Either/Or

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.

ibid, p.386.

            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.

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13 thoughts on “Either/Or

  1. I appreciate your thoughts, as usually. I am working on this very problem. I cannot see through to a world where there is no either/or (that is an either/or reality, isn’t it?). Moreover, liberals operate under an either/or on a different standard. I cover that in this curriculum review: http://apilgriminnarnia.com/2014/01/29/redux/.

    I have three responses, however.

    First, I’m curious what liberal Catholicism will look like as it develops. It shapes up around social issues, but I think there is a global conversation at play. Roman Catholicism has always been diverse; it is now.

    Second, you are right about the alternative to this idea: ” just about being nice to people and any behaviour is fine, just so long as you’re not hurting anybody else.” But that isn’t liberalism at its best. Sure I see that idea expressed all the time, but in my context it is expressed far more by cultural Catholics than liberal Protestants.
    I haven’t taken the effort to express what liberalism is, but it includes a few things that we need to listen to (when it is at its best):
    -The admission of the limits of human knowledge.
    -A desire to move past ‘us vs. them’ social attitudes
    -An attempt to reconcile the character of God and the conversations of culture for a full theological perspective.
    Do they always or ever pull it off? I don’t know. But I’ve been accused of being a “liberal” because of my view of women and men, but it was reading Scripture that brought me here. Similarly, I rejected young earth creationism not because of scientific “progress,” whatever that means, but because of studying Scripture.
    Still, I think your either/or comment is one that the best of liberal protestants still need to work through. Not all ideas are equally true, or the best of human experience. I don’t understand liberal Protestant rationale for making any choice at all.

    Third, you say this, “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….” Then you give some examples. I’m going to leave the examples to the side.
    My response is that it isn’t really the job of theologians to combat liberals. This has moved the game, switching offense and defense. Practicing Christians, globally, are not liberal in most things; the job of the theologian is to serve the believer in a foundation for doctrine and substance for worship.
    But there is a circularity in your argument. You are asking how, without the standard or canon of Catholic teaching, one can say anything at all. But how do you make the Roman church the standard? You can only do so from an internal conversation of tradition, reason, Scriptural study, etc. And truly the Roman Catholic church has the resources to do so: global, intercultural, multi-generational, diversely ethnic, chronologically spread over time and space. But it is still an internal discussion.
    Protestants view the Roman Catholic church as seceding from the centre of Christ’s teaching. That is the protest. Your argument works for Catholics who accept the Roman standard, but I do not see the line that Newman and you draw.
    Instead, we continue in tension and conversation in that global, intercultural, multi-generational reading of Scripture, continually allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us in self-correction. We do not have the ultimate truth, but we search our way toward Him.
    It’s true, we can’t control this. But look at the development of the Roman church. You can’t control it in any case.

    • Thank you very much for your comments – much appreciated, as always! Also, I remember your review of ‘Saving Jesus’ – it was a very interesting, and very charitable take on what the people involved were trying to do.

      As to your responses:

      1. Yes, it will be interesting to see where liberal Catholicism ends up. My take is that the more extreme elements will drift off, as their arguments are mostly rooted in a relativistic framework which by its very nature will change shape according to changing cultural opinion. I do think though that there are people in the liberal wing who are sincerely concerned about equality and justice issues but who have bound these issues up with a secular way of thinking, and I hope that in time they will come to appreciate the resources already available to them within Catholic social teaching – as you say, Catholicism has always been diverse, and contains enough to keep most people happy, so long as they are not unduly wedded to the spirit of the age!

      2. Yes, I see what you mean here, and I agree that not all liberal Protestants fall into the complete individualism and ‘just being nice’ philosophy. However, I think what I was really getting at is that once one brings the principle of private judgement to the table, it is hard to justify why one can get rid of some elements of Christian teaching and not others. In a way, you could say that all Protestantism is inherently ‘liberal’ in this sense. Prof. Keith Ward (himself a liberal Protestant) has given an interesting lecture on this very topic:

      Also, Newman himself made the distinction between the sort of liberalism that dialogues with the surrounding culture in order to clarify our understanding of God, etc, as well as one that seeks to move past ‘us and them’ attitudes with a view to greater social cohesion and justice, with a liberalism that (in practice if not always in theory) sees human reason as the final interpretive authority, to the point where the truths of revelation become subordinate to ‘what we now know about…x,y,z’. It is liberalism in the latter sense that he said he spent his whole life fighting against (which some people find strange given that he had quite liberal attitudes in the former sense!)

      3. Firstly, I would agree that globally most Christians are not liberal, but here in the West we are, and that it is precisely because we have allowed the principle of private judgement to become operative that this has happened in Western churches. If (for example) Nigerian culture were as secular as ours, then I’m fairly confident the same sort of thing would happen eventually.

