The Struggle for Meaning and an Uncertain Church
Niall Gooch FAITH Magazine July – August 2012
Niall Gooch reflects on the challenge of getting to grips with the relativism that Dawkins displays in some of the quotations given in our editorial. Such relativism seems at times to be evangelising the Church, rather than the other way around. Mr Gooch, research and education officer at the charity Life, is writing in a personal capacity.
Some years ago, I was in a Catholic school whose RE department was plastered with posters posing questions about various hot-button controversies: "Why does God allow suffering?" "Why can't women be priests?" "Why can't two people of the same sex marry one another?" All good questions. All questions that it is natural for a curious young Catholic to ask. And all questions to which the Catholic Church has an answer. Not that you would realise that from these displays.
For the posters did not answer the questions. Nor did they say: "This is a complicated question, but there is an answer in the Catechism. Or perhaps Fr X could explain for you." They did not even refer pupils to a textbook, or reassure them that the question would be addressed in RE. All the questions were left hanging, unanswered, which to me risks giving the impression that key teachings of the Church are essentially irrational.
Perhaps I am freighting an insignificant phenomenon with unwarranted significance. It's entirely possible that all the above questions are addressed with depth and subtlety in actual RE lessons, and that the school's pupils can talk knowledgeably about the nature of the priesthood, the goods of marriage, the purpose of sex, and the many and varied Christian responses to the "problem of pain". Experience, I must say, suggests otherwise, but it is possible.
What this really highlights to me is a wider problem with how Christians approach the scientific, moral and epistemic challenges laid down by modernity. In general, Christian responses to these challenges during the last century and a half have fallen into three categories:
• retreat - taking refuge in some form of fideism, an unthinking rejection of scientific knowledge or new ethical theories, and an implicit withdrawal from the field of effective apologetics;
• surrender - the wholesale abandonment of central doctrines, compromise with secularising and atheist trends, and passivity or even hostility towards the idea of evangelisation; and
• engagement - the attempt to analyse new ideas and discoveries critically in the light of the faith, without compromising on essentials.
On the whole, retreat is better than surrender, particularly where it involves faithfulness to Church teaching. However unwise and frustrating and unnecessary I think it may be for
Christians to deny evolution by natural selection, or to assert against all evidence that the earth is 10,000 years old rather than four and a half billion years, I cannot imagine anyone being counted among the goats at the Last Judgment because when faced with what they sincerely believed to be a choice between God and Darwin, they chose God. But engagement is eminently preferable to either. Both surrender and retreat, to my mind, ultimately suggest a lack of real confidence in Christian truth, or at least a lack of understanding.
The Catholic Church has done better than most Christian denominations in sticking to the path of engagement. Not perfectly, of course, but as Catholics we can look back with some satisfaction over a long history of following St Peter's injunction to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3: 15). At its best, the Catholic tradition has been a tradition of curiosity, of openness, of reason, of looking difficult questions squarely in the face, confident in the knowledge that the truth of science not only cannot contradict the truth of Catholic Christianity, but will actually beautifully complement the Christian revelation.
At the very beginning of the church, the apostles had to distinguish which parts of Jewish law and tradition, if any, ought to become part of Christianity. Paul, whose Pharisaical training would presumably have made him a fearsome debater, took on all comers at the Areopagus in Athens. The early church faced a bewildering array of philosophical challenges and competitors, from Neo-Platonism and Manichaeism to the Roman mystery cults, with many of the great saints, martyrs and apologists of that age being converts from other belief systems. In post-Roman Europe, men like Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface and Cuthbert helped to make sense of Christianity for cultures that had once been defiantly pagan. In the heyday of scholasticism, Aquinas largely succeeded in "baptising" Aristotle, andof course he was not alone among his contemporaries in his commitment to reasonable faith.
In the early modern era, the Council of Trent was a thorough and rigorous response to the developing Protestant critique of the Church, and the Renaissance was driven in part by Catholic humanists moderating the sometimes dry and legalistic scholasticism of the middle ages. Later still, the Christian response to 19th-century rationalism and the Enlightenment found a champion in Blessed John Henry Newman, who thought broadly, incisively and generously about Victorian culture. In the 20th century, Chesterton was one of the first Catholic apologists to get to grips with some of the worst modern intellectual trends: positivism, nihilism, relativism, sexual individualism, hatred of Christianity. Coming closer to our own times, the Second Vatican Council -whatever our view of its fruits - wasintended to start a dialogue with the modern world. And the whole foundation of the Faith movement, of course, is an attempt to integrate modern rationality, not least as inspired by the discoveries of modern science, with the timeless truths of the Faith.
