Tuesday, 22 March 2011

"Are you not as a hypocrite, listening to them when you will, and deaf when you will not?"

In our last post, we looked at the importance of doctrine and dogma, not as lifeless, academic concepts, but as ways of coming to know the Truth Himself, Our Lord Jesus. Given that different churches teach different things about Him and His Church, surely we have to ask ourselves which church has the truest doctrines, and therefore the truest picture of Christ.

This is precisely how The Development of Christian Doctrine begins. Bl. John Henry Newman, writing as an Anglican, recounts the inner-monologue he engaged in when receiving Communion from the altar. He affirms his belief in the Real Presence, and then asks himself, "Who told you about that Gift?" He answers that he "learned if from the Fathers." Newman, always eager to give ten examples when two or three will do, gives us a comprehensive selection of quotes from the Church Fathers, testifying to the ancient Church's belief in Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist. "I cast my lot with them. I believe as they," he concludes.

Yet now his conscience begins to berate him, and is worth quoting at length: "And do not the same ancient Fathers bear witness to another doctrine, which you disown? Are you not as a hypocrite, listening to them when you will, and deaf when you will not? How are you casting your lot with the Saints, when you go but half-way with them? For of whether of the two do they speak the more frequently, of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, or of the Pope's supremacy? You accept the lesser evidence, you reject the greater."
This set Newman to wondering which church, Anglican or Catholic, had the correct doctrine about the papacy, and the correct doctrines in general. A simple appeal to the ancient Church's belief wasn't enough to settle to matter, because hardly any matters were settled in the Church of the first three centuries, in terms of having a defined doctrine; Newman admits that the ancient sources are "scanty" for both Real Presence and Papacy. How was he to account for the variations in belief and practice within the first Christian centuries, and so to find the church of his own day which was the descendant of the one founded by Christ on the Apostles? 
His hypothesis is that "time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas", even, or especially, the divine idea of Christianity, which was transmitted once and for all by inspired teachers but "could not be received all at once by its recipients." Any idea which has power enough to possess and move the hearts and minds of human beings requires "longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation." To expect an idea to spring up fully formed is unreasonable.

By way of analogy, Newman compares great ideas to a many-sided object, which may be "walked around, and viewed in contrary lights." At first sight, 'smooth' and 'pointed' seem like contradictory ideas, but both can be applied to a table-top, which is flat, and has four or more corners. What seems like evidence of an idea's not making sense could actually be proof of its "substantiveness and integrity," and will appear so once you've found the 'joint' where the two aspects are connected.

Likewise, Newman says, ideas embody the opposite principle of the old saying that 'streams are clearest nearer the source'. Not so with a great idea - it will become clearer, "and purer, and stronger" once it's had time to build up momentum. Silt and dirt sink to the bottom, and life begins to team in its waters once its course is "deep, and broad, and full." In fact, the river, like the idea, must constantly change in order to remain the same. They both must change course to flow around and over obstacles in their path, and even sweep away or cut through them if necessary. If either stick to a straight course, going only in one direction, eventually they meet an obstacle that cannot be overpowered, and become stagnant pools.

With these analogies in mind, what do we find if we look at the 'source' of the Christian 'river', the Bible? We see that it doesn't explain itself: What should be included in the Bible? Is it all of Revelation, or only a part? The Bible is silent on these crucial aspects, and more besides. Given that we can expect developments in the idea that is Christianity, we can expect those areas on which the Bible doesn't pronounce definite teaching to be left to development, and for the Bible itself to have been subject to development, though now fixed.

Further, 'development' as a component of the Divine scheme can be found in the Bible itself. Newman draws attention to prophecy, wherein the idea of the Saviour gradually grows in the mind of Israel, from the one-line protoevangelium of Genesis ("and he will crush [the serpent's] head"), to the "Wonder Counsellor, Prince of Peace" of Isaiah, to his full revelation in the person of Jesus. Likewise, there are ritual, ethical and political developments e.g. God's chosen people go from a family, to a tribe, to a race of people, to a nation.

