Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Historicity and the Appeal of High Church Denominations

One of the central contentions of the Reformation is that nobody can believe on your behalf or for you. Thus, you can’t say, “I believe whatever the Church believes” without knowing directly what the Church actually believes. You can’t very well claim to believe whatever the Church believes and when asked, well, what does the Church actually believe? And you reply, I have no idea, but whatever they believe, I do! There simply isn’t such a thing as a vicarious faith, the Church cannot believe on your behalf.

I have engaged with believers from high church denominations enough to realise that a lot of it is largely vicarious faith. They would talk about believing in “history”, “councils”, “Fathers”, etc, without actually knowing what they say. They invoke these concepts or phenomenon, not as a witness to more fundamental realities which is the true object of belief, but simply as a badge of ecclesiastical loyalty, not because they actually know or believe in the actual content of their writings. They are simply argumentative winning points, apologetic talismans which somehow miraculously justify their conclusions just by the sheer mention of their names. It amuses me to see Roman Catholics, for example, invoke the Council of Rome as demonstrating how the Pope “authorises” the canon, when the actual texts of that same council declares that the Scriptures are the foundation of the Church, etc. It is like they don’t really know or care what the councils or Fathers or history actually says, they simply invoke them as an apologetic talisman. (Recently I had a long discussion with an EO priest about the doctrine of the Trinity, while I was citing the actual text of the creeds and the Fathers; he was just throwing a lot of names and pious talk about “liturgy”, “the Church”, “the Fathers”, etc to object to my conclusions. And when he finally does cite a Father’s writing, the point which the Father was making didn’t have anything to do with our actual discussion!) How enthusiastic do you think the average modern Roman convert would be to learn about Unam Sanctum or Ad Extirpanda authorising the use of torture or Regnans in Excelsis?

If the vaunted Church History, the Fathers and the Councils, etc, are merely apologetic talisman of which many high church denominational converts don’t actually know anything about, (or at least, they only read little snippets of the Fathers and Councils here and there and not the entire range and diversity of Church History) what then drives them to convert?

From my own experience, seems that there are three motivations, not all mutually exclusive: (1) The Eschatological Reactionary, (2) Magisterial Positivism and (3) Metaphysical and Mystical Esotericism or cultural/liturgical Aestheticism. But the root of it all is reactionary, the desire to preserve and justify what they want to believe.

For motive (1), we need look further than Cardinal Newman with his eschatologically idealised and romantic “development of doctrine”. People want that sense that their present practices, beliefs and desires are rooted in this “fundamental movement of history” leading irresistibly to their conclusions and that what they want is the teleos of all history. They believe, not in the actual contents of what “the Church” has actually written, but in this idealised narrative of the Church triumphing, enduring and persisting throughout the ages against anything which would contradict what they want or believe. This is why Cardinal Newman can both paradoxically claim that the pre-Nicene Fathers were semi-Arians and yet that “the Church” has always somehow implicitly believed in Nicene Trinitarianism. What is important is not the actual particular facts or details of the Church’s writings and witness, what is important is how it is all somehow part of this Grand Historical Narrative which leads to their desired conclusion. The fundamental object of belief is not actual history but this romantically reconstructed history which of course leads to their desired end. What often amazes me about discussions on such topics is the constant appeal of how this development of doctrine is the best way to justify the doctrine of the Trinity, as if history exists to justify what we want to believe.

If (1) evades the difficulties of history, the plurality of ideas and witnesses and the complexity of constructing a grand unified narrative which can’t help but seem self-serving and justifying, than (2) is refreshing in its honesty in its complete rejection of history, embodied perfectly in Cardinal Manning, Newman’s contemporary. Manning was refreshingly blunt in his profession of sheer Magisterial Positivism. It doesn’t matter what history, tradition or antiquity says; the voice of the living Church, at this very hour, constitutes the maximum of evidence as to the facts and contents of divine revelation. The Vatican’s moment by moment magisterial decrees will deliver us from the horrors of modernism and the complexities of history. If Newman is more optimistic about his ability to spin a developmental grand narrative, than Manning is downright pessimistic and utterly sceptical. I can attain certainty of my beliefs because of some canon law promulgated from the Vatican. At the root of Magisterial Positivism of course is a reactionary motive. I want to justify and preserve my beliefs in these doctrines; Magisterial Positivism provides the epistemic security for me to do so.

Finally we come to (3). This option pertains more to Eastern Orthodox converts with a fetish for aesthetics, elevated philosophies, mysticism or liturgies. They aren’t as heavily invested in historical fundamentalism as the Roman Catholics are, but they love their essence-energies distinction, experience of uncreated light, elevation of culture, aesthetics and liturgy. Thus, the immediate appeal of high church denominations in this case is the magnitude and breath and wonder of their mysticism or aesthetics or cultural/philosophical vision. But once more, the root of all these is reactionary, there are those horrible evil evil modernist ideas of science, empiricism, materialism, etc, etc, and my exalted cultural, philosophical and aesthetic vision is the best safeguard against the horrors of the modern age. The motive is self-preservation and justification for what one wants to believe. Ironically, most lay native Orthodox believers would hardly be able to tell the difference between the Western and Eastern Nicene Creed nor even know how many sacraments there are, even less about uncreated light or energies-essence distinction.

In the end, no matter how much I sneer or poke fun or snigger at fundies or more conservative Reformed or puritans, I will always respect their commitment to Truth and “me and muh Bible”. There is no romantic spinning or justifying what we want to believe or our desires here, there is only, what is true? What is the right thing to do? What is God’s word and will here? To be fair to the Roman Catholics, there was a time when they also thought the same way. The Roman Catholic would ask, what is the right doctrine? What is the right practice? And THEN search the Scriptures, the Fathers , Tradition, the decrees of the Church and even Reason to answer those questions. The Fathers and Traditions are not themselves directly the object of Faith but valid and legitimate sources to guide right belief and practice, which is the true end of theology. But it is truly a testament to the extent to which the Romans have become a romantic play fantasy when the question is no longer what is the truth or right practice but instead, which decrees are infallible and part of the Church’s Magisterial Teachings and which are not, as if all reality exists in the bosom of the Roman Magisterium. This is not being grounded in the truth, this is a retreat from reality into the playground of romantic ecclesiology. Perhaps, to end on a sympathetic note, an understandable reaction to the rapid changes of the modern world and the theology’s failure to adapt and engage it.

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This entry was posted on June 12, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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