Tuesday, 1 May 2007

It's a fine line....

This blog war is becoming increasingly heated (Francis and Greg). Possibly a good thing. But it makes it incumbent upon me to state fully - rather than just in replies and comments - where I stand. But before I do, I'd like to establish the parameters of my comments:
  • These are my beliefs. They do not have to be yours, nor will I judge you for differing. That would be contradict the fundamental principles of the faith of which we are discussing fine details.
  • This post is written in an amicable, if serious tone. Ecumenism is a duty of the Faithful, and we must follow it. More of this later....
Denominational Relativism

The theme of my blog posts - attacking relativism in all of its forms - is becoming more pronounced than I hate expected. No matter. It seems that many commentators in this debate seem to hold to what I'll call 'denominational relativism': that is, that all denominations are equally good and valid. This is the principle that Greg launched the first strike at. His comments were thus:

"it doesn't matter which kind of church you go to because they're all the same... Sorry, it does. Non-denominationalism is worse than Protestantism....Why am I not a Quaker? Because they're Unitarians, which is heresy........"

I'm not happy with the statement that one set of beliefs is 'worse' or 'better' than another. That sounds judgmental, which we must avoid. Nonetheless, it is necessary to say that the different sets of beliefs are not equally true. Follow the argument with me:
  • True relativism is incompatible with the Christian Faith. The statement 'there is no truth' denies the existence of Christ, since He is Truth (cf St. John, 14 v 6: "I am the way and the truth and the life.")
  • Thus truth as an absolute exists.
  • Therefore, the statement 'Mary was Assumed into Heaven' is either true, or it is false. It may be partly true, or partly false, but it cannot be true and false at the same time. I take that example as a very Catholic statement which the Protestant churches reject utterly. But there are many others
  • Thus the Doctrine of the Assumption must either be right or wrong.
  • Therefore, denominational relativism cannot be correct.
  • This means that denomination is important.

The importance of this question

This is where I get onto ground in which - perhaps - I express those beliefs stemming from my Protestant upbringing.

What really matters in one's Faith is this 'relationship' issue. Now I don't deny the importance of the other issues, but the God's Love is the crucial bit. As the Holy Father wrote in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, the statement ‘I have come to believe in God’s Love’ is the fundamental statement of the faith.

That’s the bit that’s necessary for salvation. If we love God, we are saved. ‘Whoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (The Acts of the Apostles, Ch 2 v 21). But it’s not simple: in the second epistle of St John, it is written: ‘And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment: That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it… Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God.’

Thus it’s written in Sacred Scripture that love of God means following His Commandments. Given that they must be absolute – not relative – we thus need to find out – and follow – what these Commandments truly are.

Now some Commandments are easy to find. ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ for example. Hard to follow, but easy to recognise. Others are harder to find, and much more controversial: what of these? These ‘peripheral’ questions may not of the first importance, but they are still enormously important by general standards. It’s just that the importance of Faith is beyond reckoning.

Scriptural Comments

Francis raises Scriptural quotations to support his concerns for this blog war. The first is from the Gospel according to St. Matthew: Chapter 7: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else's eye and pay no attention to the plank in you own eye?”

I would dispute the relevance of this passage to the question of denominational disagreement. We are not judging others. At least we should not be. We are simply guiding our brothers to better their faith, in the way we perceive that they should. This is in complete according with Pauline teachings: that we should correct errors amongst the Faithful. Incidentally, I do not mean to do so myself with any authority. I simply believe that there exists an authority with the power to do so. The ‘questionable’ existence of such Petrine Authority really underpins this whole debate.

The second important issue Francis raises is: "Keep reminding God's people of these things. Warn them before God against quarrelling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.' (2 Timothy 2, 14-15)" This is perhaps a more threatening problem that we face. But, put simply, we must always make sure it's not petty quibbling over terms, but is of at least some importance. I suggest that the above reasons make such a discussion as this legitimately important.

