Monday, July 10, 2017

Esolen again. . .

Father, I must confess: I have made comments on social media.

There is at least one thing that social media illuminate, and that is the unwillingness or the incapacity of people to reason. I attribute it in part to “critical thinking,” which turns otherwise intelligent people into perpetual sophomores, ready to play what they think is the ace of trumps, but what is actually a dog-bitten Monopoly property card for Marvin Gardens when the game is bridge. It is a plexiglass Cone of Silence over the brain; nothing gets in and nothing gets out.

A case in point. The subject today was abortion. A woman burst out, “What century are you living in? Do you actually believe”—and let’s stop right there.

The person’s implicit premise is that people grow wiser, nobler, more righteous, and kinder to puppies with each passing generation. Otherwise why bring up the business about a century?

A few months ago when my alma mater graciously named me alumnus of the year, Anthony Esolen received an honorary doctorate -- in no small part for his witness against the tide of diversity and subjective truth and for the catholic faith.  That said, I must invite you to read him.  He is so often correct both in his estimation of the problems and in his provision for the truth that does not change.

Esolen's chief antagonist is progressivism and that is an enemy that Christianity faces every day.  Progressivism believes that not only knowledge increases but wisdom and insight.  Only a fool would suggest that knowledge does not increase but it is equally foolish to believe that wisdom automatically increases with this knowledge.  Insight is also elusive -- the most distant one is from the original sources.  We already know how this affects politics and culture.  Think here, for example, of those who believe the constitution should be understood as it was originally written against those who think it a living document that grows beyond its original words or the author's intent.  In Christianity we face an equally pernicious enemy and one that presumes to grow beyond the printed word of Scripture, past the tradition of the saints before, and onto the uncharted ground shaped by vague and generic principles that pass as Gospel vs the authentic kerygma of Christ crucified and risen.

I am have already written of those who see in the Scripture ideas rather than facts, who believe its history is sufficiently questionable to allow them to see past the printed page, and who take from it less doctrine than idea (so love becomes even more profound that the cross and empty tomb!).  Inherent in this is the idea that we know Scripture better than those who lived in its time, that we can treat the Bible as raw material to be digested and refined by reason and principle, and that factuality and mythology are equally equipped to inform principle (again, the vaguely defined idea of love).  I wrote a while ago of the head of the Jesuit order who raised just such questions by suggesting that since we did not have a tape recorder of Jesus saying anything, the record of what Jesus said in Scripture is but one perspective on His words and maybe not all that accurate.  Underneath it all is the same skepticism of higher criticism that has the predisposition against knowing anything truthfully for all time and for all people.  What can we really know of Jesus and what does it mean to us today?

This presumption has infected everything -- from Scripture and its truth to the liturgy.  We spend all our time trying to discern the oldest, most original word and then we debunk that word as probably not accurate anyhow.  It has been the undoing of the liturgical movement and it was the shibboleth of the Radical Reformation in its pursuit of a early church closer to Acts than more recent history.  In the aftermath of Vatican II Rome reformed the liturgy and Lutherans followed.  Not everything was bad, of course, but the premise was suspect -- what we have is neither credible nor reliable and there is a pristine ancient source we should seek to find or invent.

We have relativized the faith to the point where our people are tempted to see everything as one person's opinion.  In our discussions of Scripture we treat translations as if they were different Scriptures (which, in the case of versions seeking to adapt the Word of God to modern ideals of egalitarianism and gender issues, may be true).  But our people have learned to hear this as no version is reliable and we have nothing but an outline of God's Word instead of a reliable voice.  We Lutherans have done to the Confessions what we have done to Scripture.  So we have the odd circumstance of speaking of those Confessions describing things instead of prescribing them (the weekly Eucharist being just one of them). 

In the meantime, every generation searches for a truth big enough to include the many and not just the one.  Every age seeks a truth established in facts on which one can build a reliable hope.  Of course, the Spirit is the one who produces faith in the hearer but we lay a mine field of deceit and deception for the Spirit to work through by insisting we know better than the apostles, prophets, and patriarchs and that the idea of the Gospel is more important than its fact in Christ crucified and risen.  We treat worship apart from a confession and so ritual once rooted in what we believe and confess becomes mere ceremony for the eye or ear, a sensory experience more than an efficacious truth that does something.

Progressivism is so thoroughly entrenched in our culture and in our way of thinking that it is hard for us to remove.  But we dare not fail to combat its destruction of truth and its erosion of our confidence in the things in which we have been catechized (to use a phrase from St. Luke's Gospel).  We have told ourselves that new means different and a radical departure from the past so often that we no longer want to even think of the old covenant Christ has fulfilled or sing the old songs by which those who went before taught us and led us to sing the faith.  Doctrine, morality, and virtue have become the old school stuff that we have grown past but the down side is that everyone doing what is right in their own eyes is not a definition of wisdom or faith but of the chaos of sin and unbelief. 

Chesterton's words are absolutely true today but, sadly, it is a truth we are not willing to hear.  “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” And Chesterton goes on to say: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”


Anonymous said...

Anthony Esolen is a brilliant mind, crying like Jeremiah from the mud of the American cistern. If you read anything, read: Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. In his first chapter he destroys the idea that we know more now than we did. See if you can answer the questions he asks. Find an older (50-100 years ago) 8th grade History or English examination. If you can answer the questions, you were either born in the wrong century or are very erudite.

Anonymous said...

The serpent was a progressive, a feminist, and a higher critic: “Did God really say?”