Saturday, November 04, 2006

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men

It is difficult to say on what exact date institutional Christianity died, but it is not difficult to see that by the later half of the 20th century institutional Christianity, Protestant and Catholic, was dead. A wandering pilgrim stumbling through the rubble of institutional Christianity is forced to play detective. Why did this beautiful building crumble? There are fringe groups in both the Protestant and Catholic camps that will give you ready answers. “The building crumbled when we gave up on the Bible,” or “The building crumbled when we abandoned the Tridentine Mass.”

My own investigations turned me in a different direction from the fringe groups. I think the fringe groups’ views were tainted by party-line, vested interests.

I found that putting the rubble together again in order to ascertain how the building crumbled was a futile endeavor. Instead, I looked at the ideologies of the people who had been in charge of the building. Was there one common denominator among them, a common denominator powerful enough to destroy a strong edifice, to which I could point? I found there was. The leadership of the Protestants and the Catholics believed in a force more powerful than God. This belief was in stark contrast to that of Christians living before the 20th century. That new force, more powerful than God, was called science. Now, every word has multiple meanings; science can mean the study of nature, but science as a force, as a substitute religion, means ‘reality’. According to the leadership of Protestants and Catholics of our age, if one is thinking scientifically, one is thinking properly or realistically. In contrast, if one is thinking poetically, one is thinking in fantastical and unrealistic terms.

Scientific thinking, as we can see in Genesis, started with Satan. He wanted Adam and Eve to think realistically about the apple. “It won’t kill you; it will empower you.” And of course St. Thomas, that most realistic and scientific man, wanted us to know God by looking realistically at the natural world. Which leads us to the great rebellion: was a reformation necessary? Yes. The church needed to be redirected. It was heading for the swamp of desolation on the scientific express. But the Protestants did not divert the scientific express, they merely formed another express line. Did St. Paul deny the real presence? No, he did not. So why was it necessary for the Protestants to do so? But did St. Paul make the taking of the sacraments, in the prescribed form, the hallmark of the faith? And did he believe, in contrast to the Thomists, in a personal God above nature whom we could know without reference to nature or canon law?

The key point that a wandering pilgrim detective must keep before him is that Calvinism and Thomism are only explanations of the Christian Faith; they are not the Faith itself. Great saints have come out of both the Protestant and Catholic churches, but they have done so because they have drawn from a well-spring much deeper and purer than the well-spring recommended by their church. Conservatives in the Catholic Church, when they talk of getting back to their roots, go back to the very modern medievals. And conservatives in the Protestant church go back to Mr. Depravity, John Calvin. Why not go back to the original architect who said, “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

The wisest words of the 20th century were written by Herbert Butterfield:

It may be that nature and history are not separable in the last resort, but at the level at which we do most of our ordinary thinking it is important to separate them, important not to synthesize them too easily and too soon, important above all not thoughtlessly to assume that nature, instead of being the substructure, is the whole edifice or the crown. The thing which we have come to regard as history would disappear if students of the past ceased to regard the world of men as a thing apart – ceased to envisage a world of human relations set up against nature and the animal kingdom. In such circumstances the high valuation that has long been set upon human personality would speedily decline.

At the midpoint of the 20th century Butterfield faces the modern dilemma. Man has ceased to look on himself as a creature of God. He now looks on himself as a creature of the natural world in which the Christian God has a part only to the extent that He conforms to nature. This type of thinking completely alters every aspect of traditional Christianity. For instance, I once reviewed a book, by a supposedly conservative Catholic theologian, in which the theologian agonized over the meaning of the resurrection of the body. He rejected out of hand the “Victorian notion” that we met our loved ones, family and pets, in the flesh in the next world. Instead he settled for a combination of Buddhistic life-force concepts and Shamanistic incantations. Why? Because in his polluted brain that sounded more natural. But if one has never ceased to look on God as separate and above the natural process, and one stills looks upon man as a creature of God, then the resurrection of the body seems to be a very simple concept. It means what the simple-minded Victorians and all the simple-minded Christians, such as St. Paul, always thought it meant.

A reformation is needed in both the Protestant and Catholic churches. But it must come from out of the depths. It must come from poor, bare, unaccommodated man seeking his maker, and not from the contemplation of the natural world.

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