Saturday, November 04, 2006

Putting the Pieces Together

Jeanie Deans is the superlative heroine of Walter Scott’s masterpiece, The Heart of Midlothian. But there is also a hero of the book, Reuben Butler. He is not your typical hero, being spindly, homely, and possessing none of the martial attributes that heroes often possess. He provides the moral counterpart to Jeanie Deans. Toward the end of the story, the Rev. Butler, who by this time has become a Presbyterian minister, is offered a very lucrative position as an Anglican clergyman. All he needs to do is to abandon his present ministry. This he refuses to do:

He sounded Butler on this subject, asking what he would think of an English living of twelve hundred pounds yearly, with the burthen of affording his company now and then to a neighbour whose health was not strong, or his spirits equal. “He might meet,” he said, “occasionally, a very learned and accomplished gentleman, who was in orders as a Catholic priest, but he hoped that would be no insurmountable objection to a man of his liberality of sentiment. What,” he said, “would Mr Butler think of as an answer, if the offer should be made to him?”

“Simply that I could not accept of it,” said Mr Butler. “I have no mind to enter into the various debates between the churches; but I was brought up in mine own, have received her ordination, am satisfied of the truth of her doctrines, and will die under the banner I have enlisted to.” “What may be the value of your preferment?” said Sir George Staunton, “unless I am asking an indiscreet question.”

“Probably one hundred a-year, one year with another, besides my glebe and pasture-ground.”

“And you scruple to exchange that for twelve hundred a-year, without alleging any damning difference of doctrine betwixt the two churches of England and Scotland?”

“On that, sir, I have reserved my judgment; there may be much good, and there are certainly saving means in both, but every man must act according to his own lights. I hope I have done, and am in the course of doing, my Master’s work in this Highland parish; and it would ill become me, for the sake of lucre, to leave my sheep in the wilderness. But, even in the temporal view which you have taken of the matter, Sir George, this hundred pounds a-year of stipend hath fed and clothed us, and left us nothing to wish for; my father-in-law’s succession, and other circumstances, have added a small estate of about twice as much more, and how we are to dispose of it I do not know—So I leave it to you, sir, to think if I were wise, not having the wish or opportunity of spending three hundred a-year, to cover the possession of four times that sum.”

“This is philosophy,” said Sir George; “I have heard of it, but I never saw it before.”

“It is common sense,” replied Butler, “which accords with philosophy and religion more frequently than pedants or zealots are apt to admit.”

In the context of the book, I heartily support the Rev. Butler’s decision to stay with the faith he was born with. But then the question I ask myself is “why did I not just stay with the faith I was born with?” And my answer is that Reuben Butler lived in an age when every denomination of the Christian Faith still believed in the Christian Faith. Despite huge liturgical differences, there was still a common belief that Christ was true God and true man and that there was a genuine physical and personal resurrection for those who called on His name. The hodgepodge faith which I received as a child, watered-down Christianity in an American stew, was not enough to sustain me through my college years when the scientific attack on the faith was the reigning orthodoxy. So for me, it was not a case of switching faiths, it was a case of finding the Faith. I didn’t have the options available to me that Rev. Butler did. I couldn’t return to the church of my childhood because there was no church in my childhood. I needed to find a church that was still standing tall. Of course I thought, for a time, that the Catholic Church was the exception to the widespread apostasy of the Christian churches. But I was mistaken; the Catholic Church is the church, in the sense that she is the mother of all the other churches, but in terms of Christian faithfulness, she is the delinquent parent who has led her children astray.

I think the key to the Catholic Church’s estrangement from Christianity lies in her Romanness. I have grown up reading historians who always judge the progress of a civilization by how well that country has Romanized. In Trevelyan’s three volume History of England, for instance, he claims that the new roads and the great organization that the Romans left in Britain were a great blessing. Well, maybe. He also states that they left Christianity. But -- and this is the key point – the Britons, Celt and Saxon, whose gods were personal hero gods, added a personal and emotional content to the Christian faith of the more intellectual and superbly organized Roman Faith.

The Nordic religion was not a religion of dread, or of magic formularies to propitiate hostile powers. Instead of covering its temples with frescoes of the tortures of the damned, it taught people not to be afraid of death. Its ideal was the fellowship of the hero with the gods, not merely in feasting and victory, but in danger and defeat. For the gods, too, are in the hands of fate, and the Scandinavian vision of the twilight of the gods that was to end the world showed the heroes dying valiantly in the last hopeless fight against the forces of chaos—loyal and fearless to the last. It is an incomplete but not an ignoble religion. It contains those elements of character which it was the special mission of the Nordic peoples to add to modern civilization and to Christianity itself.

It is interesting how that idea of Christ as the hero God lived on in the poetic soul of the Europeans. One thinks of that superb vision of Thomas Hughes:

And let us not be hard on him, if at that moment his soul is fuller of the tomb and him who lies there, than of the altar and Him of whom it speaks. Such stages have to be gone through, I believe, by all young and brave souls, who must win their way through hero-worship, to the worship of Him who is the King and Lord of heroes. For it is only through our mysterious human relation-ships, through the love and tenderness and purity of mothers, and sisters, and wives,--through the strength and courage and wisdom of fathers, and brothers, and teachers, that we can come to the knowledge of Him, in whom alone the love, and the tenderness, and the purity, and the strength and the courage, and the wisdom of all these dwell forever and ever in perfect fullness.

The organizational aspect of the faith is not the essential element. It is the old conflict between Martha and Mary. The hero-worshipping Europeans had chosen the better part. I see the Protestant reformation as a great effort to restore Christ the Hero, Christ the personal God, to the heart of the Faith. But that effort failed because a Romanized Frenchman simply made Protestantism into another organized parallel to Rome. What was needed was a deepening of the Roman faith, not a competing system. Above every Christian church there should be this warning: To Romanize is to dehumanize.

So the battle continues. The soul of Europe lies with the personal, heroic Christ, not with the organizational, bureaucratic God presented to us by both the Roman and Protestant churches. Deep in our blood we long for the God with humanity who was hated by pagan Rome and dehumanized by Catholic Rome.

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