The House of Mirrors – 2

In Fides et Ratio, Blessed Pope John Paul II identifies four strands of relativistic thinking which infect our society and the church. One strand is eclecticism. So ‘ideas are drawn from widely different theologies and philosophies without concern for their internal coherence or their place within a historical context.’ (par. 86) This pick ’n’ mix mentality was obvious in Anglican church life where old Protestant denominational boundaries had become fluid. Furthermore, a whole range of ‘spiritualities’ ranging from Christianity through to Buddhism and native American religions were drawn on.So Feminist and New Age theologians seemed quite happy to drink from the chalice of witchcraft or pagan religions – never seeing any conflict with their Christian profession.

Historicism is another strand within this relativistic mindset which John Paul II picks out. He defines it thus:

The fundamental claim of historicism however, is that the truth of a philosophy is determined on the basis of its appropriateness to a certain period and a certain historical purpose. At least implicitly therefore, the enduring validity of truth is denied. What was true in one period, historicists claim, may not be true in another. (par. 87)

Again, this cast of mind is the prevailing one within much of modern Anglicanism. So in the argument over the ordination of women it was claimed that St Paul’s command, ‘I do not permit a woman to hold authority over a man in church’ was historically and culturally conditioned. In other words it may have been true then, it isn’t now. Evangelicals like the Archbishop of Canterbury were then hoisted on their own petard because a few years later the militant homosexuals used the same historicist argument to support their own cause for ordination. ‘When St Paul condemned homosexuality,’ they claimed, ‘he was expressing an understanding of sexuality which we now know is out of date.’

Scientism is another strand of relativism which the Pope exposes in Fides et Ratio.

Scientism is the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious  theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy. (par. 88)

Once again, this form of relativism is part of everyday parish life in the Anglican world. Any notion of miracles or the supernatural either in the Scriptures or contemporary life is often dismissed as impossible. So Anglican bishops would publicly deny the physical resurrection simply because their scientific pre-suppositions did not allow miracles to occur. The same scientism was evident in the attitude to the Sacraments and functions of the priest. As a result the priest was often relegated to the role of teacher or social worker. The idea that he or the Sacraments had any ‘power’ given by God was pooh-poohed.

Finally the Pope discusses pragmatism. This is a frame of mind which makes decisions without any foundation in underlying principles of truth (par. 89). On the one hand decisions are taken for merely useful purposes. So ‘if you find it useful’ a particular thing must be true. This pragmatic approach is more popularly expressed as, ‘Easiest is best’.Another way pragmatism shows itself is in institutional decision making. So democratic decisions are taken and considered to be right simply because a majority says so, quite apart from any deeper or more wide ranging questions.

This was nowhere more evident in the Church of England than in the vote to ordain women as priests. In that debate the pragmatic approach was paramount. Firstly the arguments in favor were mostly utilitarian and sentimental: ‘Suzy would make a good priest – she’s such a good listener!’ or, ‘The priesthood would be so fulfilled if women were to be ordained too. ’ But the decision was also pragmatic in the way it was made. In putting such an important decision to a majority vote, the Church of England chose a relativistic and pragmatic way of making a decision of monumental importance. The majority was all that mattered and the unseemly political maneuvers to win were the main concern. The General Synod took the decision in a pragmatic mindset with scant regard for the wider theological, ecumenical, historical and anthropological issues at stake.

When I got down to analyzing it, it seemed that relativism in the Church of England was especially acute in our day – as it is in the rest of our society. I thought it might simply be that the Church was infected with a symptom of the age. But the more I thought about the history of the Church of England, it seemed that the relativity was written into its genes from its first conception. From the beginning there has been no doctrinal agreement in the Church of England. From the time of Elizabeth I the agreed doctrine was that there was no agreed doctrine. Theological positions were embraced or abandoned as a matter of political expediency. Could it be that our society caught the relativist infection from the Church rather than the other way around?

The roots of our post-modern relativism can indeed be traced back to the theological upheavals of the sixteenth century. But they can also be traced to the philosophical revolution of the ‘enlightenment’ and her intellectual offspring. It is also linked in with social upheavals, especially in this century. But what interested me most was that the roots of modern Anglican relativism are there at the core of Anglicanism itself. It shows most clearly in the contrast between Anglo-Catholics and Anglican Evangelicals. How is it that they can exist in a church together when they are diametrically opposed on almost all the major issues?

It can only be because both the Anglo-Catholic and Anglican Evangelical have relativism at the very foundation of their theological method. For both camps theological language can only be metaphorical – so theological and liturgical language is a poem, but never more than a poem. The Anglo-Catholic and the Evangelical Anglican live together not because they agree to differ but because they do not differ at all. They both agree that their language is ‘simply a way of speaking about the mystery which is beyond words.’ As a result the Evangelical Anglican is happy to tolerate the Anglo-Catholic as he reserves the Blessed Sacrament, marches in a Corpus Christi procession and kneels at Solemn Benediction. It might not be to the Evangelical’s taste, but he is happy to tolerate it because all of it is simply ‘the sort of thing which helps Anglo-Catholics’.

