Showing posts with label Protestant. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Protestant. Show all posts

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Catholic Feels

How does it feel to be a Catholic? Certainly different.

It is difficult to count all the ways it differs from being both an atheist and a Protestant, because many things are different, either in shade or in nature. Since I can contrast Protestantism with Catholicism better, that is the comparison I will make.

The transition was weird. I have had all sorts of people say I am no longer Christian. I have betrayed the glorious Reformation. I went over to the Mary-worshippers and ritualizers, the works-righteousness bunch, the ‘church’ that had tried to hide the Bible from everyone, and to good measure, because if they had not, someone would have read the epistle to the Romans or Galatians, and we would not be in such a mess. That was what I was meant to feel.

The initial reaction I actually had once I was in was that I was in some sort of cult. My dad calls it “la secta,” or “the sect” in English. Except it is a strange cult, because it is enormous in size and has a very long history. Nonetheless, we have really esoteric claims. We claim that a guy who had his hands laid on by another man, who in turn has been playing laying-on-of-hands tag all the way back to Jesus and the apostles, can now change what looks like an unleavened disc of bread into the flesh of a man who was born about 2,000 years ago, which we are all meant to eat. Ditto with the wine, except that is blood – but get this, it all looks the same. Sounds like the claim a cult would make.

Of course, there is nothing inherently ridiculous with that claim, other than it being less than common-sense. That’s OK, I study both physics and philosophy, which at any university seem to be the two faculties with the least common-sense beliefs around. Whenever one wishes to express something that sounds peculiar, yet nonetheless sound intellectual, one has the option of beginning sentences with “According to quantum mechanics…” and “You could argue philosophically that…” So weird is OK. The only thing that is a pressing concern is whether or not it is true – which I do.

The feeling of a cult did not last for very long – the Church is too big, too ancient, boasts too many intellectuals, to be dismissed as cultic nonsense. That gave way to a feeling of awe, that there are so many people, dead and alive, in this global communion. The size of the Church on the inside is staggering! It is like the TARDIS – overwhelmingly bigger inside.  Such brilliant people, too: from my hero St Francis of Assisi, to the brilliant St Augustine of Hippo, great scientists like Mendel and Le Maître, great philosophers like St Thomas Aquinas and René Descartes, great missionaries like St Francis Xavier, and I even felt in deeper communion with St Paul of Tarsus – which, of course, I was, and still am.

It is clear, I am now also in deeper communion with some of the most infamous Catholic sinners – we are all sinners, but the ones famous for their sin – like the chief inquisitor, the bad popes and the not-so-great people in the categories I just mentioned.

Worse, so many of the bad Catholics are not figures in the past, they are figures in the present. One of the things that is considered really uncool in an Evangelical Protestant-style church is nominalism, and there is stacks of them in the Catholic Church.  As I wrote in my post “The Road to Rome,” these people were a massive stumbling block. Or, probably far worse than the nominal ones, the unfaithful Catholics who reject everything it means to be Catholic – so much irreverence, ignorance, blatant disregard for Church teaching. If even Catholics did not believe this stuff, how was an outsider meant to? If someone from outside was not meant to believe this stuff, then why be Catholic at all?

The staggering beauty of being in communion with the greatest Christians that have walked the earth, contrasted with the “honeymoon over” reality that great saints are few and far between has now led to more mellow concoction: the Church does not just have the people radically transformed by the love of Christ, it has the ones that have “faith” because it is part of their family culture, or for some other reason that is similarly confusing to me. Put simply, it is full of a lot of people, and this is something that one has to live with.

I doubt it ever gets easier to live with it – read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium), and quite soon one can see that one of the most pressing concerns that the Pope sees are Christians who are unchanged by the Gospel, in particular, who have “Lent without Easter,” who seem unchanged by the joy the Gospel brings. No, he says, the Gospel brings joy, and the Gospel brings the desire to spread to others the good news, or in other words, evangelization stems from the joy of being Christian.

Essentially, that is what Christianity is about: the urgent and breaking news, good news, that God has decisively acted in history, he has fulfilled the promises he had made to the particular nation of Israel, and in Jesus, God is reconciling the world to himself, redeeming it and transforming it by his love. Christ has died for us, therefore we have died also, and live in Christ, who God has raised from the dead. This message precludes apathy and nominalism, it excludes anything but that powerful phrase that recurs in the New Testament: Kyrios Christos! Christ is Lord! Nobody else is: not Caesar, though he dominates the known world, not Satan, though he is prince of this world with so much evil – no, Christ is Lord.

Hence, as always, I am practically scandalized by the “Sunday Catholics” or the so-called “CAPE Catholics” – only Catholic on Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Either one believes the Gospel every day of the week, or none of them – there is no real middle ground.