Clearly, God has no problem working by means of developments; He knows that an all-at-once revelation of Himself would be too much for us, as Newman, and countless saints, have recognised. Yet Newman saw that there was something missing from his description of the process of Revelation. He states boldly, "He who gave Revelation virtually has not given it, unless He has also secured it from perversion and corruption." In other words, if God did not give us some guarantee that the fullest truth about Him would be preserved during this process which all great ideas go through, and therefore be knowable down through the centuries, then He might as well not have bothered! We've seen in the last post the spiritual importance of knowing the Truth, so why would God allow the idea of that Truth, the idea of authentic Christianity, to be lead astray, or die out?

Here is the rational expectation, given what has already been stated, (the "antecedent probability" as Newman calls it), of there being an authority in Christianity which cannot make mistakes about essential aspects of the idea but can always judge correctly between true changes i.e. developments, and false changes i.e. corruptions. Put another way, it's logical to expect an infallible authority in Christianity. Newman acknowledges that Protestants also believe this - for them, it is the Bible. Again, Newman's response to this idea is worth quoting in full:

"We are told that God has spoken. Where? In a book? We have tried it and it disappoints; it disappoints us, that most holy and blessed gift, not from fault of its own, but because it is used for a purpose for which it was not given. The Ethiopian's reply, when St. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, is the voice of nature: "How can I, unless some man shall guide me?" The Church undertakes that office; she does what none else can do."

The idea of a living infallible authority, exercised by other human beings, was no more popular in Newman's day than it is in ours, and the objections to it which he deals with sound awfully familiar. For example, 'Doesn't this do away with the need for faith?' might be one. Well, no. Even an absolutely guaranteed truth can be "doubted, argued against, perverted, rejected", just as the Truth Himself was. The process by which the human mind can come to accept such difficult truths/ideas is the subject of another of Newman's famous books, The Grammar of Assent.
What have we learned from Bl. John Henry so far? First, that knowing the truth is essential to having a relationship with the Truth, Jesus Christ, and so is crucial for our spiritual lives. Therefore, following the church which has the fullness of the truth in its doctrines is important. Next, that developments in the 'great idea' which is God's Revelation of Himself through Christianity are to be expected, and can in fact be found. Finally, that one of those developments must be an infallible authority, able to react to changes in the course of the idea, and to promote good developments, and rule out false ones. So far, however, all this is theory, along the lines of 'it is reasonable to expect/conclude that...' In our next post, we'll look at the facts of the case, and see if all these expectations, these 'antecedent probabilities', have actually been fulfilled.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

"There is no positive truth in religion..."

This past weekend, I was privileged to give a talk at a Catholic Charismatic event on the subject of my great hero, Blessed John Henry Newman. It was the first talk I've ever given, and I certainly learned a lot from the experience i.e. don't try to cram an infinite amount of information into a finite amount of time! The talk was entitled, "Newman and the Impact of Christian Doctrine" and served as an introduction to the beloved Cardinal's insights into the development of the Church's teaching.

This might sound like an abstract subject at best, and a deathly boring one at worst. However, Bl. Newman's life testifies to the dramatic power that Christian doctrine can, and must, have. His most popular prayer book is called Meditations on Christian Doctrine, from which the famous prayer "God has created me to do him some definite service" is taken. Most dramatically, his research for his book On The Development of Christian Doctrine compelled him to become Catholic.

It's hard for us to imagine just how colossal a decision that was for the middle-aged John Henry. As he knelt in his study before Bl. Dominic Barberi on that rain-soaked October night in 1845, and asked the Italian priest to receive him into the Catholic Church, Newman must have reckoned the cost. He paid it dearly. He was ostracized by old friends, and it adversely affected his relationship with his family, to whom he was devoted. His conversion was met by disbelief in the Anglican Church, and even suspicion by some in the Catholic Church. He had to resign his post as a fellow of Oriel College. In later years, he would be attacked in the newspapers and pamphlets (which were widely read, and readily believed) by pillars of English society, like popular author Charles Kingsley, and former Prime Minister William Gladstone.

