You Cannot Argue with This

Nor does it redound to the great intellectual tradition.

It is Father Dwight’s conversion narrative about the Immaculate Conception. He concedes that it is not an ancient dogma and that Thomas Aquinas “didn’t believe it.” But when an overweight priest told him, “We believe in the Immaculate Conception because the pope tells us to. Pass the fried chicken,” Longenecker knew his interlocutor was right.

Still, he needed to own the Immaculate Conception. Here is how he had a really, really personal relationship with Jesus:

I was traveling in Normandy in France. I wandered into Bayeaux Cathedral. As in most of the medieval cathedrals there were lots of little side chapels. I was pretty much the only person in the cathedral. I stopped in a little chapel and saw the finger bone of St Thérèse who had lived just down the road in Lisieux.

Then I stopped in another chapel and knelt to pray. I don’t know what I prayed — maybe the Rosary. I don’t know. I was caught up in prayer for some time. Then I walked out of the cathedral and the morning sun was bright and clear in the plaza outside, and I suddenly realized that I believed in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Then I also remembered who the little chapel was dedicated to in which I was praying. It was St. Bernadette — to whom the Blessed Virgin appeared and confided, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

I no longer simply understood the dogma and the logic of it, but I saw the beauty of it and the wonder of the simple girl of Nazareth becoming the second Eve. As I realized I believed in the Immaculate Conception I also suddenly became more aware, in a deeper way — a way very difficult to articulate — of the reality and historical concreteness of the incarnation itself.

Suddenly Jesus Christ — Son of God and Son of Mary — was more real than he ever was before, and I also grasped why the Church requires this belief and does not allow it to remain a pious option.

It is because the Church wants us, through the Marian dogmas, to be introduced to Christ in a more real and powerful way.

Could this be the explanation for evangelical conversions to Rome? Too little doctrine, too much experience?

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Everything in Moderation, Including Gullibility

A common charge against Protestantism is that it is rationalistic. By raising doubts about relics, candles, prayers to saints, pools of healing waters, sightings of Mary, or reports of the stigmata, Protestantism supposedly set into motion the kind of skepticism about the supernatural that brought down belief in God altogether. Robert Langbaum echoes this trope of modern intellectual history in his book on Isak Dinesen:

[T]he fundamental failing of Protestantism is the failing already identified in Isak Dinesen’s criticism of Unitarians. In trying to rationalize Christianity, Protestantism cut fact off from myth and thus lost the double vision or the ability to understand symbols. (Isak Dinesen’s Art, 216)

Whoa!

That may be true of modernist Protestants who take their cues more from the natural sciences than the Bible. But when Protestants insisted on sola Scriptura they were not exactly embracing a faith free from challenges to the intellect. Burning bush? Crossing the Red Sea? Battle of Jericho? Virgin birth? Paul’s conversion? Critters covered with eyes? The Trinity?

The Bible presents plenty of material to keep the smartest guys in the room humble, and it also supplies plenty of symbols in need of interpretation (from Hebrew vowel points to apocalyptic metaphors).

What Protestantism did was cut back on the clutter of things requiring more faith and hope than reason. Why add to all the reason-defying aspects of the Bible with the bells and whistles of saints and relics? Whatever the sufficiency of Scripture means, it involves at least the affirmation that Christians only need to swallow the contents of the Bible (the way the whale did with Jonah) and no more.

The Spirit Neglected

I’m not sure what branch of Protestantism Father Dwight belonged to before he converted, but surely you don’t need to be a speaker of tongues to know the importance of the Holy Spirit in accounting for true faith Protestant-style. Somehow, though, Father Dwight believes that faith invariably proceeds from reason (and not from the mysterious operation of the Spirit):

Like most Freemasons, Franklin had a spiritual blind spot. There was nothing wild and mystical in his life. Passion and romance in religion were alien to him. His creed was one of common sense, mild-mannered good works and human virtue. As such it was not only blind. It was bland.

I came across a quotation of his the other day which sums it up. He wrote, “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” It is the sort of sophomoric bromide one expects from rationalist, and it doesn’t stand up to even the mildest of objections.

