Protestantism and Secularism

I have just been re-reading Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity (1993, rev. ed, Ignatius Press) and came across a passage that seems to me to capture some of what makes the Church, as the mystical Body of Christ, such a unique phenomenon. Sheed does this by illustrating (in his typically pithy and precise manner) the inadequacies of two rival attempts to provide for mankind’s needs – Protestantism and Secularism:

Protestantism, we say, opted for the soul and largely ignored the body, or at least made no provision for it. It ruled out asceticism, most of the sacraments, and all the sacramentals. It produced a religion for the soul only, which would have been well enough had man been a soul only, but was no religion for man. With the onrush of Secularism, the ignored element had its revenge. Secularism concentrated on the body, ignoring the spirit as completely as Protestantism ignored the body. Its aims are primarily the body’s good, comfort and security, on the general assumption that, if man does happen to have a soul, it too will be satisfied by improved material conditions. The result is the starvation of the spirit.

Again, the emphasis of Protestantism was on the relation of the individual soul to God, any cooperation of man being regarded as an intrusion. There is a truth in this, but it is not the whole truth. There is an element in man beyond the reach of his fellows, something incommunicable which must have its own unshared relation with God, but that element is not the whole of man; and the effort to build the whole of religion upon it as if it were, means ultimately that even it does not reach its fullest achievement…There is the same revenge of the ignored element here as earlier. Secularism came, betting everything upon the social order as against the human person. We see this at its logical extreme in Communism and Nazism, where the collective is everything and the individual has literally no meaning and certainly no destiny apart from it. But though in these two the tendency has gone furthest, the same tendency runs through all modern sociology. The only home left for personality is the Church. Only for the Church is everyone someone.

The only thing I would add to this, is the fact that the Protestant cultures of the West have now played out that spirit of individualism to its logical conclusion, with the mainline churches throwing away any commitment to authority or tradition that may have survived the Reformation, and are (sometimes actively, often unconsciously) in collusion with the dominant secular ideology. So we in the West now live in a culture that is both individualist and collectivist – personal decision making is based on subjective whims, and public policy on the grounds of a materialist utilitarianism! I wonder what the history books will say about us a hundred years from now…


8 thoughts on “Protestantism and Secularism

    • I have to admit that I find it a little strange that the image of the Church as Body of Christ has never crossed your path – if you are interested I would refer you to i Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4:1-16, 5:21-33 as the foundational texts for this doctrine.

      I am also rather perplexed as to your contention that the Church has tried to suppress the mystical Christ. From my perspective, I see the Catholic Church as alone (apart from the Orthodox) in maintaining a thorough commitment to Christ’s divinity (if that is indeed what you mean by mystical – it is used in so many different ways nowadays) in a culture that has systematically tried to discredit such an idea and reduce Him to a ‘great moral teacher’ or suchlike.

  1. Ah, I see – you are referring to the Apocryphal, or ‘Gnostic’ gospels then. There are a few problems with these as I see it:

    1. They have all been dated a good while later than the canonical New Testament Gospels and Epistles, and thus are less credible historically.
    2. They use language that has far more in common with a synthesis of mystery religions and theosophy from across the Near East than the predominantly Jewish tone of the NT.
    3. They also have very little in common with the extra-biblical writings of the early Church Fathers, who exhibit a clear continuity with the themes of the NT writings.
    4. It is very hard to believe that any of the earliest Christians would have given up their lives for a philosophy that denied the goodness of matter, and particularly the bodily Incarnation (let alone Resurrection) of Jesus.

    In summary, there is very little (if any really) credible evidence to suggest that any of the Gnostic groups that emerged in the second century AD were legitimate, organic outgrowths of the Church founded by the Apostles. I can understand the appeal of this philosophy, as it has a lot in common with many ‘New-Age’ spiritualities around today, but as for the Church suppressing something genuinely Christian of this ilk, there is no real support from history. Church Fathers wrote against the Gnostics because they were a temptation (the idea of being part of a group privy to secret knowledge has perennial attractive force) to the faithful. But they wrote against them by appealing to a rule of faith that could be traced back to the Apostles, to creeds known to be genuine representations of the faith, and to scriptures that had been part of the life of the Church from the earliest days (contra the novel, and pseudonymous gospels of the Gnostics).

    I am sure you will probably disagree with the above, but there it is. The discovery of the Apocryphal gospels was an interesting one, but really only served to confirm a lot already known about those groups from the writings of the Fathers. Until history is overturned completely on this point, I shall maintain my position.

    • How perceptive, I do actually disagree with you. Here’s why. Dating of texts is a very inexact science. In any event, scriptures are usually copies of copies, or rewrites of rewrites. So credibility, in my view, has more to do with the content than the date and the gnostic movement actually dates back to the time of Moses who brought the Mysteries out of Egypt. You’re right about one thing though. The gnostic texts are definitely from the Mystery Religions which mysteries are referred to in the Bible and other writings, as follows: Paul mentioned it several times himself including: “How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery….Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men….” (Ephesians 3:3,5); and “Now to him that is of power to establish you to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began” (Romans 16:25); and finally “However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew….(Corinthians 2:6-8). Jesus also referred to the Mysteries in speaking to his disciples: “No mystery is higher than the mysteries ye seek after, save only the mystery of the Seven Voices and their Nine-and-Forty Powers and Numbers; and the Name which is higher than them all, the Name which sums up all their names, all their lights, and all their powers” (from The Books of the Savior); and “To you, the disciples, it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them, the masses, it has not been given” (Matthew 13:11). It’s those mysteries of the Kingdom of God which were mentioned but never written about in the Bible or taught to the masses which I refer to as the esoteric teachings of Jesus. As for the earliest Christians, including the disciples, they were Jews so yes they were use to the Mosaic Law and the rigors that came with it. Such was the life of the Essene community, sometimes referred to as Nazarenes, who lived at Qumran and founded the Church of Jerusalem, headed by James, the brother of Jesus. It was this group that Paul would persecute but subsequently become affiliated with and he eventually founded the church at Antioch on behalf of the Church of Jerusalem. Even Jesus said that he came to uphold the Law. Although it’s somewhat of an embarrassment to orthodox Christianity, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library shed more light on the origins of Christianity and what the early Christians believed in (even before they were called Christians) than what fragments of truth that are found in the gospels (which were not even written by the disciples).

