Thursday, February 23, 2012

Silent Homilies

I have read recently that the split between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church has less to do with the particular doctrinal points at issue (for instance, the famous dispute over the filioque, the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son”), but to a different approach between the two traditions. The Orthodox churches believe that the Catholic Church is too rationalistic, too ensnared in abstract philosophy, too intent upon the building of philosophical systems such as Thomism.

(I recently read an intriguing book—Thought Prison by Bruce Charlton—which actually laid the blame of all the West’s decadence upon this supposed Catholic rationalism. This is especially notable since Bruce Charlton is English, and presumably not brought up in the Orthodox tradition.)

The Orthodox tend instead to believe that the Holy Spirit communicates itself to us in a mystical state called theoria, and that we are to be guided by this rather than the abstractions of theology. (I may have got that slightly wrong, but I think it’s not too far wrong.)

Of course, being a Catholic, I don’t believe this, for all my enormous respect for Eastern Orthodoxy. I agree with John Paul II who described faith and reason as the two wings on which the human spirit ascends, in Fides et Ratio. I don’t think human beings can ever escape conceptual thought, and I believe abstractions are useful. They must guide us for as far as our human minds can possibly reach. Without concepts and ideas, we can have no knowledge, intuitive or mystical or otherwise.

Likewise, we need dogmas to articulate the Creed, teachers to expound it, and apologists to defend it from intellectual attack.

All those things, we need; and yet increasingly, I think they are the less potent part of faith. I increasingly believe that the strongest argument for Christianity—with most people—is the sight of a Corpus Christ procession, the words of a Christmas carol drifting on crisp winter air, the vision of candles glowing before a holy statue, and a murmured prayer overheard by accident.

Am I sentimentalizing faith? I suppose there is that risk. That is why I insist on the need for an intellectual foundation.

And yet, how many people are actually persuaded by arguments? How often have you heard anybody winning anybody over in a debate? It is often said, as a sneer, that somebody can’t be reasoned out of a position into which they were never reasoned in the first place. But is anybody really reasoned into any position?

I believe most philosophies of life are born in the imagination—the rationalistic and utilitarian just as much as the romantic and mystical.

Nationalism is, perhaps, kindled by the words of a patriotic ballad or childhood experience of a country’s landscape. Socialism may have its genesis in the sight of a mother crying over bills she can’t pay. Liberalism might start with tight apron-strings.

Is it not a familiar experience that, when we debate politics or philosophy or religion with an opponent, we find ourself coming up against rocky soil that no argument can penetrate? Or how often do we find ourselves resisting an opponent’s argument, not out of sheer perversity, but from an overwhelming intuition that they are wrong, that their point—no matter how persuasively put—just doesn’t seem to fit?

I remember watching a debate between Richard Dawkins and the Oxford mathematician (and Christian) John Lennox, on Youtube. At one point Dawkins, exasperated by the Christian’s inability to see his own patent wrongness, sighed: “But it’s all so provincial, isn’t it?” It’s a tack I have heard from atheists more than once; how petty-minded to believe God could actually have been born on this obscure planet in one of billions of galaxies!

In other words, it’s an aesthetic consideration, and quite resistant to rational argument. All Christians can do is point out that the God of Christianity (and Judaism) generally does show a preference for the obscure and lowly, and that there is an aesthetic appeal to this, too.

Or again, the objection of rationalists to miracles so often seems aesthetic rather than rational. They find something messy and fumbling in the idea of a God who countermands his own orders (as they see it), who tinkers with his own creation.

So, given that the philosophies of human beings are so often shaped by non-rational forces, what should our reponse be? Should we give up on reason and rational argument and rely on the power of suggestion?

Well, of course not. But we should never underestimate the power of symbolism, poetry, atmosphere, ceremony, beauty.

I might even say; we should never underestimate the truth of these things, their power to communicate God’s message.

Christianity, especially Catholicism, is at least something. It is there. It is solid and positive and tangible, not simply a theory or an idea. This is the flip side of the Inquisition, the wars of religion, the sale of indulgences, and all the mud that has been flung at the Cross.

Christianity, as practiced, is not pristine; but nothing real and lived is pristine (saving Our Saviour and his Blessed Mother). Christianity has all the faults and virtues of the actual, and the virtues far outshine the faults.

It is there—and ready to draw those who are hostile, sceptical, or indifferent, and often to draw them in some unguessed or unforeseeable way. Ready to call them through some doggerel in a poorly-printed parish newsletter, or the peacefulness in a nun’s face, or an old carving in a deconsecrated church converted to a hardware shop.

For myself, too, I have sometimes felt the Holy Spirit works on me more in my inattention and my absence of mind than when I am concentrating. Kneeling, making the sign of the cross, mumbling oft-repeated prayers, catching the sight of the morning sun shining through a church window; this is when I seem penetrated by an assurance and peace I couldn’t put into mere words.

We preach Christianity by practicing it, and the sight of a young family saying grace in a restaurant has more power than all the opinion pieces in all the newspapers in the world.

Or so it seems to me, more and more; perhaps I am wrong; and yet I think the sight of lived Christianity must count for a great deal in the battle for souls.


  1. "the blame of all the West’s decadence upon this supposed Catholic rationalism"

    Yes I did, true! - but I also gave Western Christianity credit for all the West's achievements in philosophy, history, science, technology etc - as two sides of the same coin.

    Bruce Charlton

  2. Thanks for your comment. I enjoyed the book and agreed with a great deal of what you had to say in it.