Sunday, March 04, 2007

Letters to a Fundamentalist Friend

PART ONE - THE HEAD

Dear T.,

You will notice from my address* that I am presently at sea. The voyage is arduous and uncomfortable and there are no guarantees it will ever make port. I am, nevertheless, queasily embarked; twenty-five years of haunting the quayside are at an end.

The sea is a kind of desert, so the opportunity is presented to make a better Lent than usual. If the condition of orthodoxy in one's faith is "to think with the Church", the Christian must in addition learn to "think with the heart". Christianity is incorporation into the life of a Person – it isn’t an argument or an ideology. I am for the time being persuaded that the preoccupation with proofs and demonstrations of proofs, of controversies and their logical resolution, is radically prejudicial to “thinking with the heart”, in addition to being practically futile. "Internet religion" is, moreover, a very poor substitute for the real thing, and it's highly doubtful that the hours most of us spend strutting and fretting on this cold little stage are in any way pleasing to God, or helpful to our salvation. We could – therefore should, probably - have been praying, or just playing with our children instead. So, in addition to bodily fasting, a few weeks' retreat from cyberspace is probably all to the good. Kyrie eleison!

Another advantage of the desert, of course, is a certain enlargement of perspective one gains from being temporarily apart from the fray...



I WILL BRING OUT those passages of scripture which speak to me with perfect clarity of Our Lord’s promises to His Church, and you will decline to accept that these passages ought to be understood as the Church has always understood them. So which perspective is, on a balance of probabilities, the authentic one? No-one ever came to Scripture without some sort of hermeneutical “key” – it’s impossible. The only question is, then – which “key”? The Fathers, to whose witness I defer, acclaimed by the Church within their own lifetimes for clarity of teaching, purity of doctrine, and – most importantly of all – manifest holiness of life, reveal an unbroken, continuing tradition of interpretation from the very birth of the Church. I will therefore always strive to understand Scripture in the same sense as them. This is vitally important for me. God does not change; no jot or tittle will pass away. There is no value or point whatsoever in Scripture admonishing us to hear something called “the Church” as the “house of God and ground and pillar of Truth” if this “Church” cannot be identified with any certainty. Where, then, is this Church? There is no point in appealing, circular fashion, to Scripture, because it’s precisely the interpretation of Scripture on which we disagree. Secondary sources then - witnesses to how the first Christians themselves understood the Church and the Gospel:

The true knowledge is the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere.
St Irenaeus

One quote, plucked from among innumerable others, by different authors, all in the same vein. Note that Irenaeus, writing in the second century, already speaks of the "ancient organisation of the Church".

This Church, then, was, and must remain, visibly constituted: go to any second century town, as the Fathers again bear witness, and ask “where is the Catholic Church?” You will - now, as then - be directed to a people gathered together with presbyters and deacons under a bishop in the Apostolic succession; who teaches, governs and sanctifies each local or particular church in communion with the Universal, “holding-all” Church whose unchanging, integral faith, order and sacramental life all of its members, united to its Head, maintain. The oft-asserted notion among the “reformed” communities, of the myriad modern “denominations” being equivalent to particular churches, the sum total of which constitute the “catholic church” despite the absence of any meaningful unity of faith, sacrament or constitution is, I’m sorry to say, a fanciful and anachronistic absurdity which can’t survive a moment’s honest encounter with the first few centuries, during which the Church asserted her catholicity precisely as the note distinguishing her from schismatic and heretical sects. Nothing has changed.

Where, then, is the record of holy souls in the first centuries, raising their voices and shedding their blood for the sufficiency and pre-eminence of scripture against the rise of usurping “Catholicism”? Where are their writings? Where are their witnesses? Where, for that matter, is any indication that Our Lord intended New Testament Scripture (which He never mentions) rather than, and apart from, the “teaching Church” (of which He speaks in the most exalted terms) to provide the sole, sufficient, infallible rule of faith? From my point of view this complete absence of any “parallel tradition” is itself sufficient to render incredible the Protestant account of Christianity, before even beginning to address the hopeless internal contradictions inherent in sola scriptura itself.

On the other hand, if catholic Christianity which alone can lay claim to a historically verifiable, continuing tradition from the Apostles to the present day is a human fabrication, then everything is rendered definitively uncertain – especially Scripture, the contents of which were discerned according to the tradition and by the authority of the Church. If what Christians took for fifteen hundred years to be the “House of God and ground and pillar of truth” was never anything of the sort, then Scripture has proved an unreliable guide throughout most of the Church’s history. What use is a scripture that insists I “hear the Church”, and then leaves me uncertain about what and where the Church is? How reliable is a scripture in which God promises to lead us “into all truth” and to be with us always, prior to abandoning us almost immediately to all sorts of ruinous, fundamental errors?

Perspective, again - mine versus yours - on the subject of false “triumphalism” and the gates of hell not prevailing: from the very beginning the Church has to struggle to distinguish herself from those errant and self appointed “pastors” - the wolves in sheeps’ clothing who “gather apart”; then the terrible Arian crisis when it really did seem for while tht all was lost; the constant threat of subjection to secular authority; the schism between East and West; the Great Western Schism; the administrative and juridical chaos of the late Middle Ages; the Protestant revolt; Jansenist rigorism versus Jesuit casuistry; the Deists and rationalists; religious nationalism; Revolution, ultramontanist reaction and the disorder and degradation following Vatican II’s ill-conceived and incredible attempt to synthesise them; the long martyrdom of the East under Islam and then atheistic Communism – well yes, I agree: it would seem as though “crisis” were indeed the “fifth mark” of the Church, and that Hell has come perilously close to prevailing throughout two millennia. There she still is, nevertheless – with the same unchanging faith, the same sacraments the same constitution, the same essential unity, miraculously preserved – unless the whole of what we call Revelation is a deep and disastrous delusion.

