Showing posts with label tradition. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tradition. Show all posts

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Not a Traditionalist, Just Catholic

I have been to an Extraordinary Form (Latin) Mass this week. I can sing the Kyrie in Greek and the other main Mass parts in Latin, like the Gloria, the Sanctus, Angus Dei. I prefer the Mass celebrated Ad Orientum. I receive the Eucharist kneeling. In short, I have what some would consider "traditionalist cred", but I am not a traditionalist. I am just Catholic.

Some might say that a traditionalist is defined by practicing some traditional devotions. Some might say a traditionalist is someone who thinks Humanae vitae is correct in its essential teaching. Or in other words, one could label traditionalists by what they do or what they think. This is, in my opinion, the wrong way to go about defining what a traditionalist is. I put to you that a traditionalist is someone who considers that the argument "it has always been done this way in the Church, therefore we should continue to do it this way, unless it is actually necessary to change" is, prima facie, valid.[1]

That might sound rather technical, but I think it encompasses the sort of person that is clearly and self-professedly a traditionalist, without reaching too far. The problem with the practice definition is that many practices labelled "traditional" are still relevant and edifying today, and so for instance, even non-traditionalists can benefit enormously from praying the Rosary. The problem with the what-they-think definition is that it is ignoring the fact that in many cases these are infallible teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Or in other words, if the subtle and implicit definition of traditionalism is orthodoxy, then not being a traditionalist is synonymous with putting oneself outside of communion with the Church. In other words, this latter definition would make non-traditionalists not really Catholic.[2] I think this is clearly an excessive and simply untenable position, because it seems obvious that not all Catholics have to be traditionalists.

The definition I gave is true to experience, I think, or at the very least my own experience and that of my friends. Traditionalists will often argue by pointing to what is sometimes known as small 't' tradition as an authority in itself, whereas non-traditionalists are open to the small 't' tradition but do not feel particularly bound to it. Though he meant it slightly differently, when Chesterton said that tradition was democracy of the dead, one could more poetically say that the traditionalists would rather consider it to be the aristocracy of the dead.

I am not a traditionalist, therefore, because I do not consider the argument structure to be prima facie valid. I am perfectly content to change things other than out of real necessity, and I will give two examples pertaining to the liturgy: first, one difference quickly noted by anyone who has experienced both between the Vetus Ordo (Latin Mass) and the Novus Ordo is that the Vetus Ordo is very quiet, because the priest says most of the prayers quietly at the altar. I think the Novus Ordo, though perhaps tending in modern practice to lend itself to being "noisy", is an improvement in this regard. Similarly the use of the vernacular language is, in my opinion, an improvement over the sole use of Latin.

In other words, it can be said that I am a child of the Second Vatican Council. If one reads the documents concerning, for instance, the liturgy, one sees a spirit not of needless throwing out of ancient traditions, but of permission for the competent ecclesiastical authority to alter the liturgy in light of the development of society and culture. Its Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, says:

"In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it." (Paragraph 21, emphasis mine)

Too often, however, I am mistaken for a traditionalist because I am fully a child of the Second Vatican Council, which says in the very next paragraph:

"1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.
2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established.
3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority." (Subsections of Paragraph 22, emphasis mine)

In other words, because I think that things ought to be done properly, the mistake is made that I am a traditionalist or have traditionalist leanings. Indeed, all the things I opened with which give me "traditionalist cred" are really ones that give me "Catholic cred": that I can sing the parts of the Mass in Latin is what the council called for, that I have prayed the Vetus Ordo as well as the Novus Ordo, that receive Holy Communion kneeling, that I strongly prefer Ad Orientum celebration of the liturgy.

If Pope Francis can do it, I think it is safe.
The first two are simply what the council called for. Receiving kneeling and on the tongue is not just traditional, though it has been done like so in the West for quite some time now; receiving Communion in the hand had its resurgence in the West under the shadiest of circumstances: an indult given because the practice was already illicitly widespread, and the fruit of the practice since its introduction last century has not been good. And Ad Orientum liturgies are simply what are assumed in the rubrics, and make the most sense of the prayers and movements of the priest at the altar. For example: to whom does one elevate the Host at the consecration? The movement, when the liturgy is celebrated Versus Populum, looks like the Host is being offered to the congregation, maybe for inspection. The sacrificial nature of the Mass, and the oblation of the Sacred Species to God is made most clear when the Mass is celebrated Ad Orientum.

Therefore, I think it is quite fair to say that I am not a traditionalist in the proper sense of the term.

