Thursday, April 21, 2016

Reasons for believing: A matter of opinion?

Again I post one of my earlier essays lurking about my computer. This in answer to the question whether Reason is an acceptable way of discerning Christian truth.

“… your masters at Oxford have taught you to idolise reason, drying up the prophetic capacities of your heart.” Ubertino to William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose

Consider the following unlikely questions.

1)      Mankind makes first contact with aliens. Should we proclaim the gospel to them?
2)      Paul’s third letter to the Corinthians is discovered. It’s as authentic as the other epistles. Does that make it part of the bible?
3)      Did God create dinosaurs?

Chances are that these made you think a bit. They seem to be silly or irrelevant questions, but they make a very genuine and important point. The internet has only existed in the last 30 years and television is nearly only a century old. In the 1950s, it was quite reasonable to ask the question, “is it possible to consecrate a wafer in a live broadcast of the Mass?”  We don’t know what the future holds technologically speaking, socially speaking, or even morally speaking. However, we can be sure that we will face questions about our faith that need a legitimate answer.

We Anglican Catholics can only begin to answer these questions by going back to what we believe and that is the Catholic Faith of the Undivided Church. What does this mean?

Any question involves accepting a method for deciding what we know. We Anglican Catholics accept three forms of determining whether something is true or false, Scripture, Tradition and Reason. That might worry us a bit. After all, humans can find reasons which lead to some truly terrible conclusions. The persecution of the Jews, the witch-trials and the Communist purges all arose out of seemingly rational principles, but with clearly Hellish consequences.

In claiming to be Anglican Catholic, we have to believe that Holy Scripture is a true and sufficient record of our salvation which is interpreted through the Tradition of the Church Fathers and communicated via Reason as Archbishop Haverland testifies in his book, “Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice”. Human beings can only communicate what they mean through reasonable statements. Our Lord in His ministry on Earth communicated using reason. Look at St Matthew vii.11:

“If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”

Here, Our Lord is reasoning by analogy. A father gives good gifts to his child; God is our Father, so God gives good gifts to us. Our Lord shows us that Human Reason is capable of great good and communicating so much good news. However, it must be governed by the Holy Spirit through a life of work, prayer and study because the human will has a very sad tendency to sin.

However, we can see from Paul’s letters that he is reasoning from his experience of Our Lord in communion with the Church. The letter to the Romans is a wonderfully reasonable account of why Gentiles can be Christian. Our God wants us to know the truth because He is the Way, the Truth and the Life in the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, reason then tells us that we cannot know God fully.

1)      God’s knowledge is beyond Time;
2)      Man’s knowledge grows within Time;
3)      Any knowledge within Time cannot reach beyond Time without God’s help;
Conclusion) Man’s knowledge cannot reach God’s knowledge without God’s help.

We know that we cannot know anything about God except that which He chooses to reveal to us. We only have two sources of revelation, namely Scripture and Tradition. From these, it has pleased God to bless our reason to discover the Doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity and of the seven Sacraments.

For example, the Seventh Oecumenical Council says that Holy Images may be venerated. In the Eighth Century, holy pictures and statues were being destroyed by the Iconoclasts, the “picture breakers”, who were applying the Second Commandment very strictly. They held that venerating a statue of Our Lord Jesus was the same as idolatry because God commanded us not to worship graven images.

However, the Iconodules, those who did venerate icons, reasoned at the Council that an image of Our Lord brought Him to mind, and since Our Lord is to be worshipped, venerating that image is an appropriate response. The veneration is not applied to the created statue or picture, but to the person whom that statue or picture depicts. This is not idolatry in which the object itself is worshipped.

The scriptural image used here is the Biblical narrative about the Brasen Serpent fashioned by Moses (Numbers xxi.8-9) in order to save the Israelites from a plague of serpents and broken by King Josiah (II Kings xviii.4) because people were worshipping the snake and not God. They did not discern the Lord God within the serpent.

However, what happens when Scripture and Tradition is silent or ambiguous?

There is no record of the death of Our Lady within Holy Scripture, so when did she die? Some Christians (especially Roman Catholics) say that, like Enoch and Elijah, she was assumed into Heaven and they will use Revelation xii as Scriptural evidence. However, looking at this with the eye of reason, we see that this is ambiguous in meaning. The Woman Clothed with the Sun could very well be a figure for Israel herself. More to the point, the Revelation of St John is not a history or a biography – it is a prophecy of God’s fidelity. Looking in Church Tradition, there is nothing recorded until about the third Century and St Epiphanius writing in 377 said that no-one knew whether Mary had died or not! However, unlike St Peter and St Paul and many other saints, there are no bodily relics of Our Lady.

What then should we believe?

In 1950, Pope Pius XII used Papal infallibility to declare that the Doctrine of the Assumption of Our Lady MUST be believed by all Christians. Of course, we Anglican Catholics cannot recognise that declaration as being valid whether or not Our Lady was assumed into Heaven. A Pope is not a Council, even if he is advised by one.

Because the Church split into East and West in the 11th Century, no new Oecumenical Councils can take place until that split is resolved. Therefore there can be no new teaching which can be as definitive as a Council or a Creed. The question must remain open. This allows for differences of opinion until the matter can be settled definitively.

Neither Scripture nor Tradition conclusively mention UFOs, dinosaurs nor motor cars, though there are vague pictures such as Elijah’s chariot to Heaven, Behemoth and Leviathan, and the peculiar chariot/throne in Ezekiel. We can choose to believe that UFOS exist, that dinosaurs existed and that motor cars are morally good. We can also choose to believe that UFOs don’t exist, dinosaurs didn’t exist and that motor cars are morally evil. However, we must surely be prepared to justify our choices with reasons if we hope to communicate with others.

St Peter says quite clearly, ”But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (I Peter iii.15) We have to justify ourselves and make sure that we do not depart from the Catholic Faith. However, where something does not appear in Scripture or Tradition or in any Council, Canon or Creed, we are not bound to believe it and we are not bound not to believe it also.

We must be careful though. Scripture contains all things necessary for our Salvation as interpreted by Tradition. If something cannot be proved by Scripture, then we cannot be forced to believe it. We can hold to the Assumption of Our Lady as a pious opinion but it is not a dogma: the authority of the Pope is not sufficient to require us to believe it. However, if we do choose to believe it, then we must live our lives with the consequences of that opinion. If those consequences contradict the Catholic Faith, then we have the wrong opinion and must give it up.

We may hold different pious opinions. In that case, St Paul reminds us:

“Who art thou that judgest another man's servant?  to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up : for God is able to make him stand . One man esteemeth one day above another : another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks ; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks . For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live , we live unto the Lord; and whether we die , we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die , we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ both died , and rose, and revived , that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.” (Romans xiv.4-9)

Whatever we believe, we must first believe that we have to love, starting with God and then our fellow men. If we cannot even do that, then perhaps what we believe isn’t really Christian at all.

That’s reasonable, isn’t it?

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