What did he find in the course of writing Christian Doctrine that he "recognized in himself a conviction of the truth" that the much-maligned Catholic Church was (as we would often refer to it in his later letters) "the one, true fold"? What caused him to undergo the 'bloodless martyrdom' described above?

For a starting point, let's imagine the absurdity of seeing on the news the tragic story that a man has been killed for refusing to deny the statement "2+2=4". Sure, this is a 'truth statement' and the truth is important, but we would rightly balk at the idea of sacrificing our lives for it. Simply put, an abstract, intellectual 'truth statement' isn't important enough for us to risk our lives, or even change them in the slightest. In the modern era, we have this same reaction to the terms 'doctrine' (teaching), and 'dogma' (truth). They're too technical, too distant, to be worth bothering about.

What is important, or valuable, enough  for us to risk the most valuable thing we have? St. Paul says that "perhaps for a good man someone would dare to die." [Rm 5:7] We all have trouble imagining an idea, even one we firmly believe in, for which we'd sacrifice ourselves, but we all have a list in our heads of people who we'd like to think we would die for if the situation arose. We need another person to spur us on to heroic deeds; someone we love, someone who loves us, someone who, one way or another, arouses our passions.

For the Christian, of course, this person is the good man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ. And He is exactly the sort of person we imagine that we'd be prepared to die for. How great He was! All that healing the sick, preaching the Good News to the poor and downtrodden, sticking it to the hypocrites, calling sinners like me "friend", let alone His being prepared to die for me! What a swell guy! Yes, I'd definitely put my life on the line for a chap like that.

Further, throughout the Gospels, and especially in St. John's, Jesus identifies Himself not only with the truth, but as The Truth. He brings out the true meaning of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells the Apostles that He is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" [Jn 14:6] and prays that the Father will "sanctify them in truth." [Jn 17:17] by sending "the Spirit of Truth" which will guide the Church "into all truth.".  At last, he tells Pilate that He came into the world "to bear testimony to the truth. All who are of the truth listen to my voice." [Jn 18:37]. Here, He is telling us in a not-at-all subtle way, that the truth is no conceptual, intangible ideal, but is reconciled to the Good Man in His Person. To give up your life for the truth is to give up your life that great guy we described earlier.

And here, of course, I run into a problem. How do I know that Jesus was like that, and said and did those things? He lived 2,000 years ago. Any information I have about Him has been passed on to me by someone else - I have to accept as true someone else's description of Him i.e. their doctrines and dogmas about Him. Even when it comes to praying to Him, the power of which, I might be tempted to think, does away with the need for boring ol' theology by simply 'deepening my friendship with Him' on an emotional level, I first have to know the truths that 1) He is to be prayed to, 2) it is possible to have friendship with Him in spite of the historical gulf between us, and 3) this by His outpouring of grace upon me. All this truth, all this theology, must come from someone else.

As if to make matters worse, I now have another problem. It seems that 'impersonal' doctrines are essential to my 'personal' spiritual life because I can't know anything about Jesus for certain without them. But whose doctrines? There are so many Christian denominations, and each paint their own picture of who my Lord and Friend truly was, and what He meant when He said and did what He said and did. Surely, it would be a disaster to try to build up a true relationship with a false Jesus? We've all seen (and perhaps been in) relationships which weren't founded on the whole truth eventually collapse, and when they do, we think to ourselves, "Well, that was bound to happen." Am I really prepared to put up with that possibility in the most important relationship I'll ever have?

Which brings us back to Newman. Believe it or not, the opening quote is from him. Here it is in context, from the speech he made upon being appointed a cardinal: "Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another." He describes this as the "great mischief" of his time (and ours) to which he had always opposed himself, "to the best of my powers." Simply put, contrary to common opinion, it matters a great deal which church you belong to, which church's doctrines you follow, because you'll be following its 'version' of Jesus, even if you're not aware that's what you're doing. For this reason, the truth or falsehood of doctrines and dogmas is an intensely personal, spiritual matter for Newman, and for us. Where can we find the real Jesus?

In the next post, we'll take a look in more detail at Bl. John Henry's journey towards the Truth.