It is understandable, however. Ever since the nominalists suggested that material things had no connection with the unseen world and were no more than what you call them, a divide had been growing between the physical and the metaphysical realms. The Protestant Revolution confirmed the break, and the Enlightenment hammered it home with the French and American Revolutions.

If there was a divide between the spiritual and the physical realm, then preachers could have nothing to say about science, and scientists had no concern with religion. Science and reason dealt with this world and religion with the world to come, and that was that.

Consequently, the Protestant religion became either an abstract debate about theology or a subjective, emotional experience. In other words, you could be a bookish Bible nerd or a hellfire, “come to Jesus!” weepin’-and-wailin’ preacher. Neither had much to do with the material realm, and neither had much use for science and reason. Thus Benjamin Franklin’s conclusion that to “see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”

Fideists and fundamentalists distrust the man of reason as much as he distrusts the man of religion. Therefore, even today many Protestants take an intentionally anti-intellectual stance, agreeing with the rationalists that faith and reason are incompatible. Blind Benjamin Franklin is father to them all.

Standing in contrast to this impasse is the Catholic religion which has always contended that faith is reasonable and reason requires faith, or as Pope St. John Paul II put it, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

Perhaps, but if you take the fall seriously (which is arguably the bottom line difference between real Protestants and Roman Catholics), reason doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. As the British divines explained (but Father Dwight apparently did not read):

5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. (Confession of Faith, chapter 1)

Nevertheless, Father Dwight thinks that a belief in the resurrection, for instance, is not that different from testing a cat for feline leukemia:

From that foundation of personal observation and reliance on tradition the scientific enquirer proposes a theory to explore and discover further. So does the religious enquirer. Both devise a theory to meet the facts and answer a question that has arisen. The enquirer then tests the theory with experimentation–gathering data and experiences and processing them through intuition, reasoning and further reliance on tradition. Should the experiment fail, he uses the error to refine the theory and continue his exploration until he finds a satisfactory answer.

This is precisely what the informed and intellectually engaged religious enquirer does. He has certain experiences which are analyzed and filtered through tradition and he goes on to explore further, analyze experience, test reality, reject what is false and affirm what is true, and as he continues his exploration and experimentation he uses a combination of personal experience, tradition, reason and intuition to analyze and construct a working hypothesis.

Then, for both the scientist and the religious explorer there comes a step which we can call “faith.” The homework is done, the data is collected. The experience is analyzed, the tradition is accepted, the guesswork is completed, and the theory has been tested as thoroughly as possible. The scientist or the religious enquirer then changes his actions based on the new belief which he has come to accept based on this process.

In point of fact, a much better explanation for faith comes from the side of an affirmation of total depravity and the inherent limits it puts on human reason. As J. Gresham Machen explained, the miracle of the resurrection makes a lot of sense if you consider the enormity of the human predicament post-fall:

In one sense, certainly, miracles are a hindrance to faith − but who ever thought the contrary? It may certainly be admitted that if the New Testament narrative had no miracles in it, it would be far easier to believe. The more commonplace a story is, the easier it is to accept it as true. But commonplace narratives have little value. The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. Without the miracles the New Testament would contain an account of a holy man − not a perfect man, it is true, for He was led to make lofty claims to which He had no right − but a man at least far holier than the rest of men. But of what benefit would such a man, and the death which marked His failure, be to us? The loftier be the example which Jesus set, the greater becomes our sorrow at our failure to attain to it; and the greater our hopelessness under the burden of sin. The sage of Nazareth may satisfy those who have never faced the problem of evil in their own lives; but to talk about an ideal to those who are under the thralldom of sin is a cruel mockery. Yet if Jesus was merely a man like the rest of men, then an ideal is all that we have in Him. Far more is needed by a sinful world. It is small comfort to be told that there was goodness in the world, when what we need is goodness triumphant over sin. But goodness triumphant over sin involves an entrance of the creative power of God, and that creative power of God is manifested by the miracles. Without the miracles, the New Testament might be easier to believe. But the thing that would be believed would be entirely different from that which presents itself to us now. Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Savior. (Christianity and Liberalism, 103-104)

Father Dwight may have a point about Ben Franklin’s blind spots (is shooting fish in a barrel really intellectually compelling?). But did Father Dwight miss the log creating his own blind spot?