Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Grandfather

The best works of Western civilization are the ones in which the author tells a simple story well. Shakespeare’s tales are simple tales, embellished by his considerable poetic gifts, but nevertheless, they are simple tales, as are those of Dickens, Scott, and the Brothers Grimm. One such simple tale belongs with the classics of Western literature--Heidi, by Johanna Spyri.
There is a scene in Heidi in which the reclusive and embittered Grandfather decides, because his love for Heidi has made him see the error of his ways, to return to God and, like the prodigal son, seek forgiveness. He descends the mountain and attends church for the first time in years:

The people of Dörfli were already in church and the singing had started as Heidi and Uncle Alp went in and sat down at the back. The hymn was hardly over before people were nudging one another and whispering that Uncle Alp was in church. Women kept turning round to look and so lost the place in their hymn-books, and the leader of the choir simply could not keep the voices together. But when the pastor began to preach, everyone gave him their attention, for he spoke of praise and thanksgiving, and with such warmth that his listeners were truly moved.

At the end of the service the old man took Heidi by the hand again, and they went towards the pastor’s house. The congregation watched them with interest. Several people followed to see whether they would actually go inside and, when they did so, hung around in little groups, asking what it could possibly mean and speculating whether Uncle Alp would come out again angry or friendly. There were those who said, ‘He can’t be as bad as people make out. Did you see how gently he held the child by the hand?’ or ‘I’ve always said they were wrong! He wouldn’t be going to see the pastor at all if he was such a bad lot.’

The great sadness one feels when reading that scene today comes because one realizes that there is now no church and no community to which the repentant sinner can go to repent. A new Christianity has emerged which is in direct opposition to the old Christianity of Heidi’s grandfather. The Grandfather (I have tried, unsuccessfully, to get my children to address me in the Swiss-German way as ‘The Father’) feels that his sin is against a personal God and against the specific people of a small Swiss town bordering the mountain. It is to that personal God and to those specific people that the Grandfather goes to ask forgiveness for his very specific sins. He does not come down from the mountain to ask forgiveness for racist thoughts or for any of the modern social sins.

Today the Grandfather would be unforgiven. He would be left alone on his mountain without being able to feel that a loving God had forgiven him for his sins against God and against humanity.

I really think it is impossible to overstate just how radically different the spiritual climate is today from that of 1880 when Johanna Spyri wrote Heidi. It is as if a completely new species of man has been created. The one line died out and new creatures (‘O Brave New World!’) have been created.

Is it possible for a man of the brave new world, such as me, to link himself to the old line of Heidi’s Grandfather? Or is the new line so completely different that any linking process is doomed to failure before it is even attempted? I know the new liners would like one to believe that there is no hope of connecting with the old line. Most of them do not even acknowledge that there was an old line. But I think it is as George Macdonald says: “Of hopes not credible until they are.” If one loves the old line, one attempts to join that line, and once the attempt is made the seemingly impassable mountain pass is no longer impassable.

Although not impassable, there are unsuspected difficulties in negotiating the pass that leads to the old line and the antique Christianity. The main obstacle is the Roman Catholic Church. It is not difficult to see the errors inherent in Protestant doctrine or to see the consequences of Protestantism’s lack of unity, but the Catholic Church is a more deceptive entity. Its doctrine, at first and even second glance, seems more integral than the Protestant doctrine. Its church structure also seems more unified for a longer period of history than the Protestant one. But one believes a lie if one accepts the view that inside the Catholic Church is the antique and true Christianity while outside the Church is error.

The traditional Catholic explanation for the demise of Christianity runs like this: The late scholastics, the nominalists, broke with Thomism and created the “it’s only real if I think it’s real” system of theology. This led to the Renaissance deification of man, the Protestant reductio ad absurdum denunciation of reason as a whore, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the revolution of Vatican II. And there is a certain amount of truth to the traditional Catholic explanation for the demise of Christianity, but it is not the whole truth. The traditional explanation blames the demise of Christianity on fringe elements and outside elements; its weakness is it fails to give mainstream medieval Catholicism its share of the blame and it fails to see the good elements in the outside forces.

What was wrong with medieval Catholicism prior to the Thomistic revolution was its love of platonic universals. Man was not a personality in such a system; he was a pure idea called Man. But it would not be accurate to say Thomistic theology changed the Catholic landscape from the universal to the particular. Thomistic philosophy, as Unamuno has so passionately and correctly pointed out, starts with a universal principle and then atomizes and particularizes the whole natural world, which includes “poor bare and unaccommodated man.” In Platonic Catholicism, individual man is often obscured by universal Man, but in Thomistic philosophy man is torn asunder. He ceases to exist as a whole integral human being. He is solely dependent on unfettered and unhallowed reason to tell him if God exists or if he himself exists at all. This philosophy cannot be Catholic because it is not true. Good theology should not only be correct as regards God, but it should also be correct about man. Look honestly at Catholic academia and our academic Pope and tell me you think reason is free from original sin. Pelagius and St. Thomas were wrong and St. Augustine was right. We cannot simply dismiss, as Chesterton does, Augustine’s assertions of the depraved state of the whole man simply because we find it pessimistic. There is no such thing as pessimism or optimism where truth is concerned; there is only reality. And the reality of life attests to the truth that our reason, our emotions, our intuitions are tainted with original sin. But that taint does not imply total depravity, which brings us to the Protestant revolt.

It is easy to see the error in the doctrine of total depravity. But when one sees the assertion of total depravity in the light of the Thomistic freeing of reason from the effects of original sin, one can see that Protestantism was a reaction to save the doctrine of original sin. The truth of the matter rested not with the Catholics or the Protestants, but with the wise-blooded third dumb brothers who never stopped believing that man was tainted heart, mind, and soul, but not totally tainted. Such third dumb brothers were to be found in both the Catholic and Protestant ranks, but when Christendom completely collapsed in the twentieth century, the Catholic Church successfully purged itself of all third dumb brothers. Only a remnant remained in the ranks of the fundamentalists.

I can see the why and how of the Catholic purging. It is because of the triumph of the Greek way, the way of the academy, over the way of the cross. But I am not that clear as to the why and how of the fundamentalists’ survival. By the logic of their creed, they should be estranged from the heart of God. But there is some essential element of Christianity that these fundamentalists have that the Catholics do not. They take seriously the Christ of the Gospels. Yes, I know there would be no Gospels without the Catholic Church and that the fundamentalists’ claim of Scripture alone is flawed. But who has retained more of the antique faith? Those who believe that Jesus of Nazareth was truly God and truly man, and held out the promise of eternal life for those who took up their cross and followed Him, or those who believe that a quasi-divine man named Jesus founded a philosophers’ club that imparts divine wisdom to those who learn the secret and complicated mental gymnastics taught by the quasi-divine agent of God?

All things considered, I won’t come to the Catholic church until that that church shows the same faith in the Man of Sorrows as the fundamentalists do.

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