We often attribute to the great Richard Hooker the “three-legged” stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason in his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. In actual fact, all we actually find in this work is the following:
“What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever” (Laws, Book V, 8:2).
Many of the polemical disputes in the wake of the Reformation and the Council of Trent concerned the relationship between Tradition and Scripture, and then the nature of Tradition in the life of the Church. I have already discussed the issue of Newman’s theory of organic development as opposed to the “immobilism” of Bossuet and most theologians of before the nineteenth century. Perhaps the root of many of our difficulties is even more fundamental, the relationship between faith and reason. This issue has been addressed by Popes Jean Paul II and Benedict XVI, and not without reason.
This particularly came home to me as I read the Holy Father’s famous address at Regensburg University in September 2006 that even caused a few good Catholics to be martyred by fanatical Islamists. I would recommend reading this address, even though it is not easy for those unversed in ancient Greek philosophy.
The Holy Father addresses not only the issue of reason without faith, which amounts to modern rationalism and atheism. He also addresses faith without reason, which is the characteristic of fanatics, sectarians and horrors of all kinds in history. He went as far as identifying the root cause of terrorism and “holy war” whether it is perpetrated by Muslims, Christians or people of any other religion.
It was in 1984 that the Italian writer and philsopher Umberto Eco published The Name of the Rose, an extremely popular book about some very un-Christian goings-on in a Benedictine abbey somewhere in Italy in the early fourteenth century. A film has also been made with Sean Connery (the 1960's James Bond) as Fr. William of Baskerville. The book is not intended to be historically accurate, but is an admirable study of human evil and fanaticism in the name of religion and Catholic Christianity in particular. It has marked my thinking all these years alongside perhaps more serious authors like Berdyaev and Solzhenitsyn. I see it when it happens, and I recognise all the signs. Read this extract from the end of the book as the abbey library burns and Jorge tries to hide the secret of Aristotle's humour to the bitter end.
This could even be for us a great meditation for Advent.
"It was the greatest library in Christendom", William said. "Now", he added, "the Antichrist is truly at hand, because no learning will hinder him any more. For that matter, we have seen his face tonight".
"Whose face?" I [Adso] asked, dazed.
"Jorge, I mean. In that face, deformed by hatred of philosophy, I saw for the first time the portrait of the Antichrist, who does not come from the tribe of Judas, as his heralds have it, or from a far country. The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them. Jorge did a diabolical thing because he loved his truth so lewdly that he dared anything in order to destroy falsehood. Jorge feared the second book of Aristotle because it perhaps really did teach how to distort the face of every truth, so that we would not become slaves of our ghosts. Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth". "But, master", I ventured, sorrowfully, "you speak like this now because you are wounded in the depths of your spirit. There is one truth, however, that you discovered tonight, the one you reached by interpreting the clues you read over the past few days. Jorge has won, but you have defeated Jorge because you exposed his plot…."
"There was no plot", William said, and I discovered it by mistake".
The assertion was self-contradictory, and I couldn’t decide whether William really wanted it to be. "But it was true that the tracks in the snow led to Brunellus", I said, "it was true that Adelmo committed suicide, it was true that Venantius did not drown in the jar, it was true that the labyrinth was laid out the way you imagined it, it was true that one entered the Finis Africæ by touching the word ‘quatuor,’ it was true that the mysterious book was by Aristotle. … I could go on listing all the true things you discovered with the help of your learning…"
"I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand was the relation among signs. I arrived at Jorge through an apocalyptic pattern that seemed to underlie all the crimes, and yet it was accidental. I arrived at Jorge seeking one criminal for all the crimes and we discovered that each crime was committed by a different person, or by no one. I arrived at Jorge pursuing the plan of a perverse and rational mind, and there was no plan, or, rather, Jorge himself was overcome by his own initial design and there began a sequence of causes, and concauses, and of causes contradicting one another, which proceeded on their own, creating relations that did not stem from any plan. Where is all my wisdom, then! I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe".
"But in imagining an erroneous order you still found some-thing…"
"What you say is very fine, Adso, and I thank you. The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless.
This meaning, absent from evil but present in the divine plan, is what Pope Benedict XVI and the ancient Greek philosophers called the λόγος, what St. John calls the Word. Permit me to paraphrase and resume the Pope's address a little. God of His very nature is reason, meaning and revelation, everything we His creation are, and everything we are not. Reason illuminated by Faith has always proven the basis of a balanced and sane Christianity. I love the Prologue of Saint John as recited at the end of each Mass in the Roman rite. The “Word” means both reason and word – the creative power of God at every level of existence. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Saint Paul understood how the Greeks thought and harmonised his understanding with the faith of the Bible and God’s revelation.
