of our reforming education in terms of training and of learning in terms of continuing education (which, in our own time, has more often than not become continual training instead) is connected to the wider narrative in which we seek to frame our culture – that of eschewing the permanent things in order to chase after short-term, material satisfaction. The great irony of this is that in doing so, in trying to reframe the pursuit of happiness in terms of the immediate and the contingent, we are cutting ourselves off from all that has made our culture what it is and are thus corroding our civilisation from within.
As Lewis’ essay notes at the outset, ‘if education is beaten by training, civilization dies.’ The great tragedy of our age is that we, on the whole, still have not noticed the cultural suicide that we are effecting – we have so much stuff to keep us both sated and occupied, and so much trivia to keep us distracted, that it is all too easy to ignore the slipping away of all that made the West what it is in the first place. We are, in effect, fiddling while Rome burns, and it seems gleefully so. Most attempts to sound the alarm on any aspect of our decline are written off as obscurantism – people find it hard to believe that anyone would see anything wrong in such a time of plenty as ours. ‘Just embrace it,’ we are told. Well, time will tell I suppose; but Lewis’ words on education certainly ring true with a lot of what is already observable in our schools, and chime with a great deal else that is wrong with our age. We would be unwise to ignore such warnings, and it is not yet too late to turn the ship around – there is plenty at harbour that would make for our revitalisation.
Liberalism in religion was, according to Blessed John Henry Newman, the thing that he consistently fought against throughout his life. By Liberalism he meant the preference of our own private judgements over the mind of the Church, and the alteration of revealed truth to suit our own desires and/or the spirit of the age. His opposition to Liberalism is often misunderstood or simply ignored given that he was, in the classical sense of the word, a true liberal – he believed in taking a generous approach to the opinions of others, in the open discussion of ideas, and in charitable engagement with contemporary culture. And yet, he was also (again in the classical sense) a true conservative, believing in the importance of tradition, in the rightness of appeal to authority in settling disputes, and that the jettisoning of tried and tested truths in favour of new ideas based solely on their novelty was both imprudent and destructive.
It was this careful balance between his generosity of spirit and openness to debate on the one side, and his insistence on the need to adhere to and learn from tradition (especially revealed truth) and authority on the other, that gave Newman so many problems after his conversion – at a time when the kind of Liberalism abhorred by Newman (i.e.; the germ of what would later become known as Modernism) was being fortified against by retreat into an overly protective dogmatism zealous to increase papal powers beyond what Sacred Tradition could actually support, Newman was rejected by both parties. He was too ‘liberal’ for the Ultramontane party, and too ‘conservative’ for the Liberalist party. Nevertheless, out of his personal trials good would come, as the party spirit that was condemned by Saint Paul was exposed more clearly, and a more nuanced position would grow out of it – amongst other things, the idea of doctrinal development was given a surer and more robust definition.
Nevertheless, such things took time, and for Blessed John Henry, it was often a struggle (in remembering this, his testimony to the fact that he never once regretted his conversion and, despite his trials, always felt that he had found his home in the Church, have even more force). At any rate, when he wrote his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, he added an extensive note explaining exactly what it was that he meant by Liberalism in order to further settle some of the ferment surrounding it and his position on such matters, and in this note, which is in great part a reflection on his personal experience of theological Liberalism in action (the concrete always being of supreme importance to Newman), he provides a succinct and potent description of what the term does and doesn’t mean:
‘Whenever men are able to act at all, there is the chance of extreme and intemperate action; and therefore, when there is exercise of mind, there is the chance of wayward or mistaken exercise. Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.’
Apologia Pro Vita Sua (2004), p.254, Penguin Classics.
Newman clearly draws a line in the sand here – liberty of thought and the free discussion of ideas are not only acceptable but goods in and of themselves; however, there are certain basic principles that cannot be subjected to critique or question, because they are the things which form the base from which we do all our other questioning. This latter thing, which Newman refers to as ‘false liberty of thought’ (presumably because whilst giving the illusion of freedom it actually, by removing the base from which thought is conducted, undermines the whole process of genuinely creative and critical reflection) is what he calls Liberalism. In matters of religion, the basic principles which thus cannot be questioned are the truths of Revelation – for once we start to question these, immediately we lose our identity with respect to the religion in question.
