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Reflections on Scripture


Chapter One

PLEASE USE THE FRONT DOOR


For reasons
which are understandable if not altogether justifiable, large numbers of us have an aversion to prefaces and introductions. We "want to get down to business," to "get our teeth into the meat of the story or subject." We tend to regard prefaces as superfluous "waffle" in which the author wastes our time either excusing his limitations, arguing with opponents, or explaining things which he should have made clear in the main body of the text. If we read a preface at all, it is usually when we have finished the book, by which time we have often forgotten not a little of what we have been reading, and so much of what the preface was referring to.

This is why I have disguised my preface as an opening chapter. You are much more likely to find you have wasted your time if you don't read it first, since unless you do you will not understand why the book has the shape it does or its principal purpose or purposes. So I hope you will forgive this small initial deception. It will be the only deliberate one.

My first and immediate aim, then, is to complete the investigation into the historical roots of the current crisis in the Catholic Church which I began in Turmoil and Truth (Ignatius Press and Family Publications, 2003). However, this sequel has a larger and more long-range objective. There would, I believe, have been room for a book of this kind even without the changes and disturbances that marked the last four decades of the 20th century.

Let me explain. Until a short time ago, Western Christians took it for granted that they were living in what was still basically a Christian culture. Christian beliefs and principles were the norm from which all other beliefs or forms of unbelief, however widespread, were deviations. Then suddenly they have found themselves part of a culture in which they are not only a minority, but which is increasingly at variance with most of its own previous beliefs and practices. As a result they are often at a loss to know how far they can go along with the new ways of thinking and acting. Where do they have to draw the line? Can any of the pre-existing lines be redrawn? And if so, where should they run?

Their situation is not, in fact, unlike that of the Christian converts from 13 paganism of the 1st century AD, except that for the early pagan converts it was.the same situation but the. other  way around. The first converts from paganism had grown up taking as their norm the ideas and practices of the Graeco-Roman world into which they had been born.

After their conversion, however, they found themselves members of a minority which looked at the way in which the majority lived through very different eyes. Majority opinion could no longer be regarded as part of the natural order of things, and to begin with many must have found it as difficult to determine what was acceptable and unacceptable in the age-old pagan way of life as Christians today find it to thread their way through the dramatic changes of the last fifty years. How far could they go along with established custom? Did it all have to be rejected? And if not, which areas of what had previously been their daily living and thinking could continue as before? 1

As we see from the Acts of the Apostles, this last question, once asked, rapidly introduced a process of discernment which not only embraced practical matters (like whether one could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols), but also subjected the speculations of philosophers to scrutiny.

The early Church Fathers took the lead. But contributing in their smaller way would have been countless other Christians, lay and clerical, whose words were never written down or whose writings have perished.

The first and longer part of this book is intended to make a contribution to a similar process of discernment with regard to what we call "modern thought" the mental substratum of modern Western societies, and the source of many of our semi-conscious assumptions. As I attempted to show in Turmoil and -Ruth, such a process has been going on in the Church for around 200 years; and there can be few of the new theories and ideas that have surfaced during that time on which she has not given guidance or instruction. The number of documents is enormous. Greater still is the secular literature on the subject. We even have Dictionaries of Modern Thought. But as far as I know, there has been no examination of its principal components and their implications for Catholic belief from a Catholic point of view at least not for non-academic English readers.

The main components I have chosen are: the doctrines of the 18" 14 century Enlightenment; the theory of evolution and its derivatives; the schools of post-Cartesian 2 philosophy which have had most influence on Catholic thinking; the human sciences; and the more radical theories of 20th century liberal Protestant theology. The findings of the exact sciences are the only major component I have omitted because in so far as they are exact, they no longer provide any serious obstacle to the Catholic and Christian world-view. Of these components, the doctrines of the Enlightenment are, for the purposes of this undertaking, by far the most important.

"Modem thought" could be defined as the sum total of what modern men know, or think they know, with the doctrines of the Enlightenment as their soul or informing principle. It is these doctrines which now give modern thought and Western culture their coherence, shape and sense of purpose.