      Also, if it is the job of the theologian to serve believers in a foundation for doctrine and worship, then it is also implicitly their job to provide a foundation for how Christians live is it not? After all, doctrine, worship and praxis are all intimately bound up with one another. However, on this point I would argue that allowing theologians to determine doctrinal foundations is itself problematic, given that those theologians (if operating without defined parameters such as are provided by the Magisterium) are also operating on the principle of private judgement, and so if what people are told is doctrinally sound comes from the Academy, then we simply have a magisterium of academic theologians, whose opinions may well change in a generation’s time, if not sooner (just look at the different trends we have seen between Adolf von Harnack and John Milbank, for example).

      I accept your criticism of circular reasoning wrt the Catholic Church though, and as I said in my post, one either accepts the progression or doesn’t. Personally, I saw the line Newman drew from an outsider perspective first, which is what drew me in (and then led to me reading Newman). All I can say to this is that I don’t believe it would have been very loving of Christ to leave us to sort it out amongst ourselves (so to speak), and I find it a bit strange that He would invest the Apostles with the authority to teach and act in His name, only for that authority to die out after they were gone. The Holy Spirit is One, and from that I draw the conclusion that He cannot lead us in different, often contradictory directions – the existence in Protestantism of so many thousands of denominations suggests to me therefore that He is not working in all of them at once! This is not to say of course that there is no truth in any of them – far from it – only to say that the fullness of Truth must lie in a development of doctrine that is consistent with the teaching and practice of the early Church and develops in ways that are organically related to that deposit of faith. Obviously, you do not see the Catholic Church as being consistent in this way, and here we are back to square one (as I said in my post). But I can honestly see no alternative, and it seems clear (to me) that we do need an infallible interpretive authority here, one which it seems from the NT that Jesus did in fact provide. Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine is the best argument I know here, and provides a much more thorough account than I have! It is definitely worth a read, even if you end up disagreeing with his conclusions.

      Anyway, thank you again very much for your comments – they have given me plenty to think about!

      • Thanks for the response. I can’t respond to it all, but like the follow up on liberalism especially. When I find the time, I can watch that lecture.
        I’m intensely aware of the switch of Magisterium from the Catholic Church to Academics or even to Bureaucrats. But, even in the Magisterium, it is still individual choice, isn’t it? Aquinas is using his judgment, as was Augustine and Julian and a thousand other voices. RC collects them in a long narrative that seeks to centralize contemporary belief. I don’t see why that Magesterium is better than the “church”–Academics, theologians, pastors, worshippers, artists in all cultures and times engaged in the conversation. In this sense, we keep being drawn back to the early apostles.
        And you are eminently right in adding “Praxis.”

        • P.S. I have just re-read the article that I linked to, and although I agree with the substance of most of what he says there, it does seem to me now that some of the way in which his arguments are presented could be seen to be a little dismissive and perhaps even offensive. If you found it to be either of these things I do apologise – it was certainly not my intention to offend.

    • Thanks again for your reply, and I do definitely recommend the lecture, when you get time to watch it – it is an interesting talk from whichever perspective you are approaching it, and I think his basic thesis is a pretty sound one.

      As to what it is that differentiates private judgement from the individual thought exercised by particular people in the Catholic tradition, I would say that a.) Those people are more conscious of their commitment to a greater body of teaching, and the parameters that come with that, and b.) If an individual were to transgress those parameters, or to reinterpret a doctrine in such a way that it would undermine or contradict the tradition, then there exists a faculty within the Church (i.e.; the Magisterium) which can correct those errors and enable the proponent to reintegrate their thinking more consistently than they had done.

      This is what has enabled the Church to contain so much diversity (not just in doctrine, but in devotion and the various lives of the saints) without fracturing into denominationalism. The branches all recognisably stem from the one vine, and one can see the Magisterium as the ‘gardener’ figure here, pruning back any branches that are growing out of shape, or threatening the development of the others, etc.

      The problem with trying to go back to apostolic practice (which is in many ways an admirable project) is linked to the prior issue, namely that from the get-go, various Protestant groups all claimed to be reestablishing apostolic teaching and practice, but all disagreed on what authentic apostolicity was. As it happens though, I was reading an article on this just the other day, that you might be interested in:

      http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/the-problems-with-primitivism

      The author has the benefit of having ‘been around the block’ quite a few times – he is now a Catholic priest, but has had quite a colourful religious ‘career’, so to speak!

  2. Michael, this is a brilliant defense of the Catholic Church! I know some non-Catholics would dispute this, but there is NO DIFFERENCE between the beliefs and understanding of Christ’s message of the early Christians and the traditional Catholics of our days… in whichever part of the globe we may live. This is the beauty and solid rock steadfastness of our Church governed by ‘Peter’ that poses the greatest challenge to the thousands of Protestant churches, who want to justify their own varying types of Christianity.