For any system of thought to maintain coherence and identity, the fundamentals must be set apart and not subjected to critique – otherwise we become caught adrift, and are no longer genuinely enjoying freedom of thought, but are rather beholden to a conceptual chaos. Saint John Paul II, in the opening sections of his encyclical Fides et Ratio, makes a similar point to Newman, but broadens its application to all philosophy – i.e.; to all critical thinking:
‘Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness. Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all. These are among the indications that, beyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity. It is as if we had come upon an implicit philosophy, as a result of which all feel that they possess these principles, albeit in a general and unreflective way. Precisely because it is shared in some measure by all, this knowledge should serve as a kind of reference point for the different philosophical schools. Once reason successfully intuits and formulates the first universal principles of being and correctly draws from them conclusions which are coherent both logically and ethically, then it may be called right reason or, as the ancients called it, orthos logo, recta ratio.’
Fides et Ratio, 4.
This is of course exactly the sort of position that is now so often deliberately undermined (not usually by argument but rather according to the claim that it is ‘outdated’ to appeal to certain foundational, objective principles) and is at least partly why philosophy today has become to a large extent a matter of toying with words – something cut off from lived human experience and thus largely unable to engage with real life problems. Utilitarianism and relativism are, quite frankly, not fit for purpose – they do not aid or enrich people’s lives at a level which can effect long-term, meaningful change because they are cut off from that core body of insight that Saint John Paul speaks of. Just as there is Liberalism in religion, philosophical relativism represents a Liberalism in thought more generally, and it is this (with its destructive consequences for culture) that Pope Benedict XVI worked so hard to counter during his career.
Blessed John Henry Newman though was principally concerned with theological Liberalism, and at the end of his appendix to the Apologia he presents a list of propositions which he had drawn up during his days at Oxford as an Anglican – propositions which could be said to represent a kind of charter for Liberalism, and which he summarily rejected. He lists eighteen in total, but I shall only share the first ten, as the remaining eight are concerned more with the rights of civil powers and the relationship between Church and State:
‘1. No religious tenet is important, unless reason shows it to be so.
Therefore, e.g. the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed is not to be insisted on, unless it tends to convert the soul; and the doctrine of the Atonement is to be insisted on, if it does convert the soul.
- No one can believe what he does not understand.
Therefore, e.g. there are no mysteries in religion.
- No theological doctrine is anything more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men.
Therefore, e.g. no creed, as such, is necessary for salvation.
- It is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not had brought home to him by actual proof.
Therefore, e.g. the mass of men ought not absolutely to believe in the divine authority of the Bible.
- It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature.
Therefore, e.g. a given individual is not bound to believe in eternal punishment.
- No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions.
Therefore, e.g. Political Economy may reverse our Lord’s declarations about poverty and riches, or a system of Ethics may teach that the highest condition of body is ordinarily essential to the highest state of mind.
- Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilisation, and the exigencies of the times.
Therefore, e.g. the Catholic priesthood, though necessary in the Middle Ages, may be superseded now.
- There is a system of religion more simply true than Christianity as it has ever been received.
Therefore, e.g. we may advance that Christianity is the “corn of wheat” which has been dead for 1800 years, but at length will bear fruit; and that Mahometanism is the manly religion, and existing Christianity the womanish.
- There is a right of Private Judgement: that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents, as they severally please.
Therefore, e.g. religious establishments requiring subscription are Anti-christian.
- There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.
Therefore, e.g. individuals have a right to preach and practise fornication and polygamy.’
Apologia Pro Vita Sua, pp.259-260.
Again, it is important to remember the depth of Newman’s commitment to conscience, and to the open engagement with culture, so that when he mentions scientific conclusions in no. 6, he is not being ‘anti-science’ and when he discusses freedom of conscience in nos. 9 and 10, he is not suggesting we stop thinking for ourselves. What he is concerned with is that we recognise the proper priority of the fundamentals of Revelation, so that we order our conclusions regarding scientific discovery (which is always to some extent provisional and subject to further evaluation) to what is already known via Revelation and allow our consciences to be formed by that teaching in a way that recognises its prior authority and does not place the self above it.
