Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Against heresies: on divisiveness, nuance and dialogue

The writings of the Church Fathers are full of titles such as 'Against Heresies': highly polemical works that took on the errors of both pagans outside the Church and heretics within it. 

Many of the great saints down the ages - such as St Athanasius and St Bernard of Clairvaux to name just two - were similarly divisive figures, whose campaigns against error in their day made them many enemies.

Those who, like myself and other orthodox contributors in places like Cath News, Cath Pews, our own blogs and other places, occasionally or frequently engage in modern day versions of these same debates don't claim to be great saints. 

But are we following, in our own small way, in the steps of these great models, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit? 

Does the 'New Evangelization' demand that we act to evangelize within as well as reach out?

Should we be 'divisive'?

The clear answer from many quarters would be no. 

Write something that insists on orthodoxy in the face of error in places like Cath News, and you will be berated as subscribing to a 'psychology of militancy', a failure to understand 'nuance' (presumably just like the Vatican failed to understand Bishop Morris' 'nuancing' of his infamous Pastoral Letter?), and treated to a Coyne-esq rant on driving people out of the Church!

But the idea that we should paint over the cracks and ignore internal divisions within the Church is not, alas, restricted to a vocal minority of the liberals who dominate the Cath News boards however. 

Rather, the view that insistence on orthodoxy constitutes 'extremism' and is to be deplored is being actively promoted even through dioceses, in events and on websites, for example in the form of talks by people like the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Greg Craven.


Luckily, A Country Priest Blog has an excellent post on this very subject at the moment, debunking the 'What Would Jesus Do' mentality, and pointing to the reality of Our Lord's own style of positively goading the opposition, and even his own disciples, at times.

Guest blogger Joel Peart* points notes that:

"They suppose that Jesus was accepting and tolerant. I’m not really sure where they got this impression though, because the bible doesn’t paint him like that at all. He’s actually rather uncompromising and divisive; his attitude generally said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”. Where we’re told there’s an even hotter fire being stoked. See John 6. He was goading his disciples to walk away, to the point where Peter felt the need to justify himself still hanging around. Yikes."

He also comments on the problems of the 'Jesus as a moral exemplar' model, when detached from consideration of the Tradition:

"The other time it [WWJD] might be used is by someone faced with moral dilemma. So in their mind, they try taking themselves back to Jerusalem in 33AD, or they have Our Blessed Lord teleported into their time and place. It deliberately does away with 2000 years of teaching that has been founded on scripture, guided by Holy Spirit and proven in the lives of the saints. And this is supposedly a good thing."

The fantasy Jesus

Joel goes on to point out that separating the Gospels from the Church leads to a  "Jesus who is a figment of your imagination."

A good example of this is the Cath News debate on Church Architecture.  One of my protagonists over there was arguing that expenditure on welfare should always trump expenditure on worship.  When I pointed him to the story of St Mary Magdalene using expensive ointment to wash Our Lord's feet, and being taken to task by Judas for not selling it and giving it to the poor (St John Chapter 10) as an example of God's teaching on the priority of worship over welfare, he replied, inter alia:

"....Besides, maybe Jesus was having a tired day and threw away words he later would have insisted must be taken in context. Even he had to have some down time!"

Sad stuff.

Can one really engage in dialectics when our starting assumptions are so opposed?

All of this points to the challenges in engaging in these debates (can we call it dialogue?!).

The first and biggest one is just getting your stuff posted, as a Canberra Observer noted on another post: call a spade a spade and you will find your posts rejected in some places!

The second though, is when you peel back the layers, the starting assumptions of liberals and catholics are almost diametrically opposed.  If we aren't even vaguely on the same page, is there really any point to debate?

Take the Church architecture discussion.  My main protagonist over there, Mark Johnson, eventually came clean and argued against one of the most fundamental propositions that lie behind the Churches devotion to the arts (including architecture) down the ages, suggesting that beauty does not in fact lead to God (you might want to read his whole post, since he claims I've misunderstood the 'nuances' of he is saying).  Here is the quote I have allegedly misunderstood:

"The 'feelings' inspired by 'beauty' are not the sure path to God, but only to our own comforting sensibilities. It is a despairing step, not one of freedom."

So in his view, instead of churches pointing us to heaven and God, they represent a flight from the problems of this world.

And one can't really argue from Scripture with him, since he rejects the long tradition of orthodox commentaries on the relevant passages of Scripture, characterising the Navarre Bible for example, as being a case of  "Rancid wine in old skins".

Another commentator, Francis, keeps seeming to forget that Jesus is God (!), suggesting for example that references to the Tetragrammaton in the Old Testament do not include Jesus.  She (or he) similarly argues that bits of the (infallible) Magisterium can be freely discarded.  She also fails to understand just why protestant scholars might have a different understanding of the importance of churches than the Catholic tradition!

Can one really have a sensible debate in these circumstances?