I would also agree with Francis that no denomination is utterly perfect. it never will be, because it has humans in it. But we must not accept our imperfections as a fact of life. We must strive to root them out one by one, in order more efficaciously to further God's work.


The problem, put simply, is that denominational relativism seems to me to be incompatible with Biblical teaching. That means that even protestants cannot truly accept it. After all, they cannot surely accept the truth of Catholicism and remain Protestants. We become hazy, doctrinally impure Christians, at great risk of losing the faith for the sake of unity. After all, why not be united with all of the other religions? That would get the Church to be larger and more united....

Ecumenism: a duty of the Church

That’s the negative bit out of the way. Now to be positive. Ecumenism is a duty of the Church of God. This was re-iterated in Pope John-Paul II’s encyclical, Ut unum sint (That they may be one). As such, I hope none of the Catholic side in this argument will dispute what I am about to say:

Simply speaking, the challenge of ecumenism is to work together in spite of what differences there are, whilst simultaneously resolving those differences. How can we achieve such an impossible task?

St. Paul wrote: ‘Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.’ (1 Corinthians, Chapter I, v. 10)

Nonetheless, it is possible to take unity too far. We cannot agree with those who err. We cannot give ground on truth in order to be united. This is not what St. Paul says should happen. He says that we should be ‘perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment’. One can unequivocally state that this must be the correct judgment. It is nonsense to suggest that St. Paul would suggest it is better for us all to be heretics than to guard the Faith in its pure and proper form. How do we reconcile co-operation with correctness?

The answer, according to the encyclical, is prayer and grace. I wish to share with you two quotations, from the introduction and conclusion to the document:

"Nevertheless, besides the doctrinal differences needing to be resolved, Christians cannot underestimate the burden of long-standing misgivings inherited from the past, and of mutual misunderstandings and prejudices. Complacency, indifference and insufficient knowledge of one another often make this situation worse. "

"I am reminded of the words of Saint Cyprian's commentary on the Lord's Prayer, the prayer of every Christian: "God does not accept the sacrifice of a sower of disunion, but commands that he depart from the altar so that he may first be reconciled with his brother. For God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace. To God, the better offering is peace, brotherly concord and a people made one in the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit".
At the dawn of the new millennium, how can we not implore from the Lord, with renewed enthusiasm and a deeper awareness, the grace to prepare ourselves, together, to offer this sacrifice of unity?

I, John Paul, servus servorum Dei, venture to make my own the words of the Apostle Paul, whose martyrdom, together with that of the Apostle Peter, has bequeathed to this See of Rome the splendour of its witness, and I say to you, the faithful of the Catholic Church, and to you, my brothers and sisters of the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities: "Mend your ways, encourage one another, live in harmony, and the God of love and peace will be with you ... The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor 13:11,13)."


Francis said...

I must thank you first for producing this post Phil; it must have taken you a considerable amount of time, and it's helped me to clarify some things in my own mind. I have a few things to say in response, but I shall probably have to return as I'll undoubtably forget a couple of things:

Just to clarify and consolidate my position, I don't object to this discussion at all. What was beginning to concern me was the suggestion (which I now understand was not intended by anyone) that somebody's faith might be invalid for theological reasons.

I now accept, to a far greater extent than I did before this debate, the importance of theology in one's faith. However, I still maintain my belief in the primary importance of 'what lies in the heart', and I think that many people would agree with me there.

Thanks for using what I've said in my blog in such a reasonable way Phil. I've undergone a transformation from feeling threatened by this debate, to feeling enlightened, and a little wiser.

Gavin said...

Francis you are excellent. That's all I have to say to you.

I haven't read all this yet, Phil, but I'm sure it's all logically sound and enlightened stuff. Trouble is, not everyone will read it! Too often people plant their standard in the ground (this reminds of me of the Battle of Edgehill) and refuse to be moved or even pay attention to analysis. The laying out of one's position in clarified terms is so important, I just can't be bothered to do it in the same depth as you do!


Francis said...

Yay I feel loved!

Gavin said...

Steady now.