Making a couple of adjustments here and there to allow for examples more relevant to our age though, it seems to me that the points laid out here by Newman are, in essence, consistent with what we see in the theological Liberalism of today. Whilst typing out the propositions, I was struck by how many of their assumptions are still operative in the thought of many influential clergy and laity, across denominational boundaries. Thus Newman’s ‘charter’ for Liberalism is still something we would do well to pay attention to, summarising as it does some of the main expressions of the spirit of Liberalism within Christianity. The ‘mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it’ and the ‘false liberty of thought’ which both precedes and succeeds this mistake are still very much in evidence, and the spirit that so concerned Blessed John Henry Newman is one we must continue to fight against.
In an essay from October 1950 entitled Historicism, C. S. Lewis critiques the various schools of thought that would confidently proclaim a defined ‘inner meaning’ to history. In the essay, which first appeared in Volume IV of The Month, Lewis begins by distinguishing between actual historians, who may indeed infer a certain meaning related to a series of events based on known facts (and may even go on to infer the correct sense of future or past events in relation to the known data), from the historicist, who claims to be able to infer from the same historical premises conclusions that have a much wider import – conclusions that are metaphysical, existential, theological or (as Lewis makes sure to add) a-theological. The historian speaks in terms of cause and effect or grounds and consequences; the historicist talks in terms of ultimate necessity, based on a prior theory of the way history is going (according to his particular theory of history).
Examples of such would be Hegel, Marx or Novalis, and Lewis also cites Keat’s Hyperion, as an example of historicism (in this instance evolutionism – the idea that things inevitably march or lurch towards a more perfect future) embodied in verse. After noting some of these examples, Lewis also goes on to rescue Christianity from the range of historicist schools – he notes that even though the Old Testament contains some passages which suggest calamities have befallen Israel because of a divine judgement, we have in these cases a guarantee only that judgement was afforded because of sin in these cases; we do not have the authority to attribute the same meaning to all calamities we see in life. Lewis also notes that, although the Old Testament has this feature in common with the contemporary pagan cultures, it is also contains many correctives to it that the pagans do not – the Book of Job and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah for instance.
Furthermore, for the Christian, we have dominical authority that not every disaster is the result of divine judgement in Luke 13:4 and John 9:13, so surely this kind of historicism is not allowed us. It is also often said that Christianity is unique in having a sense of linear history, in contradistinction to the pagans, but whilst this may be true of the Greeks, Lewis points out that both the Norse culture and the Romans had a keen sense of history, expressed vividly in the story of Ragnarok and the Aeneid respectively. When Saint Augustine wrote his De Civitate Dei, he was indeed engaging in historicism, but he was doing it to refute a pagan historicism that attributed the fall of Rome to the anger of the rejected pagan gods. What then should the Christian view of history be; and how legitimate is it for us to indulge in historicism? Lewis answers thus:
‘What appears, on Christian premises, to be true in the Historicist’s position is this. Since all things happen either by the divine will or at least by the divine permission, it follows that the total content of time must in its own nature be a revelation of God’s wisdom, justice, and mercy. In this direction we can go as far as Carlyle or Novalis or anyone else. History is, in that sense, a perpetual Evangel, a story written by the finger of God. If, by one miracle, the total content of time were spread out before me, and if, by another, I were able to hold all that infinity of events in my mind and if, by a third, God were pleased to comment on it so that I could understand it, then, to be sure, I could do what the Historicist says he is doing. I could read the meaning, discern the pattern. The question is not what could be done under conditions never vouchsafed us in via, nor even (as far as I can remember) promised us in patria, but what can be done now under the real conditions. I do not dispute that History is a story written by the finger of God. But have we the text?’
taken from Christian Reflections (1981), p.136, Fount Paperbacks.