Registering truth

In theory, I suppose, there is a point in at least trying to signal the orthodox position.

The difference between Catholica and Cath News, for example, is that in the case of the first, Mr Coyne makes it clear that he is only seeking engagement by like minded people (fair enough), whereas Cath News claims a broader mandate, even if in practice it acts more like the Tablet, providing lines, particularly thorugh Cath Blog, to feed a particular liberal mentality.

Still, maybe the struggle is worthwhile if it causes at least one reader to have an 'ah hah' moment?

But to turn the tide, what really seems to be needed is action that is far more fundamental and far-reaching, far more radical agenda, because incrementalism and rational argument by themselves is surely never going to change these hearts and minds.

What is to be done?

*Apologies, I originally attributed the post to Fr Corrigan not noticing that he had turned his blog over temporarily to a guest blogger.   That will teach me to try and post while not really keeping up with the blogs...Do hope Joel will start his own blog when Fr C returns however!


Mark said...

Of course one thing that could be done Kate is to actualy quote in context: in this case both in reference to the discussion on freedom and specifically in regards to the mere Platonism and Romanticism so overtly employed by Benedict and lauded by yourself.

But upon a broader plane: Grace is no prisoner to our notions of beauty, it was the privileged and powerful of ancient Greece who elevated such an attribute. It is the privileged and powerful throughout the ages who have always clung to such a literal representation.

The Gospels simply do not prove your case, in fact showing time and time again that the Kingdom manifested in what was rejected and what was repulsive.The ugliness and horror of the crucifixion itself is certainly contrary to your exaltation of Greek notions.

The Incarnation too being the contradiction to your elevation of beauty. Why do you think that Christianity was rejected by Greek philosophy?

If anything, beauty was in fact transformed by Christianity, turned inside out, locating the beautiful in that rejected, in that the world derides, in weakness, humility, in what the world will not see as beautiful.

Kate said...

Still not quite getting the nuance here Mark, you do in fact seem to be arguing that beauty is not something that leads to God?

And I'm not really sure how either the Incarnation in particular detracts from that proposition!

It is certainly true that Our Lord brought beauty out of ugliness in many of his miracles, and above all in the Cross. But surely the 'beauty' is not in the horrors, but in the healing: in the lepers made whole, the lame aboe to walk, the blind able to see, and above all in the Resurrection.

And did Greek philosophy really reject Christianity as such? Certain individual philsophers, sure, but the more generally accepted view is that Christianty was given birth at a particular time and place for good reasons, not the least of which was that it could build on and purify the inheritance of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem rather than simply reject it altogether.

PM said...

And to add to Kate's point, historical research has pointed to the emergence of Christianity itself from the hellenized Judaism of the eastern empire in which the Septuagint played a seminal part. Dehellenisation is based on a misconception and all very passe.

Mark said...


as I said before, Christianity transformed Greek notions of beauty. Non Christain Greek philosophy rebuffed any notion of God (the perfect, the beautiful) being tainted by the ugliness of matter, flesh. Of course this was done in a diversity of ways, dependent upon the particular school of philosophy (of course they each influenced each other). But all shared the horror of the One or God or any variation on this being tainted. Beauty being stained.

So if we are going to go down the path of 'beauty' being a path to God in the Christian sense we need to be very clear what we mean, and to not just by intention or by innocence, being nothing more than a pagan wrapped in Christian semantics.

Same too in regards to the 'feelings' inspired by encounter with 'beauty'. Because this is Romanticism.

The entire mystical tradition cautions against elevated 'feelings'.

It's all a very tricky area and is not supported by the Gospels or the foundations of faith.

Rather the emphasis needs to be upon Grace and our receptivity and relationship under Grace. Grace speaks within any context, not specifically this or that. If we are more comfortable with this or that then that is what we are in relationship with.

Cultural notions of beauty can be elevating and take us out of our normal perspective. But so too, under Grace, can any context. Beauty is a mere end to itself without its being encountered within an already vital relationship of Grace, a realtionship not at all dependent upon beauty.

Kate said...

Mark - As PM has suggested, the arguments you make are so 1960s!

In particular, one doesn't have to subscribe to romanticism to believe that beauty is a transcendental, and I think you have completely misunderstood the kind of 'feelings' the mystical tradition warns about the possibility of being mislead by.

I'd recommend a read of Tracey Rowland's Culture and the Thomist Tradition (2003), and Robert Royal's The God that Did not Fail (2006). The former puts the case for the importance of the transcendentals, and grounds them in the Thomist tradition, she also traces some of the debates in the Church on this subject; the latter summarises some of the literature reassessing the nature of Greek religion and philosophy, and the ways in which it was transformed and used by Christianity.

I'm not aware of any one book or nice review article that brings together the fascinating emerging evidence on the Hellenization of Judaism, the stuff I've seen is scattered about in assorted articles on the archeology of the period and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I'm sure it must exist - perhaps PM or someone else might make a suggestion on this front?

