"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, May 28, 2007

Pentecost, vocation, and two models of church

Sorry for the week's absence, dear and vast readership. There's been a great deal to blog about; but as Pentecost approached, I grappled with my periodic depression about my standard conundrum: how to earn a living by doing what I love and the Church needs. What I have now, and have had for a long time, is purely secular work whose only meaning to me is that of purification and penance. (True, it does prevent me from being jailed as a "deadbeat dad," but that only means I've adopted a more prudent form of penance.) I note that blogging has earned me some tips, for which I am most grateful, as well as a few accepted invitations to publish conventional pieces; but that, after all, doesn't quite add up to a living, nor have I ever thought it would. After prayer and conversation with a few anointed people this past week, I'm no clearer about how to resolve the conundrum beyond efforts I've already been making. Those people tell me not to give up on following my passion, which I suppose is sound enough advice, but not especially enlightening. Adherence to it calls for faith; and while my faith in the teaching of the Church remains unwavering, my faith in my own temporal future has been pretty well ground to powder. Oddly, though, neither have I kept on feeling depressed. That is the Holy Spirit's doing.

For one thing, I went to confession last Saturday evening on the spur of the moment, without even recalling that it was the eve of Pentecost. There was nothing unusual or egregious to confess; yet afterwards I realized how necessary the exercise had been all the same. I hadn't been praying enough; the cacophony of the world outside, and of my own resentments within, had been poisoning me; I had reverted to my second-nature cynicism about life and thus ceased to trust God. The certainty of mercy following repentance, which entails trust, changed that—at least for a time and, one ever hopes, for good.

Then there was the word of God given for the Solemnity of Pentecost itself. I keep on returning to how, according to the first reading from Acts, the Holy Spirit starts to reverse Babel. The original story of the Tower of Babel is probably an etiological myth, though I wouldn't be surprised if it grew out of a true story, perhaps one of a grandiose public-works project gone bellly-up for want of effective communication among contractors. Like the Middle East in general, Iraq hasn't changed that much. But regardless, it is abundantly clear that what St. John the Divine calls "the world" is full of chaos and confusion, even as those empowered by the Spirit exhibit unity and certainty. You can see the contrast even between families: many are fragmented by their TVs, their iPods, their hectic leisure schedules; a few, headed by fathers who are spiritual leaders, are kept together by prayer: in church, at the dinner table, and doubtless elsewhere in or about the home. The miracle related in Acts, which there's no good reason to doubt actually occurred, is clearly meant as a sign of the same sort of unity: that of the Church, of which a healthy domestic church is but a cell. But such unity is possible only if one confesses Jesus as Lord and waits for his Spirit. That means prayer, such as the nine days of prayer—the "novena"—among the Apostles as they awaited the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And such prayer entails an implicit trust that the grace of the indwelling Spirit continues to renew for me.

Yet how, in general, is such trust really possible today? Few if any of us have seen or heard the risen Jesus; none have heard the Apostles preach; biblical scholars don't agree on how much the actual Apostles were involved in writing the various "gospels," canonical and non-canonical; there is no longer any church that the baptized all agree is "the Church;" and since the so-called Enlightenment we have witnessed the relentless march of secularism as an all-encompassing ideology, not merely of government which is not theocracy. It sometimes seems we must say, with the relativists, that it's all a matter of choosing what appeals. And pace some analytical epistemologists, belief is in some cases voluntary. We hold many of the beliefs we do because we choose—often for good reason, sometimes for bad—to put our trust in the authority with which they are presented, even though we are not in a good position to verify them for ourselves. But whom do we trust in order to be sure that we have been drawn into the very life of God? Well, God of course. But how do we know that's whom we're really trusting?

People often appeal to their own experience; but without being situated within a wider context of authority, that does not really answer. "The varieties of religious experience," to use William James' phrase, are countless and not easily classified; and even experiences with ostensibly similar phenomenal content are often interpreted by different people in mutually incompatible ways. A cacophony of individual "experiences" and testimony thereto raises more questions than it answers. It is a Babel—ultimately, a Babel of relativism and indifferentism. It won't serve to unify people because, taken just by itself, it confuses without clarifying.

Among Protestants, it is common to appeal to "the Bible" as the normative authority for interpreting religious experiences. To some extent, that is helpful. Assuming that the Bible is somehow divinely inspired, which is a big assumption, that mini-library materially contains what's necessary to know for our salvation. But again, absent some normative authority for resolving disputes about what that really is on various points, appealing to the Bible only pushes the problem back a level. Even if, per impossibile, we had complete agreement on what the original human authors intended in each and every case, we probably wouldn't be much closer to agreement on what the Holy Spirit intended in each and every case. The literal sense is not eo ipso the canonical sense; if it were, we'd have some irresolvable contradictions on our hands, which I doubt we want to say God intended; and even if we didn't have those, the content of the faith would be largely a matter of opinion. Christianity is not primarily the religion of a book, or even of a special set of books. As the Pope says, it is not even primarily a doctrine: it is an "encounter with a Person." And how are we to encounter that Person reliably, so that we can trust him?