[1] I am using the term validity here in a quasi-technical sense. If you have some training in logic, think of this as a inductive version of validity. That is not entirely accurate either, because inductive validity occurs, broadly speaking, when the premise being true adds likelihood to the conclusion being true, and I do consider that one can contently stick to the custom as a rule of thumb - however, this way of thinking about it will do. Another way might be to say that a traditionalist is someone who holds that what has customarily been done should, ceteris paribus, be continued. In my opinion, this definition is still too rough.

[2] This is slightly complicated by the fact that one can be Catholic by baptism but not by faith. Whether that makes the person part of the Body of Christ or not, I am not sure, though I would think not. I will not be using the definition of Catholic that bases itself on baptism, but rather, the one that basis itself on faith.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Commentary and Exegesis of the Bible: Comments on Methodology

Applying one's own method of interpretation ("hermeneutic") to the biblical texts will allow the interpreter to make the Bible say anything. Did the Bible predict the Chernobyl disaster and subsequent poisoning of rivers, seas and oceans? Some make Revelation 8:11 to be such a prediction when it reads:

A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter. (Revelation 8:11)
[Note: Wormwood in Russian and Ukrainian is Chernobyl.]

 Others use numerology to make the number 666 to be about the Pope, ironically using a title that has not been used by him. Still others read into the text any number of anachronisms - my point is, very often people read the Bible with a hermeneutic that suits them.

I have already begun the rather long task of writing my thoughts on the Bible, but it seems an important practical preliminary has been missed: what exactly am I going to write about? And the even more fundamental problem: how am I meant to read it?

The reading plan I have endeavoured to follow has a roughly linear approach, and so I shall try and write down the storyline, so to speak, of revelation in my Old Testament readings, at the same time reading the New Testament starting from the most Jewish text (gospel according to St Matthew) through the epistles of St Paul and going on to a later text with more marked gentile readers (gospel according to St John, although to some extent also St Luke's account), culminating, after reading the other epistles and gospels, with Revelation, for which I will need a solid grounding in Old Testament themes, imagery and metaphor. But I also want to rediscover Scripture, so it will not do to read the text as a Christian from the start: I want to understand the text as it sought to be understood. So historical and cultural considerations become very important.

"Understand the text as it sought to be understood", I wrote. Other ways of expressing this ideology of interpretation include "reading according to genre" and "historical-grammatical method." Trying to understand the text by asking what the author intended to convey is a very important starting point, but I think it falls short of the completeness of what the Bible says, and may even lead into serious errors. When Moses powerfully asserted the shema, "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4), did he deny the trinity? Absolutely not. Did he mean to convey that God is unity and not trinity, or any other number? That is a reasonable reading of the text by the historical-grammatical method. The problem, then, is that this method seems to assume that the author has absolutely no misconceptions about what they are writing down - we say that all our theologies are probably wrong to some degree, but for the biblical authors we assert hidden inerrancy of belief, even.

It is possible that the New Testament authors have such inerrancy of belief, at least in the area they write on. After all, they have received the fullness of revelation, the Word made flesh. The Old Testament authors seem to harbour subtly erroneous theology, even if it only comes through in "how the text feels."

Note: additional to the previous comment, I would point out the odd way in which the Old Testament is used in the New - seemingly not by historical-grammatical methods. See "Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away."

Reading of documents such as Dei Verbum and Divino Afflante Spiritu would be very helpful, but I have to carry on for a little longer without reading them. In the mean time, here are some useful guidelines I have given myself:

 - Reading with eyes of faith: without faith, any reading of the Scripture has the danger of becoming too cerebral, too academic or too intellectual.
 - Reading within the community of believers: without that community, one falls into the problem of "spiritual but not religious" as outlined by James Martin SJ here, my point concerning particularly: "Religion, said (Isaac) Hecker, helps you to ‘connect and correct.’ You are invited into a community to connect with one another and with a tradition. At the same time, you are corrected when you need to be."
 - Reading within the tradition: closely linked to both the previous two, but this goes beyond them. Tradition has two meanings, which I think are useful to distinguish, within the church: one is "sacred tradition" and it refers to the revelation made manifest in Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, but not expressed in Sacred Scripture. Essentially, this is the collection of oral traditions and words preached to them by Jesus' disciples - of which we have ample references in the Bible. The other tradition that I have distinguished, although it is not really separate, is what I call "living tradition" - it is the build-up of insights and knowledge gained over centuries of Spirit-filled Christians, many of whom are now saints in the Church Triumphant.
 - Reading within the cultural and historical context of the time: that is, reading the text trying to avoid reading into the text anachronisms.
 - Reading within the age after the fullness of revelation in the Word made flesh: this point is why the previous one is not the only principle in interpreting the Bible. What I mean is, reading the text with a christological key, understanding the Scriptures as revealing Christ.

With this foundation I have sketched, I am now comfortable going on to further write up reflections.

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.