      • Blimey! Well, I have to say I’m rather shocked. In all honesty, even though I knew that the gnostic writings and various associated theories were/are really popular, I’ve never come across anyone who actually took them that seriously (honestly, I’m not being sarcastic – I just haven’t!)

        Anyway, although I’d rather like to draw this to a conclusion, as there seems little chance that we’ll agree any time in the near future, I cannot help commenting on a few things regarding your reply.

        1. You say that dating of texts is an inexact science. Agreed, but when dealing with ancient literature, it’s the most reliable tool we have, and although inexact, can deliver some pretty accurate results. Your alternative, to base credibility on content, I must confess I find slightly bizarre. Do people dating texts then make a prior decision as to what sort of content they would expect to find in an ancient document, and only accept as credible what tallies up with that? Seems a little like arguing in a circle to me! However, I will give you this, that is almost exactly the sort of methodology used by those who support the authenticity of the apocryphal gospels.

        2. As to the gnostic ‘movement’ going back to the time of Moses, that may well be so. There had certainly been various groups of that sort around for quite a long time prior to Jesus, and I don’t query their existence at all. In fact, if you’re interested, there is an excellent book on the history of the various gnosticisms by Hans Jonas, which does a very good job of bringing together the common themes of what were sometimes very disparate sects –

        What I do query is whether these groups represent the genuine source and form of the Christian religion. To that I would still register a resounding no, as for the reasons I outlined in an earlier reply.

        3. Your references to the word ‘mystery’ in the New Testament prove nothing. As for the quote from the Books of the Saviour, that is by the by, as it comes from one of the books we are disputing! But just because Paul and Jesus used the word mystery, it does nothing to prove they were referring to mystery religions, let alone the sects you have mentioned. Is not the Incarnation a mystery? The Atonement? The bringing of the heart of the Jewish religion to all the peoples of the world? These things were entirely new to both Jews and Gentiles, and it is perfectly natural that Paul (and Jesus) would refer to them as mysteries. The word can refer to all sorts of things after all.

        4. Again, just because the Essenes existed (which they undoubtedly did, I agree) does not by any means prove that James, or any one else was associated with them. You can try and make that case, but I would say that the orthodox position is much more consistent and has a lot more evidence (some of it based on dating texts!) in its favour. At the end of the day, I and many others, find the traditional idea that Jesus, a synagogue-attending, observant Jew, and his thoroughly Jewish disciples, started a new movement based on what God had done in and through Christ, which they were ready to die for, than that they were the protectors of a secret sect that challenged no-one, and was entirely un-original apart from borrowing a bit here and there from the canonical texts (which, again, there is a very good case for the people who the Church claims to have written them, actually did).

        Finally, if you are interested in hearing a more coherent and authoritative summary of my position, I would direct you to this short article by N. T. Wright, a very well respected New Testament scholar. It is ostensibly about the Da Vinci Code and its popularity, but essentially uses that as a spring-board to talk about what we have been discussing:

        Also, re the NT itself, I would recommend this book:

        It is a very short outline of why the techniques used in biblical scholarship are reliable, and why the New Testament documents themselves are trustworthy. It’s up to you, but I would certainly recommend giving it a go.

        • Thank you for your kind response. I always find what people think enlightening on some level. What you find from historical scholars is typically one of two things. Either they have a belief system which dictates the way any evidence/writings are translated/interpreted or they base their work on the opinion of prior historians. In either case, rarely if ever can one find any new path to the Truth. As for me, I rely solely on my own personal revelations. While you probably won’t find confirmation of anything that I say from historians, theologians or archaeologists, the truth is still the truth regardless of whether you, or I or anyone else believes in it. By the way, Paul said of the Mysteries that, …”the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages” and “which was kept secret since the world began”. So this wisdom was around from the very beginning and only disclosed down through the ages to the very few that were found worthy.

  2. Well, while my preferred path to discovering the Truth would be (and indeed is) to weigh up the various traditions of (and revelations given to) mankind and see which one is most reasonable, coherent, consistent, etc, rather than relying on personal revelations, we can certainly agree on the rest of the above 🙂

    Truth is most certainly always the truth, regardless of whether you or I believe in it – well said. It is one of the things that saddens me most about today’s world that subjectivity rules and the idea that there is such a thing as a solid, abiding, objective Truth that doesn’t depend on the interpretations or dispositions of any particular individual is openly mocked, or simply ignored. So, it’s good to hear when people think otherwise (even if we disagree completely about the nature of that Truth!)

    I do hope though, in one sense that I am right – simply that, if the mysteries hidden since the world began and ordained before the ages were to be disclosed only to the few found to be worthy, I find that a little…well, elitist. The idea instead, that anyone of any background or learning, wise or simple, rich or poor, great sinners and saints alike, can come to Christ and receive his transforming grace seems to me a lot more egalitarian, and personally gives me a lot more hope! This ironically, is of course, wholly subjective on my part!

    Anyway, nice to talk to you, and thank you for your comments also.

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