Friday, June 24, 2005

Simple isn't simple

Tolkien and 'Simple' faith From a letter from J.J.R. Tolkien to his son:
The... search backwards for 'simplicity' and directness - which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because 'primitive' Christianity is now and in spite of all 'research' will remain ever largely unknown; because 'primitiveness' is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance. Grave abuses were as much an element in Christian 'liturgical' behavior from the beginning as now. (St. Paul's strictures on Eucharistic behavior are sufficient to show this!) Still more because 'my church' was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant) which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history - the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set. There is no resemblance between the 'mustard seed' and the full grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth the Tree the thing, for the history of a living thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began as a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up, for it no longer exits, and the virtue and the powers it had now reside in the Tree. Very good; but in husbandry the authorities, the keepers of the Tree, must look after it, according to such wisdom as they possess, prune it, remove cankers, rid it of parasites, and so forth. (With trepidation, knowing how little their knowledge of growth is!) But they will certainly do harm, if they are obsessed with the desire of going back to the seed or even to the first youth of the plant when it was (as they imagine) pretty and unafflicted by evils.
Taken from Tolkien: Man and Myth, by Joseph Pearce More on Tolkien here. There is an interview with Pearce on the subject of Tolkien here. There are many reasons I must, at times, respectfully step back from friends in the various Protestant branches of the faith, and this is surely one of the larger ones. Sola Fide is not the sticking point for me that Sola Scriptura is. In the first principle, much depends on how one understands the words 'faith' and 'works'. But Sola Scriptura makes no sense to me, for this and other reasons:
Sola scriptura [becomes highly problematic as soon as] the Protestant [is asked] to explain how the books of the Bible got into the Bible. Under the Sola Scriptura rubric, Scripture exists in an absolute epistemological vacuum, since it and the veracity of its contents "dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church." If that's true, how then can anyone know with certitude what belongs in Scripture in the first place? The answer is, you can't. Without recognizing the trustworthiness of the Magisterium, endowed with Christ's own teaching authority (c.f., Matt. 16:18-19, 18:18; Luke 10:16} guided by the Holy Spirit (John 14:25-26; 16:13), and the living apostolic Tradition of the Church (1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Timothy 2:2), there is no way to know for certain which books belong in Scripture and which do not. As soon as Protestants begin to appeal to the canons drawn up by this or that Father, or this or that council, they immediately concede defeat, since they are forced to appeal to the very "testimony of man and Church" that they claim to not need.
Epistemologically speaking, there's no getting around a leap of faith as the first step in any effort at knowledge building. Every syllogism has ultimate premises that we either assent to or not. Do we believe in formal logic at all? How about Reason itself? The certitude sought by Sola Scriptura is a phantom. This lack of ultimate rational objectivity can be a terrifying thought. Post Moderns reject it and say we live in a funhouse world in which knowledge is not truly possible. The rest of us probably can't be convinced that that idea is either true or fun, and so we make a leap this way or that, very often unaware that we have done so at all. Then there's the other issues - it doesn't appear in the Bible; there was no printing press until long after Christ; and, finally, it's fruit has been schism after schism. I think this last quote is resoundingly true; one of the great unrecognized truths behind an awful lot of political conflict today:
The schizoid history of Protestantism itself bears witness to the original inner contradiction which marked its conception and birth. Conservative Protestants have maintained the original insistence on the Bible as the unique infallible source of revealed truth, at the price of logical incoherence. Liberals on the other hand have escaped the incoherence while maintaining the claim to "private interpretation" over against that of Popes and Councils, but at the price of abandoning the Reformers’ insistence on an infallible Bible. They thereby effectively replace revealed truth by human opinion, and faith by an autonomous reason. Thus, in the liberal/evangelical split within Protestantism since the 18th century, we see both sides teaching radically opposed doctrines, even while each claims to be the authentic heir of the Reformation. The irony is that both sides are right: their conflicting beliefs are simply the two horns of a dilemma, which has been tearing at the inner fabric of Protestantism ever since its turbulent beginnings.
See also here.

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