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.

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