Truth Transcends Expression Of The Truth: On The Silence Converts Should Have Before Teaching The Faith

Truth Transcends Expression Of The Truth: On The Silence Converts Should Have Before Teaching The Faith September 4, 2017

Josep_Benlliure_Gil43It was a standing rule of an earlier age: those who converted to the Christian faith were not to be immediately given special status as a lay teacher or quickly raised up ecclesial ranks into the clergy. While there were exceptions to the rule, as Christians understood the possibility for pastoral dispensations to various disciplines, most of those exceptions can be with either exceptional converts who proved themselves beyond repute or from those who were raised in a Christian household and had only postponed their baptism.

There was great wisdom behind the church’s reaction to converts. She understood that they would be enthusiastic, and that could and often would lead to considerable evangelic work by them. However, their enthusiasm was still untried, and their comprehension of the faith was still only elementary. If she let them guide the church, it would appear they had reached a level of understanding that they had not and others who followed afterward would therefore also receive less of the catechesis and subsequent mystagogy they needed. Thus, the new convert had to prove themselves sincere and allow themselves to grow in the faith before they were seen as sound representatives of the church.[1]  Before the convert was ready for a position of honor or authority, they would need to prove themselves within the community, to grow in their faith and understanding beyond the simple catechesis which they were first given, so that they would not be easily led into theological error. Likewise, through such growth, they would be able to realize that the faith follows a mystery which transcends human attempts to solidify it in systematic form. Often converts are so interested in those systematic attempts of expressing the mystery that they over-literalize the conventions used, ignoring the greater depth of the faith which has been left unsaid. Thus, by giving them time to integrate the faith in their lives, the convert would be able to overcome such literalistic tendencies and thereby be ready to teach others. As they understand the limitations of human speech, they would know not to be pushing doctrines to be comprehended within those confines. [2]

It is easy for a convert, or those who were raised Christian and baptized at infancy but later take their faith seriously, to confuse an expression of the faith which they are given, especially if it is given in a logical fashion which appeals more to reason than to mystery, to be the faith itself. To get lost in words and the logical ramifications of how the faith is expressed instead of seeking what lays beyond the words, the silence from which the words flow, is a temptation for many who seek after the truth. Having an expression which seems logical and sound, which seems to connect everything in a simple over-arching system which explains everything, certainly is appealing.  Indeed, it is often such a simple formulation of the faith which draws many truth-seekers to the faith, and so it can be the means by which conversions begins, but all such converts should be forewarned from the beginning that all they are being given is a conventional expression of the absolute which transcends human comprehension so that they do not seek to limit the faith in such simplicity. This will then allow the mystery, the apophatic silence which lies behind the expression of faith, to prevail and make sure that any simplistic system does not end up leading to heresy. The system itself must be deconstructed and reconstructed so as to show that it is not the system but what is being pointed to which is the truth. Converts must be warned that conversion is a lifelong process, that there is no simple expression of the faith which cannot be modified and improved.

Change is a part of the faith. As faith develops, conversion continues, and reform purifies the mistakes of the past. Converts who have been given an expression of the faith to hold to which is a simplistic, unmysterious, over-reaching system which pretends to be the only necessary conclusion of all that is given of the faith itself will find themselves challenged when the church continues to grow and develop its understanding and awareness. For when the church further clarifies itself, some will contend she is going against her former statements because they have misconstrued the pointer with the meaning in the past.[3] This can lead to a crisis of faith. Those truly following the church will be able to move with the church; it might be difficult, there might be confusion, but they will realize that the church speaks out and develops itself from the mystery which transcends human comprehension and rationalistic systems.

As many born within a Christian family and have been a Christian all their lives have seen the transformation of their own faith, they will have less problems following the church in her own developments. On the other hand, those who has been led to believe the faith as it is expressed in a particular formulation with a given apologetical explanation for that formulation, which is often what is given to converts, will find that moving on with the church in her continued exploration of the mystery will be difficult indeed. Such converts will have been somewhat misled by their teachers, and if they have become teachers continuing on with the formulations they have been given, they will continue to hand down the same mistakes; the fullness of the faith will be cut off by the veil of logical assertions, and so such converts will find themselves only at the exterior of the church, receiving grace but not fully thriving in the mystery which Christ calls them to embrace. When the church develops itself beyond the formulations they have been given, they will fight tooth and nail against the change, causing great trouble for the church itself. They have not been told to look beyond the words, and so they hold on to the words as if unto an idol. They will not understand what lies behind the words they use, what connects them with the fulness of the faith, and so will fight any and all difference in expressions of the faith wherever they are found. Likewise,  thinking legalistically, they will end up fighting not only  new expression of the faith, but changes in pastoral discipline as well. Converts with great enthusiasm who have not yet fully converted to the mystery but only to the external shell and presentation of the mystery are receiving grace, but they need to be encouraged to continue their conversion. They should not be rewarded for being converts with accolades and a voice in the community merely because they are converts, for once the winds of change comes, they might use all the accolades they have been given as proof that they are in the right, and will in pride lead many astray with their misunderstanding of the faith.