    “…there are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism”, you quote from Bl. J.H. Newman, and although you clarify what these forceful words mean (through Newman’s and your own explanations later) they stand as the absolute Truth! Anything else, even other Christian churches, who do all recognise Our Lord Jesus Christ’s divinity, opens the doors to error and misinterpretation. We need the One and only Church that Jesus founded, with His promise that the Holy Spirit would protect and guide Her traditional teachings till the end of time.

    Within the Catholic Church though (made up of sinners of course) we have our rebels… and the “liberals” (that come in many shapes and sizes). To be a 100% committed Catholic is not always easy, and there are liberal ‘Catholics’ who want to distort the traditional teachings of the Magisterium to suit their lifestyles, as we are seeing now with, for example, the debate about allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion. What many dissenters do not realise is that the Church’s refusal to change its teachings on this or any other subject that is part and parcel of the Doctrines and Dogmas of the Faith, is not a question of obstinacy or even unkindness, but because SHE CANNOT. The Church is not a man-made institution like any earthly one, but the very Body of Christ Who has passed the Divine Laws onto us. It is in their faithful following that we become faithful followers of Our Blessed Lord.

    • Thank you Kathleen 🙂

      I fully agree with your point that there is no essential difference between the early Church and the Church today. In fact, to invoke Newman again, he had a wonderful way of putting it, where he said that when he looked back at the early Church and then at the Church of his day, it was like looking at a picture of the same man as a child and as a grown man – i.e.; there are developments, but these developments are rooted in the same essential Person, and are organic growths from the seeds planted in those early days (one could give numerous examples of this, but one will suffice – that of Our Blessed Mother: the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not defined until 1854, but if you go back and look at the prayers and devotions of the early Church, there is no question that they would have seen her in just as exalted a light – it is only that the implications of her role as Mother of God had not been fully worked out yet).

      I have sometimes heard the argument that because there are lots of different opinions within the Church (on contraception, marriage, Christology, etc) that this means there is basically no difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. But, as you say, the dissenting voices within the Church are actually dissenting AGAINST something – the Church is the guardian and interpreter of a deposit of faith which she cannot change, and so the number of dissenters can be multiplied ad infinitum – all this will do is to increase the cases of heresy. Whereas in Protestantism, the concept of heresy can’t really hold water – heresy against what? According to who? This is the difference.

      It is interesting actually, that I have observed in Protestant theological circles a reclaiming of various parts of Sacred Tradition, and even a rediscovery of the importance of tradition itself. Whilst at the moment there is definitely still a ‘cafeteria’ element to all this, one can only hope that it will bring people to ask the question of where can ALL this be found, and why did we let it go in the first place. Then we may see other things being re-cognised too.

      • Very interesting observations Michael, in each of your three paragraphs! 🙂

        You are absolutely correct about the ancient love and devotion shown to Our Blessed Mother by St. John, who dedicated a Church to her, St. Luke, who painted a beautiful icon of her, and St. Peter too, who founded a Church under a her patronage. Look at this interesting link:
        http://www.catholic-church.org/grace/marian/alfred1.htm
        (I once wrote a couple of posts about Our Lady in the early Church connected to her three altars in Chartres cathedral.)

        In your second paragraph you mention differing Catholic “opinions”, but I would say that there can only be opinions on matters not rooted in Dogma, e.g. a celibate or non-celibate priesthood; or on Liturgical practices, etc. If anyone has any doubt on what the Catholic Church teaches, they only have to pick up a Catechism of the Catholic Church. Where is the Catechism of the Protestant Church? 😆

        So yes, let’s pray Protestants will see the light and “go home to Rome”!

        • Thank you for that link you’ve provided – it is always amazing to see just how widespread and intense the devotion to Our Lady was in the early Church! All the great Fathers seemed to have a devotion to her, and with Saint Justin Martyr and Saint Irenaeus we have the recognition of her as the Second Eve, which for me is the key to understanding all the other things we believe about her.

          It is not as early, but I also love the prayer ‘Sub Tuum Praesidium’, which dates from around 250AD, and seems to me to contain within it the seeds of many of the most important Marian doctrines – the way we pray is the way we believe after all!

          P.S. I shall look up those posts about Our Lady and the three altars at Chartres (somewhere I would love to go one day!), thank you 🙂

          Re Catholic ‘opinions’, yes I see what you mean – unfortunately nowadays many people within the Church seem to see belief as a free-for-all, and make no distinction between matters which can legitimately be debated and non-negotiables. Jimmy Akin has a really good article on this, which I think should be displayed in parish churches across Europe and North America!

          http://jimmyakin.com/dogma-doctrine-and-theology-what-are-they

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