Then of course there is the Pope's series of important teachings on this subject in assorted sermons and talks, not to mention the odd encyclical or two, but of course, you've already dismissed those...

Martin S. said...

Kate thank you for your wonderful blog.

What is to be done?

I think you're lighting a candle.

It is a rare thing for me to read Cathnews because of their quite strong assimilation into liberalism. But as James Kalb shows, it is doomed.

We know demographically, the liberal Catholic project is finished - as you say - they have been unable to reproduce themselves and make no seminarians. Young men and women will become disciples and religious based on a mystery but not on doubts.

If their critique of the Catholic Church's traditions were as consistently applied to the doctrines and foundation of liberalism we could respect their behaviour. Most would not know what liberalism really is as they sell their birthright for it sadly.

The outcome is beyond doubt now. What I think they thought was aggiornamento and the attempt to convert the culture was really the conversion of them. Conversion into liberals with a spiritual face. The generation they've spawned are now outright apostates - the transition is complete we know them by their fruit - they have failed their church.

My faith and charity is nothing to boast about, dear God let me make that clear, I fail Jesus everyday, but a sober analysis simply can't obscure the magnitude of corruption since the 1960's. A corruption that surpasses anything offered in comparison in the Renaissance church.

We could support parallel Catholic media, support non-liberal orders and seminaries. Share news worthy of that name, where the Holy Spirit is bringing life rather than the bad news associated with the conservatism of a moribund 1960's tradition.

All of the things that bring me to your site Kate. Thank you.

Martin Snigg

Isabella-Kaatrina said...

"Fr Corrigan goes on to point out that separating the Gospels from the Church leads to a  "Jesus who is a figment of your imagination."

what if I prefer the Jesus of my imagination to the the Jesus of your imagination?

PM said...

Like Kate, I have seen these ideas in articles and reviews but, not being an enrolled student or teacher, I mostly haven't kept notes. (A religious I know recalls a novice master who used to bark at his charges 'Lectio sine stilo somnium est.') But Luke Timothy Johnson's works are a good stating point for the importance of the Septuagint and its hellenised milieu in the formation of the New Testament. To underline the point about not overdoing Athens v. Jerusalem, the Pauline letters deploy Stoic moral vocabulary, and his address at the Areopagus draws on what one might call (perhaps a little anachronistically) Greek natural theology.

Interestingly, I found myself agreeing with much of Mark's second comment about over-reliance on feelings in faith and worship. I say interestingly because that it is often pilloried by earnest guitar-strummers as a 'conservative' position held by Thomists and other fossils! The psalms, for example, contain the full range of human emotion, but their liturgical use is best captured by Wordsworth's 'emotion recollected in tranquility'. And 'I feel' is not a guarantee of infallibility.

I think the difference on beauty here is bridgeable. There may indeed have been an element of pride and vainglory in classical ideas of beauty and the self-congratulation of the great-souled individual, but these can be purified by faith. I certainly don't see the point of making churches studies in utilitarian ugliness.

Kate said...

My point about 'feelings' in the mystical literature is that it is mostly about the need for proper discernment and testing when it comes to impulses that might or might not be motivated by grace, rather than being about emotions per se in the main.

It does, it is true, encompass things like false euphoria and visions, but isn't really, in my opinion at least, about the reaction to a beautiful church or a piece of music or art that induces us to meditation on higher things (unless of course that music or whatever lures us into false phenomena in the way charismatic worship can do).

The point is that things approved by the Church to aid us in our worship will not generally, lead in themselves lead us astray; quite the opposite: contemplating a beautiful icon or whatever is more likely to lead us to heaven.

What happens in that individual level within the soul, on the other hand, is very prone to distortion by the self or the devil, and thus needs to be treated with care.

But then again, I favour the Benedictine tradition, where the saint urges us to tears of contrition in our prayer, so there are a number of different strands and takes on this literature...

On the Septuagint, one useful starting point is the website for the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) - gives a bit of an overview and links to the literature. The other useful place to look is Margaret Barker's Temple theology website - though she is a protestant it is interesting and has some plausibility about it even if I'm not totally convinced! And Royal's book does touch on the impact of Greek philosophy on pre-Christian Jewish thinkers. Still, someone must have or be writing the book on this!

Martin S. said...

An interesting quote I happened upon Kate, it seems relevant to our complaint about Cathnews.

"In vain you will build churches, give missions, found schools...All your work, all your efforts will be destroyed if you are not able to wield the offensive and defensive weapon of a loyal and sincere Catholic Press...I would make any sacrifice, even to pawning my ring, pectoral cross and soutane, in order to support a Catholic paper... "
St. Pius X

h/t Mark Shea

A Canberra Observer said...

PM has put a finger on it.

Heaven will not be ugly.