Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I am very likely to take a more high-falutin' tone with this post, because I just read the first 43 pages (plus intros, prefaces, and the like) of Newman's "An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine." In the interest of intellectual honesty and good taste, I shall refrain from comment on the subject matter until I am finished. On mere aesthetics, (if a work of theology or other nonfiction qualifies) I can say that I only hope to blather so beatifully before I sleep in death, or our Lord returns. As the magisterial Dr. Cosby would say, however, I didn't come here to tell you that.
I came to talk about Gnosticism. I happened to be sifting through my e-mail looking for something "Uncle Bryan" had sent while I was recovering from yet another respiratory malady. It is here. Gut reaction: Amen, brother. My second reaction: Pretty easy pickings, no? Low-hanging fruit, if you like. On the other hand, the Reformed actually pioneered the "Destroy all things beautiful, on the off chance someone is an idolater" movement. Still, that austerity is being reversed in many quarters. In defense of statues--even those not of Christ--the last time I went to Mass (oh, the horror of it all!) I noted that the statue of Mary is far below the crucifix, and she is praying, suggesting that were she speaking to us, she would doubtless tell us to receive her Son in the same manner as she did--in humble devotion, watching and receiving Him as he died for a hopelessly lost humanity and frustrated creation. For the moment, whether she is sinless and intercedes for us is irrelevant, since even the best Reformed (and thus, Protestant) theology hesitates to even contemplate her piety at all, though this, I am told, is changing. You can see how neglecting the humanity of Jesus and his mother leads directly to Gnosticism. But one could counter that a sensuous desire for beauty or tactility leads to inappropriate religious practice, rooted in alleged doctrinal "developments." And this theoretically could be true. But what is the test for this? Further still, have we any idea what we have lost in its rejection? Have we not implicitly admitted that we have lost more than we have gained? Not to mention, we have utterly failed to establish the authority and the veracity of those who made the decisions for us. Which provokes me to say, by the way, that I will mentally or otherwise add, "According to whom?" to every invocation of Sola Scriptura, every pronouncement of an ecclesial assembly assembled under its dictates. It's not an "untidy" ecclesiology; it's utterly incoherent. Some people can live with that. I can't. The extremes of Protestantism are indeed avoided, in a manner of speaking, by a steady immersion in the Scriptures (the dispute over their exact contents re: the canon notwithstanding) and a teachable, God-ward humility. But are they sufficient to definitively adjudicate disputes in the interpretation of themselves? It would seem not. In fact, because I believe that most disputants enter into conflict in earnestness and conscience, it makes the problem more obvious and pressing. If separation from some assembled Christian community (which would naturally see itself as the true inheritors of the promises and protection of Christ) did not entail some risk of judgment, or at the very least, some deprivation of the fulness of Truth, one would wonder what the members would say to justify their continued existence as distinct from another community. And many can, and do, offer those explanations. But I find many, if not most, of those explanations unsatisfactory from the Reformed camp. More than that, it could be evidence of a sinful inattention to the necessity for Christian unity. If one cannot establish the truth of one's position in a dispute, but only assert it, it would be best to abandon it, no? (To be quite honest, the alleged imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer, as opposed to the infusion of the merits of it, seems a prime candidate.) [Wasn't this about Gnosticism?--ed.] It's related. I remember "Captain Jack" playing several videos for us, his students. Hilarious videos. Cheesy Jesus songs, Jesus-flavored arena rock, and squares dressed in suits and dresses dancing to hip-hop beats. I recall the point being in the neighborhood of, "The medium is the message," and it's true. The squares, he informed us, were part of a(n) "heretical sect," (his words) and I wondered, "Who is the final arbiter of that?" They might well believe they do well, and are good Protestants, to boot. Well, even if you're not up against the Arian heresy, you do have to wonder: "Where is the court of final appeal? Have I been unwittingly following myself all this time?" Not that this obviously indicates of itself the truth of the Catholic Church, (for example) but it's worth noting that the church fathers' numerous appeals in the direction of succession indicate at the least that they feared exactly that problem. And doesn't the throwing off of any authority put literally everything into question? That is, the art can't signify anything if there is nothing there to point to. Remember the 3 Big Questions: "Who is God? Who am I? And what are we doing here?" I don't blame anyone in those megachurches for not knowing. What I can say is that the Catholicism I've seen has no trouble answering those questions, and in recognizing those as the questions (in crudely basic form) to ask.