Thus we see the problem clearly – it is one thing to recognise the fact that all that has ever happened and ever will stems from God (from whom else could it come?) and that therefore the whole historical process must be revelatory; but for us to get the sense of what that whole process is revealing, we would have to not only know it all, but be advised by God Himself as to its proper interpretation. This is a situation that we will never be in – thus historicism, in its truest sense, is off limits for the Christian, precisely because of our prior recognition that God is God and we are not. Having established this, Lewis then goes on to examine how it is that various men of distinction have come to believe that they are able to divine an ‘inner meaning’ to history without having anywhere near the full realm of knowledge that would be required to do so.
He lists six ‘senses’ of history, before concluding that historicists speak of it in what he lists as number six of the senses – ‘that vague, composite picture of the past which floats, rather hazily, in the mind of the ordinary educated man’ (ibid, p.137). To try and give their case as much room to prove itself as possible though, he credits that they may, in theory, and not knowing the future, be working with the second sense of history – the ‘total content of past time as it really was in all its richness’ but goes on to observe that this does not really help the historicist’s case much either:
‘It would surely be one of the luckiest things in the world if the content of time up to the moment at which the Historicist is writing happened to contain all that he required for reading the significance of total history. We ride with our backs to the engine. We have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached. Are we in Act I or Act V? Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility? If, indeed, we knew that history was cyclic we might perhaps hazard a guess at its meaning from the fragment we have seen. But then we have been told that the Historicists are just the people who do not think that history is merely cyclic. For them it is a real story with a beginning, middle, and an end. But a story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood till you have heard the whole of it…
…But even if it were possible, which I deny, to see the significance of the whole from a truncated text, it remains to ask whether we have that truncated text. Do we possess even up to the present date the content of time as it really was in all its richness? Clearly not. The past, by definition, is not present. The point I am trying to make is so often slurred over by the unconcerned admission “Of course we don’t know everything” that I have sometimes despaired of bringing it home to other people’s minds. It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.’
Lewis expands on this by remarking that in each individual life every second is filled to bursting with data (sensations, emotions, thoughts), and that we cannot possibly grasp all of it; that ‘a single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that has ever lived’ (ibid). Not only is it nigh on impossible to access the preserved history of each and every peoples that have ever lived, but those recorded histories do not contain anything like the full range of experiences that have actually occurred to all human beings – thus only a tiny fraction of lived human experience (i.e.; of history) is available to us. Again, this is not to denigrate the role of the historian, as pattern and meaning can be perceived within that fraction of experience we have available to us; all Lewis is insisting on here is that we cannot possibly uncover some grand narrative or inner meaning to all history – we simply do not have the data.
Lewis then pre-empts a possible reply from the historicist, namely that they know enough – they may not have access to every single piece of lived experience that has ever occurred, but they know the important parts. This, for the historian, would be a perfectly reasonable thing to say – for example, the military historian, specialising in the Napoleonic Wars, could legitimately say that he has access to enough of the relevant facts pertaining to that period to form a consensus about the meaning of certain events within that period, or even the period over all; moreover, the undertaking of a study of that particular period presupposes that such relevant facts exist, otherwise it would never have been studied. The historicist however, is making the claim that he knows the ‘important facts’ which reveal the inner meaning of all history – aside from the issue of the heterogeneity of the data that actually does survive, how would the historicist be able to judge which are the significant facts and which are merely historical detritus?
Clearly, the facts selected as being of significance are chosen based on the prior conviction that they fit in with the historicist’s philosophy of history – it will always result in being a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the historicist will always be making a somewhat prejudiced selection from amongst the data of recorded human experience in order to fit his prior theory. This can be simply an act of self-glorification, but as Lewis goes on to point out, it can also be used for more nefarious means:
‘On such a small and chance selection from the total past as we have, it seems to me a waste of time to play the Historicist. The philosophy of history is a discipline for which we mortal men lack the necessary data. Nor is the attempt always a mere waste of time: it may be positively mischievous. It encourages a Mussolini to say that “History too him by the throat” when what really took him by the throat was desire. Drivel about superior races or immanent dialectic may be used to strengthen the hand and ease the conscience of cruelty and greed. And what quack or traitor will not now woo adherents or intimidate resistance with the assurance that his scheme is inevitable, “bound to come”, and in the direction which the world is taking?’