Now questions are vital. One of the worst things Christians can do when faced with the natural curiosity of the young is to give the impression that questions are off-limits. The perception that Christians are running scared from hard questions is widespread among non-believers - the genuinely confused and doubtful as much as the professionally scornful and hostile. But we must always remember that questions are means, not ends. The object of having an open mind is to close it again on something solid, as Chesterton said. There is no need to deify or celebrate doubt, any more than there is a need to regard it as inherently sinful or deeply dangerous.
I once read an interview with a musician who had faced ridicule after converting to Christianity. In the entertainment industry, he said, "it's very cool to be asking questions, but it's very uncool to find answers". What is true of the entertainment industry is equally true of society as a whole. As so very often, we have picked a virtue (or quasi-virtue) that we like the sound of - in this case open-mindedness - and placed it on an artificial pedestal, abstracted from any context that might help us come to a considered judgment about its merits in individual circumstances. We have stripped virtues of their "telos", their purpose. For the Christian, and indeed for anyone who believes in objective truth, open-mindedness is something to be aimed at not for its own good, but because it canhelp us to orient ourselves towards truth.
So engagement is and was and always should be the best way. But it must be real engagement, which brings us to the problem of surrender disguised as engagement, by which I mean the surrender of the theological revisionist. This is the man who no longer really believes in Christianity, or at least has relativised it to the extent that he will not argue for its key truth claims, but can't or won't honestly repudiate it. Quietly he pulls back from defending its central propositions, using the fog of vacuous platitudes and pseudo-profundity to encourage the perception that he is still defending it.
We've all encountered it. Surely you don't believe in all that stuff about miracles and resurrection, says an interviewer to a vicar. Well, says the reverend, smiling indulgently to symbolise his empathy with the poor benighted fools who actually believe such fairy stories, while making quite clear that he, of course, is not one of those simple people, the important thing isn't that it actually happened. The important thing is that it shows that Jesus loves us, and that we can transform this world. My personal touchstone for this kind of ultimately meaningless flimflam was written by a liberal Anglican a few years ago: "I'm not even all that comfortable saying I believe in God...I would rather say that I affirm the rhetorical tradition in which God is the most basicreality."
Intellectually speaking, the idea that religious truth claims aren't real truth claims is rather disreputable. It's often a way of avoiding a real debate, or indeed a way of rigging a debate in your favour. In terms of Christian apologetics, it is also highly counter-productive, since it does a great deal of the atheist's conceptual heavy-lifting for him.
One high-profile Christian who sometimes gives the impression of disguised surrender - I do not judge his intentions, but simply report on the impression given - is the soon to be ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I honestly hesitate to criticise him, not least because he appears to be a personally devout, good and humble man, and a highly accomplished scholar, who will no doubt be enjoying the Beatific Vision while I am still trudging around the lower levels of Mount Purgatory. But as a public defender of and advocate for the faith, he often falls into the trap of resisting attacks on Christianity by removing anything that might be attacked.
The image that comes to mind is of a boxer who never blocks a punch or throws one, but is forever ducking and weaving and hoping that his opponent gets bored or tired. Several years ago I heard him interviewed on the radio, in the week before Christmas. It was a popular programme on a popular network, with a friendly and sympathetic host and a discursive and relaxed format, at one of the few times of year when people are a little more open to reflection on the things of God. In short, the kind of opportunity for which many Christian evangelists would give their right arm. But Rowan fluffed it. The impression he gave was the same impression that senior Anglican clerics nearly always give in public: well-meaning, verbose, irrelevant, and unable to answer the big questions.
Then there is Karen Armstrong. She is a media favourite (understandably: there is more joy in the BBC over one dissenting Catholic who has seen the modernist light and dropped all that terrible baggage about sin, than over ninety-nine BBC editors who never believed in sin in the first place). One of her pet themes, to which she returns time and again, is that the modern Christian focus on orthodoxy is mistaken and anti-historical, because historically it has been ritual and practice that have been at the heart of the Christian community, not doctrine. The suggestion, seemingly, is that Catholics should stop worrying about truth or metaphysics or revelation, and just feel the love and fellowship and shared experience.
