Thursday, May 25, 2006

Two Cities: Supernatural Man vs. Born-Again Man

I was listening to a Protestant radio evangelist the other day discussing the perennial problem of unregenerate man. “Why,” he asked, “were men unable to comprehend the word of God?” He supplied the answer. “Men cannot understand the word of God because they have not been born again.” In other words, “natural man” was not able to become supernatural (he used the word, natural, but I am supplying ‘supernatural’; he used the word, spiritual) without having a mystical born again experience.

The preacher’s words immediately struck me as so very similar to the words of a traditionalist priest I had spoken with many years ago. The priest told me that no ordinary laymen could ever get beyond the natural level without having studied scholastic theology as taught by the traditionalists.

Both the preacher and the priest felt there was a barrier between the natural man and the supernatural or born again man. The difference between their views is the crucial difference between Catholic and Protestant spirituality. The Catholic system places more emphasis on the intellectual comprehension of God and on the role of the priest as mediator. The Protestant system places greater emphasis on the emotional and personal contact with God and less emphasis on the preacher’s intermediary role. So when the Catholic errs it is generally because he over-intellectualizes the Faith, and when the Protestant errs, it is generally because he looses his focus because of an excess of emotion. Neither error is desirable, but I find the Protestant error less repellent than the Catholic one, for the same reason that Chateaubriand said the Adam and Eve’s sin would have been less repellent if they had erred by wanting to feel too much rather than by wanting to know too much.

The common error in both the Catholic and Protestant schools is a false view of natural man – or should I say a false idea of natural man. There is no natural man as distinct from the supernatural or spiritual man. There is only man. And his humanity does not need to be transformed or intellectually enlightened before he can comprehend or love the living God. His humanity needs only to be expanded and deepened. And that happens through the very act of living and loving in this world.

These two men, both excellent from natural disposition and acquired knowledge, had more points of similarity than they themselves would have admitted. In truth, the chief distinction betwixt them was that the Catholic, defending a religion which afforded little interest to the feelings, had, in his devotion to the cause he espoused, more of the head than of the heart, and was politic, cautious, and artful; while the Protestant, acting under the strong impulse of more lately adopted conviction, and feeling, as he justly might, a more animated confidence in his cause, was enthusiastic, eager, and precipitate in his desire to advance it. The priest would have been contented to defend, the preacher aspired to conquer; and, of course, the impulse by which the latter was governed was more active and more decisive.

-The Monastery by Sir Walter Scott

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