* i.e. "Sailing to Byzantium" - the beginnings of a serious and "heart-thinking" encounter with Orthodoxy.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I stand at the quayside, and seeing your departure, despair.

I can't help but think that temptations for a Roman to sail to Byzantium are often temptations from Satan. This is not to say that the Easterners are satanic; indeed, I think it might sometimes be a temptation from Satan for an Easterner to gaze longingly at the Tiber. But as Christians, we ought to be first and foremost uniting ourselves to Christ. If we can do that within the Church of our birth, of God-only-knows how many generations of our fathers who followed Rome, then why should we fret about whether the Byzantines are doing "better" than Rome? If you can live a proper Christian life within Rome, why leave? And if you can't live a proper Christian life within Rome, might the solution not be found in Byzantium, but rather by examining yourself?

I have lately stood often at that quayside, and looked out at the sea. But to sail away is merely to turn my back on the problems I have here, and now; and my greatest fear is that I'll find them on the other side.

Anonymous said...

God bless you on your journey, my friend. Wherever it takes you.

Mr Bleaney

CoderForChrist said...

Hello. I came here from Father Stephen's blog.

As a formerly firmly-cemented Baptist who is now exploring Orthodoxy, I'm curious about your statement, "Where, for that matter, is any indication that Our Lord intended New Testament Scripture (which He never mentions) rather than, and apart from, the “teaching Church” (of which He speaks in the most exalted terms) to provide the sole, sufficient, infallible rule of faith?"

While it is readily apparent that Christ never mentions the New Testament Scripture, I'm curious of where He speaks of the "teaching Church" "in the most exalted terms"? I can think of some statements in the Epistles that might fit that characterization, but I'm drawing a blank on statements of the Lord, Himself.

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

O my God! You're back!

This is so freakin' awesome!!!

Moretben said...

Hello Arturo ;o))

Mr B - thank you, my friend.

Anonymous

Thank you sincerely - your "despair", however, is certainly premature. Bear with me! I can tell you that this voyage is a serious one, insofar as it has not been undertaken for the purposes of tourism. Beyond that, only one thing is certain - that it will end, finally and definitively, in a homecoming. I hope the substance of the serious points you make are addressed to some extent in the second part of the letter.

Moretben said...

Coder - more anon!

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Yes, Internet religion is cheap religion, and we should just go outside and play more often than not.

But I like cheap things too, and there is a place for them. When I am trying to waste time before class (like now) or am on a quick twenty minute break at work, I don't see any harm in logging into some serious theological discussions. Beats watching YouTube, most of the time anyway.

I would like to think of my own "religious" blog as a sort of anti-apologetic, kind of like if Marcel Duchamp did theology. I am more aiming to "shock" people than convince. Hey, we have to keep up with each other somehow, you in Britain, me over here in the U.S. of A.

Keep blogging. It gives me more excuses not to do unimportant things.

Anonymous said...

Father Behr, "The Mystery of Christ."

Moretben said...

Thanks for that, anonymous

I read Fr Behr's essay "Orthodoxy" today via the link on Fr Stephen's blog.

Anonymous said...

as a complete stranger to this conversation, for the love of all things holy, let me second fr. behr's "mystery of christ".

-benjamin

Anonymous said...

Benjamin,

I knew you'd be lurking about.

For my two cents, Behr is by far the best theologian out there today. He is standing on the shoulders of giants, the vast majority of whom are not Orthodox, but he has a knack for drawing things together into a whole, which is an Orthodox trademark. And, he is not uberpolemical. His work as improved since his essay "Orthodoxy."

I would read him over any Orthodox theologian. He is a marked improvement over the slavophiles, orthoexistentialists, hypostasists, etc., and has some pretty deep criticisms of same. Without reservations, the place to start and to finish. His two volume (so far) history is good too as are his other essays availible online. With reservation, I would also recommend Schmemann, especially his Journals and "For the life of the world."

Jack

The Ochlophobist said...

Man, all of my favorite people are gathering here.

Ben, great to see you back at it. You remain in my prayers.

And, of course, Behr, Behr, and Behr, I agree with what Jack writes.

Anonymous said...

"Where, then, is the record of holy souls in the first centuries, raising their voices and shedding their blood for the sufficiency and pre-eminence of scripture against the rise of usurping “Catholicism”? "

It wasn't possible. For the first 7 centuries after Christ all one had was a pile of scrolls of books. The various books were never bound into a single volume until the 8th century, but even that was written by hand. It wasn't until the 15th century advent of the printing press that a personal Bible became moderately affordable, which made the sola scriptura cry of Luther 60 years later possible.

American protestants think the Bible mystically fell from heaven onto Wal-Mart shelves; now all that is necessary is for them to eisogete their own truncated private opinions into the words of scripture because of their percieved superior piety. Gag me.

Anonymous said...

A previous commenter wrote:
>American protestants think the Bible mystically fell from heaven onto Wal-Mart shelves; now all that is necessary is for them to eisogete their own truncated private opinions into the words of scripture because of their percieved superior piety. Gag me.

Stop this arrogance and snottiness. Our Lord said, "blessed are the poor in spirit ..." You know the rest because you sing it every Sunday. After you repent, pray that you will be able to - in all future comments and exchanges - speak with love and gentleness. (Yes, I am guilty of the sin, myself.)