Reason has given us a tool to delve into the secrets of God without, at any time, exhausting them. Philosophy gives us understanding and enlightenment, what the men of the eighteenth century sought but all so imperfectly. The Holy Father explains so well that there was a meeting point between the Biblical Faith of the Jewish people and the early Christians and Greek philosophy. This you will find in the Wisdom literature. The Greek Septuagint Old Testament, from which the Vulgate was translated, shows this happy encounter between Revelation and the Greek worldview. Greek thought has pervaded Christianity all the way through the Patristic era, Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas and all the way to the best modern theologians. The Holy Father’s meditation on God is a spiritual experience in itself. God is not that capricious ogre some imagine. We read Psalm 90 in our Prayer Book and this leaps out from the book – Comfort us again now after the time that thou hast plagued us: and for the years wherein we have suffered adversity. Does God plague us? Perhaps the verse is not a brilliant translation of Laetati sumus pro diebus quibus nos humiliasti: annis quibus vidimus mala. Beautiful as Coverdale’s and Cranmer’s English is, it is good sometimes to return to the old Latin texts men of the Pre-Reformation Church knew by heart. God as the true λόγος is none other than our heavenly Father – Pater noster, qui es in coelis…
The convergence between Greek thought and the Faith of the Holy Scriptures was the very bedrock of European culture, art and literature. With the Latin and Roman heritage, the picture was completed. The Pope hit it right on the head when he identified the roots of the sixteenth century Reformation. Get rid of what is perceived as a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy – scholastic theology, and Faith is restored as the living Word. Take away philosophy, priests, sacraments, good works, pilgrimages, indulgences, statues, relics and all the rest, and you find faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Is that not what we read of certain continuing Anglican priests writing on their blogs? Pruning back accretions to reveal something that is pristine and pure seems an attractive idea, but it is an illusion. Kant, just a little later, only took it one step further – set thinking apart and pretend reality does not exist! Do you see where this is going? Nietzsche, Dawkins and many other fools who said in their hearts that there was no God!
Yes, you’ve got it. The Bible itself, in this way of thinking Benedict XVI so astutely identifies, is a system of thought and human expression, so therefore unreliable. Thus we have Adolf von Harnack, Loisy and Bultmann! These men wanted to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith – get rid of the accretions! That's to say no miracles, no virgin birth, no Resurrection – just a nice Jewish man who gave us a nice Zen-like moral code to keep us politically correct. The Gospel is all about morality, good social behaviour and niceness to other people – and no more. Thus we arrive at Spong and Schori, and – no doubt – the new lesbian bishop-elect in California.
When faith and reason are separated, you then have the opposition between fideism and atheism, refusal of humanity and human knowledge on one hand, and refusal of God on the other. I have always loved science and discovery. I have a restless mind, and I want to know, discover, know ever more. To me, the sciences bring us better knowledge about nature in terms of chemistry, physics and biology – and this nature bears the image of God. Nature is an icon of the Creator. The more I learn about what scientists are discovering about the universe, the more I am brought to a deeper faith in God and an ever-increasing desire to pray and adore. There is no incompatibility between true science and faith.
It is in the final two paragraphs of the Pope’s address that we really see pearls of wisdom with which we can identify. As we do not play at being “Caroline Divines” in the early twenty-first century, criticising the prevailing modern use of reason does not roll back the progress of history. Many modern things are good and wholesome. Modern science brings us medicine, energy, savings of labour and greater availability of food at a low price. It brings us knowledge and stimulation, and sometimes entertainment too. Unfortunately, science has also brought us revolting violations of human life and dignity, pollution, nuclear bombs and their potential to destroy the planet hundreds of times over. Many things threaten the future of mankind. Science and faith must come together, and the whole put to serving the common good of us all.
The point I am making is that our duty is not simply to conserve, but also to use the talents God gave us in all different sorts of ways to understand better, develop and improve what we have received for the future. This is not to say we can all do our own thing individually, like priests who improvise their own "liturgies" – but as a Church, as a Communion, each with his or her own charisma and limitations. We must believe in the future and keep the torch of hope alive, however much we feel discouraged and threatened by cosmic events, our human stupidity or perhaps God Himself. I cast my mind back to that fictitious story of the elderly monk in the fourteenth century abbey who went to any length, including killing people, to hide a book that would cast doubts on his “orthodoxy” and admit the possibility of humour and the use of human rational intellectual faculties.
The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.
We have nothing to fear from knowledge, from walking in the light, from facing reality. We do not become any less Christian by using our brains and living in our time. May faith and reason be forever united!
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