I always appreciate my brother in the priesthood Fr Jonathan Munn and his keen intellect. Here’s a couple of recent articles, just in case they have gone unnoticed.
- How I (fail to) understand Protestantism from 18th February
Protestantism, like the word Anglicanism, has many meanings – both intellectual and emotional. In both words, we find the noble and the trite, broadness and mean pusillanimity. We study the history of the Reformation, and we look at the scores and hundreds of Christian communities which either claim to represent truth or aspire to greater freedom of spirit. Roman Catholics often criticise Protestants because they do not submit to the infallible authority that alone can keep a Church together. Experience has shown that authority alone is not enough.
At its root, Protestantism seems to be a movement of emancipation from clerical and institutional control, which is understandable as a reaction against corruption, power politics and cruelty. There were revolutionary movements before and since the Reformation. The problems came with the theological justifications. Fr Munn rightly observes that fragmentation is not proper to Protestantism: it is also a property of Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. It is a part of human nature.
Here in France, Anglican means something like English Protestant. At the best of times, the French have a collective memory of the Hundred Years War and the Napoleanic Wars. French Huguenots got protection from the occupying English in places like La Rochelle and Bordeaux. They find it very difficult to comprehend the notion of Anglican Catholicism (Anglo-Catholicism, which I consider as synonymous). Anglicans are Protestants because they are not in communion with Rome. However, the use of the name Anglican is important in France, otherwise you get accused of being “false Catholics”. People don’t reason. They go by prejudice and slogans, something very frightening as we begin to compare our own times with the 1920’s and 30’s!
The use of names and titles comes from the separation of groups of Christians from each other due to human grievances and very real institutional evils. They are an attempt to recover some kind of legitimacy and credibility, and the cycle begins anew as evil, narcissism and control freakery take their toll.
If Christianity has to be defined by institutionalism and human generosity, it hasn’t much of a leg to stand on. We Christians try to grab on to whatever gives us credibility with ourselves, assuming that matters were better in the early centuries, in the days of the Roman Empire and the dispersion of the Jews. Perhaps the small communities held together under persecution like British families in the air raid shelters during World War II. Pressure from the outside tends to be a maker or a breaker! However, historical evidence points to the early Church being extremely divided by political questions and justifying theological issues. However, we need to grant that people talked theology at the market stalls, and wouldn’t care less about “that load of bosh” nowadays.
Private judgement and infallible authority? It’s an old one, amply illustrated by Dostoevsky’s Great Inquisitor:
Unity can be ensured by taking freedom away through totalitarian means, but it is the end of Christianity as this parable shows. We can’t get around human freedom and our capacity to find holiness, however fragile that state might be. We still look for references, and this is healthy – in the Bible, the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, church history. It is like a mariner carefully plotting his course with the help of charts, his navigational instruments, the sun and the stars – or GPS nowadays, making the whole thing much easier. The authority is there but non-oppressive. We are free to follow, or not to follow at our own risk. There is a dividing line between such authority and someone like Hitler or Torquemada!
We need to see this problem at a much more human level. The theological issues were invariably devised to justify political and human disputes. We try to cling onto our notion of Churches and authorities because we know nothing else as believers, but I do think the battle to conserve these models is being lost. Christianity will prosper in another form. But which? I like Fr Jonathan’s conclusion in resisting sectarianism. Embrace rather than reject, if we do not perceive a real threat against which our instinct will bring us to defend ourselves, for example from someone who lives to control others. We have so much to learn about tolerance and respect for freedom, but radically and within our deepest selves. Inclusiveness and exclusiveness are buzz words these days, and difficult to use because they are made to refer to narrowly defined groups of people, who often want to get control themselves over everybody else. Nevertheless, we need to find other words to describe that wideness of spirit.
We live in awful times. For example, here in France, we have a nice dish called quenelles. My wife and I are going to eat some this evening in a nice sauce. Now, in France, there is an entertainer called Dieudonné, an Islamist who has uttered some beastly things about Jewish people (as the late Noel Coward might have put it) during his shows. He invented a form of salute involving placing your left hand on your right shoulder and stretching your right arm downwards. This has been interpreted as a dissimulated Nazi salute. Whether or not it is, this gesture is called a quenelle. Are we going to have to think about such things when we buy innocent foodstuffs? Eventually, manufacturers of this foodstuff will have to change the name to something else. This is the kind of thing we find due to human stupidity and ideology. This is what happened to the priestly cassock in France. People associate it with extreme right-wing political movements. When ideology creeps into religion, it merely fuels the atheist argument that people are religious because they cannot or will not reason and use their brains.