I suspect I will spend much of my life in veritable angst over my brothers and sisters “in the faith” that do not have the faith in reality. Let me be absolutely clear: there are many saints in the Church, hundreds of people I have met, and many millions that I have not, on that journey of faith, being sanctified daily – I am honoured to be in fellowship with many of them in this Archdiocese of Brisbane. This post is titled “Catholic Feels”, however, and the scandal caused by casual Catholics too often blocks the noise of the growing forest of holiness. Like I said, these are my feelings, not my thoughts. My feelings never get much airtime anyway.

As much as the communion-with-the-great-saints aspect is dulled by the communion-with-the-great-sinners side of matters, the Catholic tradition continues to overwhelm me. If one simply believes in sola Scriptura, then basically a good knowledge of the Bible is a good knowledge of Christian theology in its entirety. Not so in the Church – thousands of years of very intelligent, Spirit-led and Spirit-filled people, arguing over theological matters, many of which the Church had to use her apostolic authority to settle, either by the papal Magisterium or conciliar decree – everything is richer, deeper, far more profound than I could previously conceive of. One area of theology might be as far away from another as mathematical physics is to zoology in the natural sciences, and all areas of theology are untameable.[1]

Deeper theology I might have expected, but I never would have guessed I would love the liturgy. I had previously thought that even repeated prayers were basically ritualistic (a word which I used to mean that outward signs are done with no inward involvement), and hence talk of vestments, all those funny-sounding names, missals, incense, the sitting-standing-kneeling movements and the centrality of the Eucharist in the Mass was way off my radar.

Relatively early on, my discomfort with the different rites disappeared. I would now claim quite the opposite, that the Catholic (or Sacramental more generally) view of rituals is the only one that makes sense: it is not being ritualistic to place a high importance on Baptism if it is a Sacrament, or in other words, if it is regenerative, a means of grace. But it makes little sense to be baptized at all if one thinks it does nothing – other than the fact that Jesus connects making disciples with baptizing, and the Apostles in general place a high value on it. This latter perspective constitutes ritualism, because on the Catholic view a Sacrament involves an inward grace – but on a non-sacramental view of Baptism (or the same goes for Holy Communion), it really is only an outward sign.

All these problems with the liturgy that I had were feelings – the Church has had them since the beginning: many of the vestments come slightly later (but not all of them), the funny-sounding-names are only odd because they were not English, incense is almost undeniably apostolic in origin, and nobody who was not heretical for more prominent reasons ever denied the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The complaints I had with the liturgy, I think, come more from a postmodern culture than any incoherence with Christianity. Christianity has always been liturgical.

One final word: whilst it is true that I had moved a year or so before from atheist to theist and then to Protestant Christian, I can still quite clearly perceive the differences between the more common strands of atheism and the Church, since it is quite hard to miss if one is serious about being Catholic. There is a fluidity of beliefs and anti-authoritarianism that is built into Protestantism from its beginning – and some would say this is an advantage – so the easiest Christian target is obviously the Catholics.

As a Catholic in a very secular environment, then, how do I feel? A range of feelings occur to me: there is defensiveness at times, as interesting-yet-offensive points are brought to me and I find myself expected to defend the Church. Arrogant at times, as very ignorant and simple minded arguments are brought to me, and the fallacies or misinformation only produces a sense that I must be more intelligent than other people. Mostly, though, I am OK to just let it slide. It is no longer my fault if, once I attempt to calmly respond to queries, the same points are made against me without any thought. There are the nice secularists, of course, who are lovely to talk to. Again, though, this was about my feelings.

[1] This position is a caricature of the mainstream Protestant view, first because it is almost impossible to say anything too general about Protestants, and second because sola Scriptura has more nuance if you ask some people. Still, if anything sola Scriptura means that the only solid special revelation is numerically identical with the Bible (with perhaps some early conciliar creeds), and any development is what one called a “hermeneutical phenomenon”, something that people missed before but it was there all along. There’s a place for that, but it is not so clear to me that it accounts for all developments.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Pillars of Christian Belief - a critical examination

Disclaimer: In a sense, critical examination is overly sensationalist. For the purposes of this entry, I am going to assume that Christians hold the Biblical texts commonly, and from there, see if we can further extend Christian understanding using the other pillars mentioned last entry. That is the sceptical question: "can we generalize to other pillars?"