Herein lies the real danger of historicism – it is not only bad history (in truth, it has little to do with the real task of the historian at all), but it gives support to those who wish to subvert either small groups under their influence or culture as a whole to their own ends. In the former case, there have been a number of groups, spawned by the emergence of Protestant fundamentalism in the mid-to-late 19th Century, who have claimed to be able to apply passages from Scripture to history and predict the immanence of the end-times; in most cases this has only led to a narrow grasp of both Christianity and Western culture, but in some cases (those involving a personality cult of some kind) it has led to great psychological harm and sometimes tragedy. It is the latter case though – that of wedding a certain view of history to one’s own political ends, and of subverting the surrounding culture to those ends – that is most damaging.
Lewis cites the example of Mussolini (and alludes to Hitler); to this we could also add Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong and many other statesmen beholden to the Marxist view of history. In their fervent belief that history was tending towards an earthly utopia, one free of both want and of risky liberty, rid of the interference of religious faith and objective morality, and of which they would be the primary agents in implementing, they committed acts of violence still unrivalled in both quantity and kind. Lenin’s famous saying that ‘if you want to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs’, whilst doing a great disservice to the intense suffering caused by these regimes, pretty much sums up their ethos – history was on their side, so they were justified in doing whatever it took to bring its ends about.
Not unrelated to this view of history is the narrative which has its roots in the Reformation period (where solid groundwork was done to tar the name of both the Catholic Church and anything that the prior medieval period may have achieved) but is most commonly associated with what came afterwards – the Enlightenment. In the 17th and 18th centuries particularly, we read more and more of the idea that reason (unchained from faith of course) and science will set us free, that all we need to be happy is to cast off the religious and cultural shackles of old, embrace naked liberty and decontextualised empiricism and let ‘history’ take its course. Because of course history is on our side, and thus anything new, anything ‘progressive’ is a step in the right direction – be that in the realm of experimental science or in faith and morals.
Improvements in science and technology have of course been made, but the ideas that a.) we had to implement a divorce between faith and reason to achieve this, and b.) that we can see morals and philosophical categories in the same way have no foundation other than in the narrative forged during and after the Reformation and fully unleashed during the Enlightenment period – it is based not on history (which, as this thorough review outlines, actually undermines such a view; see also here) but on historicism. And, as we see more and more ethics being cast aside in the name of ‘progress’ (e.g.; easy-access abortion, legalisation of euthanasia, the eagerness that the UK government has to approve methods of genetic engineering that could have any number of disastrous short and long term consequences, and which raise significant ethical questions) as well as the speed with which Western culture seems to be gutting its own sense of identity from within, it is justifiable to wonder whether the Enlightenment narrative is not actually quite a damaging one as well.
For the Christian though, what does Lewis’ negative assessment of historicism mean for how we view history – clearly we must believe that everything is in some sense providential, so how do we reconcile this with not being able to actually assess the ultimate significance of past events in our life? Well, it is important to remember that rejecting historicism does not mean rejecting history, let alone God’s revelation of Himself within it – we can still have great confidence, based on both faith and the careful work of real historians, that the great events embodied in the Creeds are sound, and that we can appeal to a correct interpretation of sacred history via the voice of the Church.
For other events though, we are in the same position as anyone else, and it is only really to the present moment that we can reliably look for signs of divine import. What task is put before us now, in this moment, is something to which we can always apply the call to love both God and neighbour, and thereby discern its significance. It is also the only place where, in this life, we can touch Eternity. Furthermore, knowing that we do not, indeed cannot, have access to the inner meaning or big picture of God’s intentions in history means that even the smallest acts of charity we perform may well have a significance far beyond anything we can imagine – in preventing us from the belief that the way of things is ‘on our side’, humility before history also ensures that we recognise the worth of every contribution to it, no matter how small.
In Seamus Heaney’s long, meditative poem Lightenings, there is a section (number VIII) which relates a strange occurrence at the Irish monastery of Clonmacnoise. The monastery (founded in 544 by Saint Ciaran, but which sadly fell into decline during the twelfth century*) was one of the greatest in medieval Ireland, visited by scholars from far abroad because of its reputation for piety and the promotion of learning (the annals – which we only have a 17th Century copy of now – mentioned by Heaney in the poem recorded Ireland’s history from its earliest times right up to 1408). Of most significance here though, is that Clonmacnoise was also known for being a site of miracle – from the time of Saint Ciaran onwards, many wonders had been reported, and it was also known for the great holiness of its monks.