As ever with bad ideas, there is a kernel of truth here. Christianity is not simply a collection of ideas, or a moral system, as I tried to explain recently to a friend who, riding a certain contemporary wave among the bien-pensant, had raised the question of whether the faith might not be more popular if all that embarrassing supernatural stuff were stripped away.
Nevertheless, the bulk of Armstrong's claim doesn't seem to stand up. Apart from anything else, its historicity is highly disputed. Catholicism is not merely a propositional faith - but that does not mean that it is not a propositional faith at all. The Catechism, Tradition and Scripture all make it clear that authentic Christianity does involve believing that certain things are objectively true. And even if it were the case that in the past we spent less time defending and discussing specific dogmas, there seems to me to be a much more plausible explanation than "no one really used to care about dogma", which is this: it's not that we didn't care about dogma, but rather that the truths of faith have come under unprecedented scrutiny and attack in the modern period, not least fromdissenters within the Church, so it has become essential that we do talk about what we actually believe.
Take the example of a parish. It's easy to say that ritual and liturgy are the heart of that community if almost everyone believes the truths of the faith. Less so if at every parish gathering there are people questioning the nature of God or challenging the understanding of the Eucharist.
A perhaps more surprising example of the flight from meaning comes from the so-called Emergent Church (EC). The EC is perhaps best understood as a postmodern current within non-denominational US Evangelicalism, although it is gaining a foothold in the UK too. It shares many of US Evangelicalism's most recognisable features -megachurches, pre-service lattes, worship bands, big screens and so on. It has a particular focus on young,
educated urbanites whose cultural milieu has left them unable or unwilling to involve themselves in traditional Christian churches. And, to be fair, many of those within the movement are unapologetic Nicene Christians. Mark Driscoll, for instance, founder of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, preaches in jeans and T-shirt accompanied by a rock band, but he believes - really, truly believes - in the transforming power of grace, in the imperative of repentance, in the reality of judgment, and the necessity of evangelisation. He upholds Christian marriage and the sanctity of life. He understands that the church that is married to the spirit of this age will be a widow in the next.
An increasing number of Emergents, however, are highly reluctant to commit themselves publicly and unambiguously to the faith once delivered to the saints. There are many examples of how some of the key figures in this movement, such as Bruce McLaren, have strayed far from the bounds of traditional Christian faith and morals. But perhaps the example that most clearly shows the problem is the Love Wins controversy. Love Wins was a 2011 book by Emergent leader Rob Bell, in which he makes an argument for a form of universalism. Bell's work is not without interest; for instance at times he seems to be groping towards belief in something like Purgatory. But his defence of his book against a storm of criticism, and the support offered to him by other Emergent Church leaders,was striking for one thing in particular - the refusal to give clear answers to clear questions, to let their yes be yes and their no be no. Bell's books and videos tend to have a fragmented style, posing big theological questions and raising objections to traditional Christian beliefs in a scattershot way without ever properly engaging with them. It is ultimately rather frustrating, and dangerous for those with wavering or confused faith and weak wills.
It reminds me a little of the superficial and hackneyed rhetoric of the teenage atheist who thinks he's the first person in the world to discover the problem of evil, or the New Atheist saloon-bar bore: "Church is boring...Christians are bigots and hypocrites...science has disproved religion...The Bible contradicts itself...why can't we just love Jesus and reject religion?" A further problem is Bell's implication that no intelligent Christians can provide good answers to the difficulties he raises (in which respect he rather resembles the RE department in which I saw the posters). Either he is deliberately not mentioning the best attempts to wrestle with objections to Christianity - particularly regarding the Last Things - which means he is being dishonest and pastorally reckless, or hehas made no attempt to research the subject, which means he is irresponsibly poorly-informed.
This approach - look at me, honestly wrestling with doubt and modernity, unlike the rest of you unquestioning drones who just believe what The Man tells you - is hardly new, and the desire to be seen as a brave, innovative rebel rather than a staid, boring upholder of orthodoxy, is a strong one and has doubtless been the root of many a heresy. In the last century, one thinks of the notoriously heretical Honest To God, by the Anglican John Robinson, or more recently Godless Morality, by the ex-Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway. Both books are essentially arguing that because (a) Christian living is quite difficult, and (b) lots of people have rejected the faith, we should get with the existentialist fashion and jettison the bits which people say they find tooinconvenient. This is precisely the wrong way around. We ought to be saying to people, "let's find out what you feel are the barriers to belief, and talk them through and explain them", not "let's find out what you feel are the barriers to belief, so we can ignore them, or fudge the issue, or pretend they're not important".
