There is a lot of both/and in Christianity (faith and reason for example, or nature and grace). But ultimately, the nature of the Faith in its entirety must be separated into one of two distinct possibilities. Either the traditionalists or the liberals are right; either Christianity is about saving souls (and therefore needs to be committed to the idea that particular actions and patterns of behaviour are not in accordance with God’s will), or it is just about being nice to people and any behaviour is fine, just so long as you’re not hurting anybody else.
The latter thesis is not only profoundly individualistic, and ignores the innumerable ways in which our actions resonate out into the wider society, but begs the question as to what justification we can have for reducing Christianity to such narrow criteria. If we reject the tradition that tells us certain ways of living are sinful (and therefore damage our relationship with God), then what grounds do we have for retaining one part of that same tradition, apart from the fact that it happens to be congenial to the way we are already living?
If the liberal thesis is sustainable, why bother with all the rigmarole of doctrine and ritual – why bother going to church? If Christianity is just a simple religion of kindness, tolerance and love, the application of which I can work out according to my own conscience, why can’t I practise it at home? In fact, why bring God into it at all? If faith and morals are negotiable, then clearly the idea of objective morality is meaningless, at least in practice, and we are quickly sliding towards atheistic territory.
However, I would suggest that it is not in fact sustainable to extract one part of the tradition and isolate it from the rest, as the working out of that ‘simple religion’ actually requires a great deal of difficult decision making when applied to particular circumstances (the answer to ‘what is the most loving thing to do when…?’ is by no means always obvious) and the only reason we know of this ‘simple’ core of the religion is because of the tradition. Therefore, we are actually presented, in the final analysis, with what Blessed John Henry Newman saw – a choice between Atheism and the Catholic Church.
In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, as he began to summarise the reasons for his conversion, Blessed John Henry Newman wrote of what he saw as the individual’s ultimate choice between Atheism and Catholicism:
‘…I came to the conclusion that there was no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below, must embrace either the one or the other…
…there are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism: Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other.’
Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1994), pp.182&186, Penguin.
He later clarified this point, which, as one can see, is almost ripe for misinterpretation and consequent attack, in Grammar of Assent, where, in an appendix he responds to such criticism:
‘Religion has, as such, certain definite beginnings and surroundings, and it calls for what Aristotle would call an investigator, and a process of investigation sui similes. This peculiarity I first found in the history of doctrinal development…but next I found it a law, which was instanced in the successive developments through which revealed truth has passed. And then I reflected that a law implied a lawgiver, and that so orderly and majestic a growth of doctrine in the Catholic Church, contrasted with the deadness and helplessness, or the vague changes and contradictions in the teachings of other religious bodies, argued a spiritual Presence in Rome, which was nowhere else, and which constituted a presumption that Rome was right.’
Grammar of Assent (1955), pp.385-386, Doubleday.
This is to say, that once one recognises the existence of meaning in the world (and so moves from Atheism) and accepts the existence of God, one is inevitably led to ask where the truth about this God may be found. When this process of investigation continues, and it is recognised that Christianity presents the most coherent and reasonable account of Theism, then one has to ask how one can begin to know what Christianity is all about – what it teaches, wherein lies its source of authority. The only place where one can find all religious truth embraced, clarified and presented in a clear and confident fashion is the Catholic Church.
As Newman also recognised, this does present something of an ideal sliding scale of religious truth, which reality does not always consistently bear witness to. This is because:
‘The multitude of men indeed are not consistent, logical, or thorough; they obey no law in the course of their religious views; and while they cannot reason without premises, and premises demand first principles, and first principles must ultimately be (in one shape or another) assumptions, they do not recognise what this involves, and are set down at this or that point in the ascending or descending scale of thought, according as their knowledge of facts, prejudices, education, domestic ties, social position, and opportunities for inquiry determine.’
Of course, a non-Catholic will cry out here that it is the Catholic that does not have full knowledge of the facts, or is prejudiced, etc; but this only brings us back to the drawing board again. At the end of the day, it seemed to Newman (and it seems to me), that the most sensible line one can draw is from Atheism, through natural religion, to Christianity, and then to its fullness in the Catholic Church; and also that the real reason more people do not accept this is due more to the reasons Newman outlines above than to strict logic and fair assessment of historical evidence.
That some people dispute this is obvious, but I would then ask those people that if the Catholic Church, with its claim to infallible teaching, does not contain and represent the fullness of the Truth, what good reason can we give contra liberal Christians who seek to isolate one part of the Faith from the rest – if the Protestant Reformers could decide to throw out (amongst other things) the doctrine of purgatory and several books of the Old Testament, why should liberal Protestants today not throw out moral teaching on marriage and abortion, or give precedence to some of Jesus’ teachings over and against some of the ‘hard’ sayings?
The Eastern Orthodox churches rejected papal authority, and have not been able to convene an ecumenical council since – therefore they have been left in a state where, although the vast majority of Catholic doctrine is preserved, they cannot move forward and embrace development in response to changing circumstances. The Protestant world however, is built upon the principle of private judgement, and it is extremely hard to give a coherent rationale for rejecting one part of Tradition ‘according to conscience’ and not another. Once that door is opened, it is very difficult to say why a liberal Protestant should not reject just that bit more; if anything, the liberals are at least being consistent here.
And yet, if one goes down that road, and faith and morals are relativised to the degree that they have been, it is also hard to see what difference there is between liberal Christianity and modern, atheistic, secular humanism (which rests on the same – although, in the latter case, completely unjustified – basic assumptions of kindness, tolerance and non-interference). So, it does seem that we are presented with an either-or situation here: either we follow the route of the liberals, keeping a vestigial Christianity inseparable from the surrounding culture and which slides ever further into practical atheism; or we climb aboard the barque of Peter, where we can rest safely in the Truth and be guided towards Our Lord. For those who still care about the state of their souls, only the latter option will do.