Following on from the previous entry, I think it is clear that the door is wide open to other teachings. Yes, false teaching is condemned. But not all teaching is condemned. Where do we draw the line then? In terms of pragmatism, Sola Scriptura certainly has this going for it:

  1. As our earliest Christian writings, including the gospels, which have the words of God the Son, the Bible is clearly an invaluable and clearly very crucial document. Everyone will agree that Christianity and the Bible go together - even if how exactly is debated. From this, we can have a large degree of assurance of that their guidance is going to be pretty decent.
  2.  On the flip-side, we have no such assurance of other teachings, as far as we have explored so far. It seems clear to me that the most important thing in Christianity (grace) can be transmitted and learnt about with only this core of teaching - so Sola Scriptura has the added benefit that it can boast sufficiency. This word comes up a lot in discussions of this kind, and of the Catholic-Protestant dialogues, so to be clear, it just means this: that the Bible has all that is needed to attain salvation.
Now, if you are convinced by my two reasons for this doctrine, reliability and sufficiency, why would we even want to have other founts of knowledge? The reason I have is very simple: we cannot help it.

The other pillars mentioned were the Church, ("sacred") tradition and reason. Here is why I think they cannot be avoided:
  • The Church: If you go somewhere long enough, if you are in that kind of atmosphere, you will begin to be convinced of some of the understandings that place has. This is no difference with the Church. Indeed, the Church first came up with the foundational creeds (Nicene, etc). Which brings me to the next pillar...
  • Tradition: We cannot get rid of it. We are, to no small extent, bound by the way our culture thinks, and this is manifest in traditions. The Church becomes like any other body, taken up into its traditions, and with them, able to stand firm in their teachings. A Protestant might quote Jesus in telling the Pharisees that they sacrificed God for human teachings and traditions, but remember that the way to avoid human traditions is to have Godly ones. Also, it is worthy of note that enormous chunks of the Bible would have been oral traditions (particularly Genesis) before they were ever written down. It is inescapable. We do not think purely rationally, but are bound by culture and tradition - we better make sure we have the right ones.
  • Reason: To use a bit of circular irony, I think using reason as a pillar for belief is the only reasonable thing to do. Jokes aside, however, I cannot actually give an argument for the use of reason - self-authentication has never been something I thought of as valid, but instead, purely circular - in short, I do not subscribe to coherentism.
What do I conclude? Sola Scriptura, other than un-Biblical, and although it may be useful,  is not actually really possible. Submit everything you learn to the authority of the Bible - but for goodness' sake, do not think that you are separate from these other influences. Be smart and get the right usage from them.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

On the Foundations of Judeo-Christian Thought

It would be very arrogant indeed if I, a student of a discipline far from studies of religion or ancient and classical era history, wrote a small entry on a blog that I thought should be regarded as the correct understandings of the foundations of this system of beliefs in all its diversity. I do want to write, however, a short piece detailing what the foundation isn't - the Bible. Most Christian are actually not Protestants, and some of the pillars of Christian thought in the 21st century are the Sacred Scriptures (meaning the Old and New Testaments collected in either the Protestant or Catholic Bibles), Sacred Tradition, Reason and the Church (or Magisterium).

My own church (a rather lovely one based in a suburb of Brisbane, in Australia) is part of the Protestant tradition which holds to the doctrine of "Sola Scriptura" (Latin for "Only Scripture"). My opinion on this doctrine is implied in how I described Protestantism; it is a tradition. The Bible itself, to the best of my knowledge, does not claim to be the sole authority. There are questions it poses but does not answer. There are references to outside sources of information. There are even references to tradition in a positive way! The epistles of the apostles are often in the form of logical arguments, or at least reasoned arguments. Jesus speaks in parables which are, in his own words, to obscure the meaning of his words (why he does this can be the subject of another entry), the apostles use apostolic authority...meaning that overall, tradition has a place in the Bible, reason has its place, Magisterial authority has its place and really, "only the Bible has the truth" is profoundly unbiblical.

So what does the Bible say about authority? Well, as seen in yesterday's entry, the founding figure of Christianity claimed to be, in and of himself, the truth. This same figure's parting words according to the gospel of St Matthew are "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." There are references to authority (of Jesus), a command to make disciples and to teach. This is not quite the same as "give them a book and let them read it". Indeed, that would not have made sense for many many years - canonization was not for a few centuries, and not until the 16th century did the reformation occur that came up with this doctrine that the Bible was the only authority.

Where is the pillar of Christianity, then? It is not in a series of documents dating back millennia. At least, Jesus does not seem to think so. The foundation of Christianity is Christ. And unlike what many evangelical fundamentalists seem to hold to, when Paul writes about what would falsify Christian belief, it is clear that the final authority is not in the Bible. It is in  Christ's resurrection.

One final remark - yesterday I wrote about the peculiar and striking claim made by Jesus, as recorded by St John's gospel. In that same chapter, he says "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves."

What then can Christianity hold on to? Where can we draw the line between fact and fiction? On the basis of the evidence for the works of Jesus, most notably the resurrection.