Heaney’s poem reinvents a story of the tenth-century King Congalach, one of several in Irish folklore which records ships sailing through the air, by placing its events at Clonmacnoise. In doing so, he makes more prominent the essential point of the original narrative – namely that the world we live in is much more mysterious place than we realise; that our air is, for those who sail in the air (or in the ether?), heavy with improbability and wonder. For creatures unused to the strange world of mankind, our life is too rich, too thick with strangeness, and this strangeness is concentrated to an even greater extent in the life of the monks of Clonmacnoise:
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayer inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
“This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,”
The abbot said, “unless we help him.” So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
By setting this story in a notably holy place, renowned for its wonders, Heaney is able to shift our frame of reference. We hear of miracles performed and lives of holiness lived, and are enthralled; but the visitors who sail through our air find our whole existence unbearable, not because it is a horror to them, but because it is too marvellous. From our perspective, the idea of men sailing through the skies in a ship is marvellous, but to those otherworldly sailors it is human life in general, and the life of humans joined together in prayer in particular, that amazes them – they cannot cope with such wondrous things as this. The glory of Clonmacnoise (and of all monasteries) then is not due primarily to its miracles, but to the intensity of its humanity. The monastic life may seem strange, even insane, to some of us, because of the decision to opt out of ‘real’ life but to the visitors it is unbearably strange because it represents an intensification of what being human is all about – it shows them, with great focus, the weight of glory which we all carry.
One could also consider what C. S. Lewis discusses in his series of essays on the medieval world and imagination (collected as The Discarded Image) – that the visitors (who more than likely represent some sort of angelic life; certainly something unfamiliar with material being) find our world oppressive because of the shadow of sin that hangs over it; they cannot ‘breath our air’ because we have been separated from the fullness of divine life by the Fall. However, interesting an idea as this is in and of itself, I think Seamus Heaney is more concerned with the essential wonder of our existence – that the ‘drowning’ sailor is returned to his ship ‘out of the marvellous as he had known it’ is the thematic key to this piece. Looking at the life we enjoy in this way is a reminder of two things – firstly, that whilst we might sometimes envy the life of angels, who are freed from all the problems of embodied existence and therefore seem more pure and/or more glorious to us, in reality it is we that are to be envied, we who are to be marvelled at.
Secondly, Heaney’s poem reminds us that the religious life is not an abstraction from reality, or an escape. It is right that we see it as something strange, because it is – but it appears to us to be so because it signifies a call to become more real, more human, more as we were intended to be. A life lived in complete integrity, with the will aligned with that of God; a life that is truly able, in all things, to ‘pray without ceasing’ is the life we were all intended to live. It is only because of the degree to which we have fallen away from this goal and become accustomed to the mediocrity of sin that we see such a path as insane – in reality it is the sanest thing in the world, and this showing of a life lived in harmony with God and neighbour is the pinnacle of all that humanity should and can be. Let us therefore reflect on how marvellously strange (and strangely marvellous) our world really is, and let us look with gladness at those who choose to be living signs of the true glory humanity is capable of – signs of the marvellous as we have known it.
*After surviving several Viking raids and being plundered by the English in the twelfth century, as well as the impact of the growth of Athlone to the north and the arrival of newly popular continental religious orders such as the Franciscans and the Cluniacs, Clonmacnoise was finally destroyed by the newly Protestant English during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1552.
Putting aside theological and ecclesiological differences, one thing seems to leap out in assessing the issues that separate Protestantism from other, more historic forms of Christianity, and that is simplicity. There are, famously, a wide range of different expressions of the Protestant principle, but they all share a common commitment to presenting a more direct, stripped down, immediate and fuss-free version of the Gospel. This is reflected both in the theology underpinning Protestantism (sola fide, rejection of saintly intercession, etc) and often in the types of devotion one finds therein: there are not really many distinctive schools of spirituality such as can be found in Catholicism, and this itself perhaps stems from the directness encouraged by Protestant theology – you just go straight to Jesus, and any ‘methods’ to aid that communion may well be seen as getting in the way.