Likewise the Anglo-Catholic might tut-tut, but he doesn’t really mind when the Evangelical sweeps up the crumbs of consecrated bread and flushes them down the vestry lavatory with the consecrated wine because ‘that is his churchmanship.’ In other words, what the Evangelical does is only his particular ‘way of talking about the Holy Mysteries’. Likewise the Anglo-Catholic and the Anglican Evangelical recognize one another’s orders even though their views of ordination are in actual contradiction. Why is that? Because for both of them, at the end of the day, their orders are ‘just a way of talking about ministry.’ The rural dean was right about Anglicans at least, because for them there is no objective theology.

Pope John Paul II astutely analyses this illness of the mind and heart. He says the positions of relativism lead to a more general rejection of any meaning whatsoever, and this leads down the slippery slope to the denial and degradation of humanity itself … So he says:

 “the nihilist interpretation is at once the denial of all foundations and the negation of all objective truth. Quite apart from the fact that it conflicts with the demand and the content of the word of God, nihilism is a denial of the humanity and of the very identity of the human being. It should never be forgotten that the neglect of being inevitably leads to losing touch with objective truth and therefore with the very ground of human dignity. This in turn makes it possible to erase from the countenance of man and woman the marks of their likeness to God, and thus to lead them little by little either to a destructive will to power or to a solitude without hope. Once the truth is denied to human beings, it is pure illusion to try to set them free. Truth and freedom either go hand in hand or together they perish in misery.” (par. 90)

Although I was attracted to Anglican comprehensiveness, the lack of any objective theology which was part of the bargain made my private prayer and public ministry seem like a daily attempt to dance on quicksand. But what were the alternatives? John Paul II also points out in Fides et Ratio two other errors that are themselves reactions against relativism. One is rationalism – in which the theologian assumes certain intellectual propositions to be true and bases his critique of religion on his erroneous philosophical conclusions (par. 55). This position clings to the sort of truth which can be discovered by human reason alone. But because rationalism relies solely on human reason it often arrives at the wrong conclusions. I had heard that the Anglican theological position was a ‘three-legged stool’ of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. But those who said this usually placed human reason as the ultimate authority because time and again their rationalism found reasons to dismiss uncomfortable or unfashionable segments of the Scripture and Tradition. What they really promoted was not a three legged stool, but a theological pogo stick.

The Pope points out that the other alternative to nihilistic relativity is fideism. If rationalism promotes human reason as the sole authority, then fideism does just the opposite. It doesn’t trust human reason at all, and places one’s whole trust in ‘faith’. This faith is focused blindly in one particular interpretation of Christianity or one particular teacher’s views to the exclusion of both reason and all other religious viewpoints.

Another form of fideism is biblicism, which treats the Bible as the sole criterion for truth. Biblicism not only identifies the Word of God with the Bible (rather than Christ the incarnate Word) but it also follows one line of Biblical interpretation to the exclusion of all others (par. 55). Fideism seeks a refuge from relativity in faith without reason. Rationalism seeks a refuge in reason without faith.

But in Fides et Ratio Pope John Paul doesn’t simply point out the various modernist errors. He affirms that objective truth can be known. So he writes:

Faith clearly presupposes that human language is capable of expressing divine and transcendent reality in a universal way – analogically, it is true, but no less meaningful for that. Were this not so, the word of God, which is always a divine word in human language, would not be capable of saying anything about God. The interpretation of this word cannot merely keep referring us to one interpretation after another, without ever leading us to a statement which is simply true; otherwise there would be no revelation of God, but only the expression of human notions about God and about what God presumably thinks of us. (par. 84)

The discovery and proclamation of objective truth is the work of philosophy and theology. The Pope pleads for a proper dynamic relationship between faith and reason in order to explicate this objective truth. He doesn’t require slavish and unquestioning obedience to a theological position. That would be to fall into fideism. Neither does he allow a rational questioning which is instinctively destructive of the truths of revelation. So he makes a strong and insistent appeal – that faith and philosophy recover the profound unity which allows them to stand in harmony with their nature without compromising their mutual autonomy. (par. 48)

He urges that Faith and Reason be used together to understand and proclaim objective truth, but he goes on to add a third factor. Faith and Reason may well enlighten and critique each other in the quest for truth, but they are not necessarily free from the same relativity which dogs any intellectual enterprise. A third element which is bigger than both of them is necessary. This element is an authority which is able to validate and critique the findings of theology and philosophy’s search for Truth.

But what kind of authority exists which can stand as judge over philosophy and theology? How might we draw up a job description for such an awesome authority? I would say this agreed authority needs seven characteristics to work effectively. Read More