At this point some people, including but not limited to Orthodox believers, appeal to Tradition, i.e. to all that is "handed down" to us by Christ from the Apostles. The Bible, they say, is only the most authoritative written expression of that wider Tradition in light of which the Bible itself must be interpreted. That is true. But in order to identify the content of that wider Tradition, we need to identify an authoritative bearer of Tradition; it's no good appealing to something called Tradition as a way of resolving doctrinal disputes if we can't say whose tradition and why. Now the only candidate for such an authoritative bearer of Tradition is "the Church." So then the question becomes: how to identify "the" Church, given the myriad of churches?

The importance of that question is why, during my career in the blogosphere, I have so often broached ecclesiological issues. Whether one believes the answer or not, the Catholic Church has a clear, consistent, and non-arbitrary answer to the question, one that is grounded in history even though not proven by appeal to historical data alone. That is one very important reason why I'm Catholic. But I am not writing this to convince anybody of the Catholic answer to the question; that would be absurdly overambitious even for me. I'm writing to make clear that the question cannot be credibly evaded.

The most common way of evading it, at least among devout Christians of the evangelical and pentecostal varieties, is to appeal to what is often called "the witness of the Holy Spirit." Thus, in his response to my article "Why Beckwith Matters", Rev. Rick Phillips says:

Whereas Liccione and other Roman Catholics see the divide as consisting between ecclesiastical and individual authority, Reformed theology sees a divide between church authority and the authority of the Holy Spirit. We are not relying on private interpretation, but on the witness of the Spirit to the Word in the church to the people of God.

The question I would pose in response to that is this: if the witness of the Spirit is indeed distinguishable from that of individual interpretation of the Bible on the one hand, and from that of "ecclesiastical authority" on the other, how is one so to distinguish it? Everybody who sincerely believes the version of Christianity to which they subscribe believes they are led to do so by the Holy Spirit and are thus bearers of the witness of the Holy Spirit. But that doesn't even begin to settle the question who is right so to believe. Nor is there any agreed, publicly accessible method for settling the question. That is why, in such a context as this, appeal to the witness of the Holy Spirit as opposed to both private interpretation and the teaching authority of the Church utterly begs the question. The Catholic and Orthodox churches also, after all, claim to bear the "witness of the Spirit to the Word in the church to the people of God," while believing their own dogmas to be part of that witness. But of course the differences within Christianity remain; and there is no way, prior to assessing the claims of a given church to divinely bestowed authority, to identify who really bears the witness of the Holy Spirit to the word "in the church."

Such difficulties make me glad to be Catholic. If we understand what the Catholic Church claims to be, and accept it, we don't have those difficulties. Of course we have many other problems in the Catholic Church, as everything involving human beings does. But I have excellent reason to trust that, whatever does or doesn't happen to me as an individual member of the Mystical Body of Christ, his Bride on earth, I am just such a member and can remain one as long as I choose to. That makes my trust in the worthwhileness of my life possible even when the visible evidence thereof isn't very persuasive. Why? Because I can reasonably trust that I remain in loving encounter with the Person whom life is all about.

Nevertheless, it's often been said that American Catholics are experientially Protestant inasmuch as their religious sensibilities are formed, almost by osmosis, in a culturally Protestant environment. I think that's largely right, and the phenonomenon affects our experience of church in particular.

In Protestantism, a church is essentially a voluntary association of individuals whose religious opinions happen more-or-less to coincide; "the" Church, on this model, is the invisible collection of people through the ages who have got and stayed right with God; and one hopes, with fingers crossed, that the Church and the churchgoing set roughly coincide. In Catholicism, however, "the Church" is something visible: those among the baptized who are in full communion with the Bishop of Rome; "a" church is an organ of that body, which might or might not have remained in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, and thus might or might not be fully integrated into the whole. That selfsame Church is the Bride of Christ, one body with him in a mystical marriage, and thus is the Mystical Body of Christ. What "the" Church teaches with her full authority, therefore, just is the teaching of Christ, and thus is what "the Spirit witnesses to in to the Church to God's people." That is why what the Church proposes for our belief is coextensive with divine revelation, and the decision to accept it is the gift of faith bestowed by the Holy Spirit. Any church built on any other conception of church has no such authority and therefore, to the extent its doctrine and church order differ from those of the Catholic Church, is teaching mere religious opinion. Even when the members of such a church do hold what is of faith, they do not hold it by faith, save to the extent they rely on the authority of the Catholic Church—which many do more than they realize.

This Pentecost, I pray that a lot more people come to realize that. And I'm not doing that just because, if the prayer is answered soon, I'd have a better chance of getting the sort of job I want. That might only mean that I'm mistaking my own desires for those of the Holy Spirit. No, I'm praying that way because it's always a good and joyous thing when Truth is acknowledged. It might even help people trust each other more again.
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