As well as being a distinctive feature of Protestantism, it is probably its most attractive characteristic as well – the idea of going straight to God without having to worry about how one has prepared to do so, expressing oneself in an extempore fashion, and, in terms of public worship, not having to bother with all the customs and guidelines that the historic churches bother about. Such an approach is greatly appealing, and moreover, is based on fundamental truth regarding our Faith – we should feel confident of going straight to God, the way to Him has been opened for us, and we very much do not need pre-written prayers, liturgical ritual or prescribed spiritual methods in order for Him to hear us or us to grow closer to Him. The problem with such an approach however, is not that it is wrong, but that it is incomplete.
Just as our salvation, whilst grounded absolutely in the grace of God, requires our cooperation and is thus an ongoing process (something affirmed by Catholicism and Orthodoxy but, in terms of what its theology actually admits, if not what many of its adherents necessarily believe, denied by ‘classical’ Protestantism), so that living out of our relationship with God, though based on His absolute admittance into His fellowship, is not quite so simple as it may at first seem, and for our benefit requires it to be more than just an individual effort (i.e.; the prayers of others, the wisdom of previous ages) and also thus requires it to be more complex than it would at first appear. Our communion with God is a simple procedure – the door is open, and He welcomes us with open arms – but if we wish to deepen our relationship with Him, the intercessory aid and inherited wisdom of others is something we would be imprudent to do away with.
Strangely enough, one of the motivating principles behind the Protestant Reformation was that all Christians, not just priests and religious, should be encouraged to lead a fully integrated life of devotion – that holiness should not be something for one portion of society, but that all should be allowed and urged to deepen their relationship with God. I shall not address here the extent to which people were already allowed to do just that prior to the Reformation (though I would recommend both Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and Christopher Haigh’s The English Reformation as well as two contemporary articles here and here for relevant information) but the actual outcome of the changes that occurred does not seem to have encouraged a greater amount or degree of devotion, either public or private. Contrary to expectations, getting rid of the monasteries and ridding societies of ‘clericalism’ does not seem to have led to an increase in contemplatives in the regions where these changes were made.
Furthermore, when coming from a purely practical perspective, it can be seen that going to meet God in prayer without aid or preparation, if it doesn’t lead to a lack of intensity or depth in one’s prayer life (which sadly does seem to have been the case in a great many instances – cultures where Protestantism took root have not been known for intense devotion, and have produced relatively few truly saintly characters of note), can instead lead to anxiety or inconsistency. A prayer life must be slowly and steadily cultivated over long periods of time (indeed, more truly over one’s whole life) and to have at hand familiar prayers or techniques can help to focus one’s devotions as well as providing a kind of spiritual foundation from which to build – a comfortable and sure base to place oneself upon (or rather within) so that the heart and mind are centred and less prone to wander or worry about how to articulate the various fleeting thoughts and emotions that come to mind during prayer.
The issue of familiar prayers and devotions brings me back to a point briefly mentioned at the outset of this post, and one with which I would like to conclude – the idea that the spiritual life is never individualistic, but always rooted in a larger context, that of the Church’s life now and through the ages. We are linked, through our Baptism, into a ‘mystical body’ and are thus connected by bonds more secure than any we might encounter in this life to all other Christians, both now and who have gone before us (such bonds are what make the invocation of the saints not only a wise thing to do, but also an act of fraternal charity). The prayers and spiritual practices handed down to us are thus not only eminently useful in bringing us closer to God, but are hallowed by centuries of usage – when we pray the Sub Tuum Praesidium, the Jesus Prayer or Veni Creator Spiritus; when we pray the Rosary or use the Sulpician Method, we are treading well-tested and blessed ground.