None of which means that the Church shouldn't be sensitive to genuine seekers, or to wounded or confused or angry people. Truth must be delivered with charity, respect and sensitivity. But the first four words of that sentence are as important as the last four. Seen sub specie aeternitatis, encouraging someone to believe that we don't really know what God thinks about sexuality, and that each of us must work it out for ourselves, and anyway it doesn't matter much as long as we do our recycling and volunteer at a homeless shelter, is as serious an error as telling them that God hates them because they have homosexual feelings.
Perhaps those who prefer to play down the "difficult parts" of Christian life in their outreach to a dechristianised culture are reasoning that, just as the worst thing you can do to a man who has severe hypothermia is to warm him up too fast, it is counter-productive to do too much, too soon in evangelisation. However, this analogy does not justify watering down the faith; it's not the case that the once-freezing man can never again have a hot bath. The man whose sin and folly and ignorance have taken him far from God may be more likely to be repelled than reconciled by crude moralism; but eventually he must come to see the need to accept God's grace and turn away from sin. Christ came, after all, so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Not that we might feel good aboutourselves.
Christianity only really matters if the specific claims it makes about reality are correct. As St Paul reminds us: "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without substance, and so is your faith...if Christ has not been raised, your faith is pointless and you have not, after all, been released from your sins" (1 Cor 15: 14-17). Our Lord himself makes it clear that what we believe matters, not least because what we believe shapes what we do, and what we do shapes our eternal destiny.
Of course, the postmodern world of "my truth" and "your truth" and "deconstruction" and "narratives" is a problem for evangelisation. Men have always erected intricate and powerful mental boundaries against belief in Christianity, and postmodernism is particularly dangerous in this regard, since it represents not an argument against Christianity, but rather a denial that there is really anything to argue about. Systems of belief and their supporting arguments are not taken at face value, but instead analysed as rationalisations for oppression and existing power structures, or as manifestations of psychological impulses. Consider the pro-abortion slogan "if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament", which takes for granted that Catholic teaching on abortion is simply areflection of male social dominance rather than a point of principle. Or consider the explanations for religious belief proposed by evolutionary psychologists, now recognised by most philosophers of biology as involving more theoretical assumptions than empirical evidence.
But the only response that will be effective, and faithful to Christ's commands, in the long term is to meet this challenge head-on, as, in the final analysis, the Church always has. What absolutely will not work is constantly highlighting the difficulties and tensions and failures among Christians, and suggesting or implying that the faith is inherently unreliable as a guide to conduct and belief because its adherents are fallible human beings or because many parts of it are hard work. The notion that Christianity is somehow untenable because its followers and institutions aren't perfect, or because its principles can be complex and difficult to apply in the real world, is a classic instance of the elementary logical error of mistaking a part for the whole.
We see this error in all sorts of areas. The entirely orthodox and scriptural truth that there are mysteries within Christianity and we cannot know God in full in this life ("For now, we see through a glass, darkly") becomes the half-truth that we cannot understand God's will or nature in any meaningful way, and we don't really know how God wishes us to behave. Our Lord's command not to judge the state of others' souls is subtly distorted into the frankly anti-Christian idea that we ought not to discriminate between right and wrong acts. The correct acknowledgement that there is more to the full Catholic life than intellectual assent to certain propositions is twisted into the heresy that right belief is irrelevant.
There seems to be some deep temptation in human nature to avoid nuance in reform, and to swing wildly to another extreme. Sadly, this often manifests itself in the Church. Problems with clericalism? Downgrade the role of priests! Celibacy being poorly handled by a few priests? Get rid of it! Teaching of the faith to children too rigid? So long, Catechism! Aristotle, with his love of the Golden Mean, would have shuddered at such hysterical overreaction to one excess, and so should we. As the old axiom has it, abusus non tollit usum: abuse is no argument against proper use. The response to bad Christianity is not less Christianity, or vaguer and more incoherent Christianity, but better and more faithful Christianity.