We need to detach ourselves from movements of ideology and slogans in order to use our brains and capacity to feel the emotions of other people – empathy. With such a basis, it becomes possible to discuss theology and a healthy notion of the Church.
Fr Jonathan’s second article is more about philosophy:
- Absurdity, Sisyphus, Chaos and the Church from 12th February
I haven’t read much Camus, or Sartre for that matter. French atheism goes back to Revolutionary times, but were particularly accentuated in the late nineteenth century with the alliance between Grand Orient Freemasonry and Socialism. France is radically divided by this kind of hard atheism and the aspiration to restore authority, the Monarchy and the Church. As the Great War of 1914-18 came and went, leaving death, destruction and hopelessness, the sails of the radicals lost much of their wind.
Diplomatic relations were improved between the Holy See and the French Republic after World War I, and the Church was better tolerated than under the anti-clerical regime of the 1900’s. The Church became much more reactionary, and under the Occupation (1940-44) French bishops went along with the Vichy government which collaborated with the Nazis. This is the dualism that impregnates French Catholicism to this day.
That is something of a backdrop that enables us to understand the philosophical cafés of the Quartier Latin in the 1930’s, between Jean Cocteau, Sartre, Camus and many others. I meet many people of this kind of mentality, formed in Socialist teacher training colleges. It is really difficult to get down to the bottom of their formatage, even when I find them often to be beautiful people with whom I can relate through my own contact with 1960’s counter culture.
Again, before looking at the ideas themselves, we need to understand the historical context. For me history is far more important than philosophy or even theology. We truly understand things in their historical context, and then the ideas are wrested away from ideology and prejudice. Real work becomes possible, leading to communication – and reconciliation.
The radical socialists of the late nineteenth century, in France like in Italy and many other European countries, reacted against the obnoxious bourgeois Church of the nineteenth-century restoration. Anyone who has read a little Léon Bloy can understand the dripping hypocrisy of that kind of religion as it often manifested itself, alongside undoubted sanctity and heroism. How do we wrest ourselves away from the competing ideologies? Perhaps with a healthy dose of scepticism and a good study of history.
If we see Sartre and Camus as reacting against a particular kind of religion and piety, the idea of God’s non-existence and the acceptance of chaos appear self-evident. Science at the time was Newtonian and evolutionary, and all the odds were stacked against belief and religion.
Fr Jonathan seems to have read the texts in question more than I have. Existentialism bores me, but that is what Existentialism is, almost a study of boredom and states of depression. An existentialist philosopher would dispute me on that and say that I am a victim of prejudice and ideology too. He wouldn’t be entirely wrong, except that I see a lot of chaos and lack of meaning in life. We have to have some way of surviving adversity. There is such a thing as Christian existentialism as found in Kierkegaard and Pope John Paul II.
We Christians have our faith, and science is increasingly coming out in support of a rational logos holding the entire universe together. I know nothing more about quantum physics than what I read in “popular” articles, but it does sound exciting and stimulating. Continuity of life of the spirit after death, radical ontological unity of all things in the universal energy which gives the illusion of matter. Eventually, radical atheism and materialism can only go the way of the dinosaurs, and new strength for both faith and reason will emerge. Fr Jonathan, as a mathematician, will certainly understand the nuts and bolts better than I do.
There are strange things in mathematics, which we see as an exact science with only the correct and incorrect binaries. Probability is a branch of mathematics: our chances of winning the Lottery with a single ticket or order coming out of chaos. Water is disturbed in a random way, and ordered waves appear. Where does this order and rationality come from?
The old apologetics for the existence of God are being vindicated by science and discoveries of outer space and the heavenly bodies. Belief respects rationality. Atheism can only bring us boredom and depression, for we need a reason, a logos, to live. That logos is within us, outside us, everywhere and a part of ourselves.
Let’s clear our minds of ideologies, and we will get somewhere!