Converts certainly have much to give the church, if they are open to constant conversion, to spiritual growth and accept the great mystery which lies behind doctrinal pronouncements.  The church is the pillar and ground of truth, and as such, wherever truth is found and proclaimed, the church needs to accept that truth and bring it unto herself. Thus, converts are able to bring pieces of truth with them, finding the church has not only the room but the need for what they have to offer. But they must come in humility. Their notions must be baptized and purified. What they know likewise must be tried and purged of all error so it can complement what the church already proclaims. All converts bring something with them as they convert which is good, but they also bring baggage with them.

One of the worst problems found with many converts is a mindset that makes them think they have discerned the truth, and so they have become the judge of the truth: they will follow the church so long as it continues to conform to the truth as they understand it, but when the church grows and develops beyond it, they are unwilling to grow and so decry the church for the change. This is exactly what lies behind the problem many have documented of former Protestant apologists making their way in the church, becoming a voice of authority through their work: they continue to think with a Protestant mindset which puts themselves and their reasoning and arguments at the center of their personal faith. This leads them to think that they are the judge of right and wrong, of truth and error. What this means is that their conversion was incomplete because they have yet not died to the self.[4] They believe, to be sure, but they believe in a set of doctrines which they have concluded as true and they will follow the church because the church teaches according to their own personal conclusions and for that reason alone. They assume their way is the truth and so are not willing to be corrected but instead end up thinking they need to correct the church when the church does anything contrary to their own personal expectations. So much of their arguments have been based upon presumptions which were false, and they are unwilling to revise themselves with the church which continues on her constant transformation and self-purification.[5]

The solution is not to disregard converts, but to reawaken to the wisdom of an earlier era. A convert should not be lauded and given accolades and go on speaking tours and teach others quickly after conversion, for all this does is affirm them in the place they are at in their faith immediately after conversion. They are led to think they have attained full conversion, ignoring, therefore, that conversion should be a constant process, a lifelong process, for all believers. Certainly, this is not a problem for all converts, but it is enough of a problem that for the sake of the church, converts should be encouraged to continue to learn in silence, to be tested, so that they come to realize the mystery of the church and try not to reduce the faith to mere rationalistic expression of doctrine. Then, once they have gained in wisdom and grace, they can be speakers for the good of others, if that truly is their calling.

[IMG= Un coro de ángeles, con sus melodías ahuyenta los pesares de San Francisco by José Benlliure y Gil [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] In times of persecution, there was also the concern of Roman authorities infiltrating the church, seeking to find the leaders of the faith and decimate the Christian population by taking them out. Thus, Christians often wanted to keep elements of their faith, elements of the ecclesia, kept secret from outsiders, and it took a long time before an outsider was seen fully integrated into the community and completely trustworthy. While we do not have this concern today, it still helped the early church recognize the need to try the newcomers and make sure they continued on in the faith in a way which we have forgotten in times of relative ease with the rest of the world.

[2] The great saints and Doctors of the Church, throughout history, have understood this problem, and so have consistently warned of the problems of doing theology, of expressing the transcendent truths of the faith in any verbal form, saying that it is only necessity and not idle curiosity which should lead to positive expressions of the faith.

[3] Early Trinitarian and Christological controversies can be seen demonstrating this from time to time. As words changed meaning, and became more refined in connotation, the church had to change her formulations. At Nicaea, it was said that there was but one hypostasis for the Godhead, but as the definition for hypostasis developed, so the church would and would adapt, clarifying itself by saying the Trinity has three hypostases and this helped express a depth to the faith which the earlier Nicene definition could not do. Likewise, when trying to discuss the incarnation, loose language like “one incarnate nature” was employed by St. Cyril of Alexandria, though he was willing to discuss the humanity and divinity of Jesus and distinguish them; at Chalcedon, some who followed St. Cyril thought the church had to use his exact expression of the faith and so contended Chalcedon contradicted Ephesus instead of looking at how both were trying to explain the same phenomenon.

[4] Of course, many who have been raised Christian and in the church also have this problem,

[5] This can be seen in the way so many convert-apologists have been the loudest in protesting Pope Francis in many of his pastoral initiatives. They assume facts which were not true, such as those fighting Pope Francis in relation to his pastoral initiatives on marriage. They presume and discus a past which never existed, and then pit it against the Pope saying he is undermining Christian teaching on marriage because he is engaging the people pastorally in a way which understands the whole history of Christian treatment of marriage and not their own modernistic interpretation of it. It is not hard to see that, if and when it is  Protestants converts we find arguing in this manner, it is because their former ways of thought continue with them: but what of those who were raised Catholic who now also think the Pope is betraying the church’s teachings and practice? Sadly, they look up to convert-apologists for their faith, and so the blind converts lead the blind Catholics against the Pope, with a Protestant sensibility overriding the more complex and Catholic understanding of pastoral concerns.


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