Nothing like them, no such universally accepted thought-system seems to have existed in the ancient world. Even after Rome had unified the Mediterranean basin politically, its intellectual and cultural life remained far more of a spiritual free-for-all where no one world-view had it all its own way. It does not much matter in what order you read the other chapters or groups of chapters in this book, provided you begin with the first five on the Enlightenment. 3 15

This then is the main purpose of the first two and longer parts of the book: to throw the light of revelation on the mind of the Western world as it moved from the second into the third millennium, and from Christianity into an apparently all-embracing secularism.

The last and shortest part of the book is more directly related to recent events in the Catholic Church. It is designed to show how difficult the process of discernment I have been talking about can be in practice. To illustrate the point, three chapters are devoted to the later thought of Fr Karl Rahner, the Church's chief theological heavy-weight during the 30 years from around 1960 to 1990 (six years after his death). Theologians are the principal channel through which doctrinal developments or deviations enter the mainstream of Catholic thinking. They also create the intellectual style in which, at a particular epoch, divine revelation is transmitted via the clergy to the Catholic people. In both these respects, Fr Rahner, above all other theologians of the period, deserves studying.

The two remaining chapters describe the history of the movement for liturgical reform, the direction given to it by the Second Vatican Council, and the ways in which the Council's decree on the subject have been interpreted and implemented, since the liturgy is the expression of the Church's life most directly affecting the beliefs and spiritual life of the clergy and faithful as a body. The liturgy is the means through which the Church collectively responds to the offer of divine revelation and divine self-giving. It is like the young woman's "I do" to the young man's "Do you love me?"

But for the present, Rahnerian theology and the liturgy lie many chapters ahead. We are still in the front hall of the building, as it were, and from there we pass into the main saloon where the doctrines of the Enlightenment, prefaced by a brief survey of the way they have developed since they were first preached nearly three hundred years ago, are spread out on tables for our examination.

We are all familiar with them even if we don't always assemble them together in our minds as a creed. They can be classified as: belief in perpetual progress; in the power of unaided human reason to resolve all human problems, to ensure that the rights and dignity of all are respected, and to lead humanity to a final state of spiritual and material happiness and perfection; in liberty, equality and fraternity as the indispensable ingredients of that happiness; in democracy and the pursuit of human rights as the infallible means of securing them. Evil, when it is given consideration, is chiefly thought to be due to ignorance and can therefore effectively be overcome by the right kind of education. 16

We are now so familiar with this catalogue of principles for right living and thinking that we are unaware of their having anything novel or surprising about them. We tend to regard them as self-evident truths without history or mystery behind them, like two and two equalling four, or, if we are believers, in their being as unarguably true and obligatory as the Ten Commandments.

But are they true, either in whole or in part? And if they are, in what sense? And where did they come from?

Please pass into the next room and discover the answer to these questions for ourselves 17


Endnotes

1. Down to the end of the persecutions, Christians were often divided as to whether, in spite of the persecutions, the Roman state was an instrument of divine providence or, because of the persecutions, a work of the devil (Fliche et Martin, Histoire de l'Eglise, vols 1 & 2


2. "Cartesian" refers to Rene Descartes (1596-1650). In the history of philosophy he is considered the father of modern Western philosophy.

3. "Post-modernism- and "New Age" religions are often written about as if they had supplanted the self-confident progressivist outlook hitherto characteristic of Westem civilisation. My reading of the evidence is different.To me, post-modernism looks like a temporary failure of nerve on the part of the more sensitive members of our cultural elites. There is no sign of any widespread failure of nerve in the literature coming from Western government departments, the majority of our universities, or the United Nations. "New Age" religions are another matter.They can best be seen as palliatives to case the pain left by the decline of Christianity, a malaise which the bouncy optimism of the Enlightenment project is incapable of soothing or curing.The Enlightenment has great things to say about humanity as a whole and the more or less remote future, but little to console the individual who happens to be unsatisfied or unhappy in the present. So New Age religions are likely to be with us for a considerable time. Nevertheless I would see them as essentially a surface phenomenon, like the mystery cults which flourished with the growth of the Roman Empire and the decline of local religious loyalties. They can be compared to lichen on trees, duckweed on ponds, or icing on cakes, which do not affect the tree, the pond, or the cake themselves, just as the mystery cults did not affect the structure or policies of the Roman state or the main outlines of Graeco-Roman culture.

Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011

Family Publications has now ceased trading. The copyright has reverted to the author Philip Trower who has given permission for the book to be placed on this website. Further chapters will be added as time permits.


Version: 22nd May 2011


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