This issue of our corporate life as Christians finds its most significant expression in the sacramental life – at the very roots of our Faith, God never intended us to go it alone, but to be bound to one another in the life of the Church, and for His grace to be given to us in order to help us on our way via certain material means, namely the sacraments. This is where the issue of the Church and its authority becomes important, and it is also the point at which the Protestant world can be roughly divided into two separate kinds – those for whom the sacraments are important, who believe that they are divinely ordained channels of grace (e.g.; Lutherans, Anglicans) and those who see them as important symbols but not in any way necessary for salvation. For the latter camp, whilst I would note that their view is profoundly ahistorical, it is a very real point of view and so worth citing – nevertheless, from this particular perspective, the nature and authority of the Church is not really relevant.
For sacramental Protestants however, the nature and authority of the Church is a very important question. Most of these would only accept Baptism and Eucharist as valid sacraments, but given that all the other sacraments tend to flow from these two (especially the Holy Eucharist) there is enough common ground here to illustrate the point. In the case of Baptism, if one accepts that it effects regeneration, then this requires the nature of the Church to be more than just the sum total of those who have truly saving faith in Christ – as well as this (necessarily invisible) aspect, the Church must also have a visible aspect; and as it is highly impractical to survey the number of those who have been baptised, this also requires the visible aspect to be institutional – there must be somewhere we can point to and say ‘this is the Church.’ Indeed, the New Testament itself assumes that the network of various local churches are subsumed under the unity of the one Church (a point well argued here) and that this wider body is something plainly visible to the world.
When we come to the Holy Eucharist though, we encounter a different, albeit related issue – that of authority. Regardless of what manner of change it is believed occurs during consecration, if one is a sacramental Christian then the fact that some kind of real change does occur, and that in the reception of the consecrated elements Christ in some way gives of Himself to the communicant, are of central importance. In such a situation then, we must ask ourselves how that change/conveyance of grace is brought about – obviously it is God who gives Himself and God who is the primary actor in this, but the words of consecration must be said by someone – can anyone do it? If so, why not allow lay presidency at the altar; why restrict such an act to the minister? It could be argued that a certain amount of learning is required to preach and teach, but not for this – in this case only a few words need to be said and the celebrant is just the one whom God works through.
If one has a high view of the Eucharist then, it seems to me that it will not do to have just anyone celebrating it, and that someone with some kind of authority is required to do so; otherwise we run the risk of either not knowing when a real consecration has occurred, or of Our Lord being just as present whoever invokes the words of consecration, regardless of what they mean to the person saying them or the degree of reverence in which they hold the act in the first place. The validity of a Eucharist is not dependent on the views of the celebrant, so we would have in this latter case Our Lord being genuinely and fully present in circumstances where His presence is either ignored or even maligned. Clearly, in keeping with the need for there to be a visible Church, the sacramental life assumes a Church that can proclaim and deliver the sacraments with authority, in order that such situations be avoided.
So, regardless of what one thinks about official pronouncements on doctrine and the relationship between individual conscience and ecclesiastical governance, if one believes the sacraments to be a necessary aspect of the Christian life then one must engage with the question of where those claiming to consecrate the Eucharist get the authority to do so – i.e.; where and how does the Church receive her authority; where and what is the Church? If you believe the Sacrament you receive in Holy Communion is valid, then where does the minister’s authority come from – if from Christ, then how; how is it separate from the authority given to all believers? If that original authority of Christ is mediated through His Church, then where can the Church be found and what are the channels whereby the authority necessary to give Our Lord to us in bread and wine is transmitted?
These are questions of utmost importance, and not to be neglected, nor compromised on. But, to reconnect with the original theme of this post, they also show how much of an illusion the promise of unfettered simplicity that Protestantism often seems to offer is. In fact, even the least sacramental of Protestant churches recognise the importance of the Eucharist in some, albeit limited, sense, and many of the newer denominations, whilst formally rejecting ritual, have only embraced a more contemporary, rock-concert style of worship that is just as regularised as the most ancient of liturgies. Furthermore, a great number of evangelical churches are rediscovering various aspects of Sacred Tradition (prayers, sacramentals, devotions, writings of the saints), and finding them to be excellent aids to devotion. Just as the motivations behind the ‘stripped-down’ Gospel are not wrong, only incomplete, so are its manifestations – they are not wholly wrong, they only lack the fullness which enables true simplicity of sprit, the communal support that aids a deeper communion, the genuine catholicity of the Catholic Church.