Sunday 6 October 2013

The continuous necessity for spiritual discernment - and its relationship with metaphysics and revelation


The question of discernment - the ability to distinguish between Good and evil (virtue and vice; beauty and ugliness; truth and lies) - is an ever-more-crucial ability in the modern world.

Why so crucial? Because the modern world is more deceptive than any society has ever been in the history of the world - and ever-more-deceptive.

We swim in a sea of the denial not just of divine revelations, but of basic common sense - and not just denial but inversion, where pervasive propaganda simply assumes that all the polarities have been reversed.


And this situation of moral-, aesthetic- and truth-inversion encompasses most of the major Christian churches - as can be confirmed by looking at the focus of ethical concerns in charitable work, the architecture of new church buildings, the bureaucratic prose of church discourse.

As a generalization, Christian churches are part of the problem, not part of the solution.


So the problem of discernment starts, for the Christian, straight after conversion; because the fledgling Christian (feathers hardly dry!) needs to find a church or immediately evaluate the church into which he converted, and often needs to detach himself from it and seek a church which is not actively harmful.

Because the situation is that the individual cannot rely on the church for guidance with respect to the most crucial (litmus test) issues in modern society  without violating what would seem to be basic Christian principles, as well as common sense understanding of realities.


All this throws a very heavy burden on individual discernment, and in a world where the level of spiritual development is usually very low - 

The question is whether the individual can - even in principle - exercise this degree of discernment - especially given that modern people are generally so much more thoroughly and complexly corrupted than people were in the past.


The answer depends on metaphysics, theology and doctrine. 


My initial understanding of the problem of discernment came from the Eastern Orthodox tradition via Fr Seraphim Rose, and my understanding is that from the perspective of this tradition - our modern situation is almost hopeless.

(Hopeless, at least, for the Western convert who must choose a church, and who has a choice of churches; but all vestigial, weak and scattered, and designed for other ethnicities.)

Orthodoxy has a very low estimate of individual discernment - since we are fallen Men and fatally prone to Pride, and regards spiritual guidance by a more spiritually advanced elder (himself having been guided by a chain of apprenticeship stretching back to the church Fathers, Saints and Apostles) as almost essential to spiritual progress (theosis) - or even to simply staying within the bounds of salvation.

Yet such spiritual Fathers are now extinctt, and the lineage has been broken (at least, in most of the world including the West). Furthermore the Orthodox Church is riven by controversies and schisms, and it is not at all clear to discernment where the truth lies, and which branch to join...

In sum, Orthodoxy regards discernment as vital, but emphasizes the high probability of error and self-deception and demonic deception - and yet the modern situation requires the individual to exercise one discernment after another before settling upon some person or group to whom obedience is to be accorded - and this seems to me a very un-Orthodox situation since it involves self-conscious individual choice piled-upon individual choice, at every level up to the final (hoped for) submission to the guidance of some chosen person or sub-institution.


This problem is essentially that for the 'catholic' spirituality, salvation and Good are within the church. But the question 'where is the church?' (i.e. the real, significant mystical church) is a matter for individual discernment - and there is no theological basis for assuming that Men can exercise the necessary discernment to establish where the church actually IS.

As far as I can determine this is a fundamental and insoluble weakness of the catholic tradition when it is not monolithic - on the one hand it denies the human capability for discernment; yet on the other hand there are situations where there is no alternative, a forced-choice - and discernment is non-optionally required. People are put into a position where they must choose, yet they are told that they are incapable of choosing.

In sum the catholic traditions - in conditions of conversion, schism, heresy, church weakness or diversity and corruption - seem to place adherents in a double bind.

(Any catholics who do not feel this double bind are fortunate and should just get on with things without reflecting on this matter - but there is no doubt of the reality of the double bind for many people in many situations.)


Why is discernment so difficult a process? Why would be humans made such that they are in an almost impossible predicament? - surrounded by error and lacking a reliable inner compass: indeed with an inner compass that is regarded as intrinsically corrupt and deceptive!

Ultimately the extreme difficulty of discernment is therefore a product of the theological perspective on the nature of Man.

If Man were regarded as wholly good then there would no problem of discernment - but no need for it either! This is perhaps a utopian version of the modern secular position. 

If Man were wholly depraved, then he could not be trusted to make any decision but must simply obey - this is seen in non-Christian monotheism, and in 'Christian' denominations where the emphasis is strongly on the utter depravity of Man - that Man is completely helpless in sin, and must be rescued from this state without any decision or action from himself (because he is incapable of any correct decision  or action)

(I put scare quotes around Christian in the above sentence because this perspective is incompatible with Christianity if it were actually to be implemented - but in practice it almost never is implemented even by those who most stridently insist upon it, such as some Calvinists. In theory, extreme predestinarian Calvinistic or similar views are not Christian, but in actual practice some of the very best Christians have been Calvinists or similar.)


The obvious answer is that Men must be, and indeed are, a mixture of Good and evil; neither capable of saving themselves unaided, nor utterly helpless - and in such a world discernment in necessary from the word go, at many levels, and without end. 

The Christian life just is one discernment after another, and if we cannot trust anyone else to do the discernment for us, or we don't understand their advice - we must do it ourselves  - or rather, more strongly, we will necessarily do the discernment ourselves, since choices are forced yet have consequences.
Discernment is not easy, but it is possible - any Christian must know that it is possible, because our loving God would not leave us without the necessary guidance - un-obvious as that guidance may seem to us in our world of illusions and deceptions. 


Discernment is not like the decision flow chart of a bureaucrat, it is a series of suggestions for the Christian to try-out - titrating the results against the certainty of the heart. 

The Christian must believe in the integrity of the heart in everyone; that everyone has an incorruptible core - even if it is a feeble and distorted residue. This reality of the heart is what enables discernment, and makes it rational to praise good and blame evil. 

For many modern people theosis has very little to do with becoming a Saint - that is far, far beyond us; but mostly to do with developing clarity of discernment, the ability to monitor the evaluations of our inner and uncorrupted heart: bringing the ability to know Good from evil despite whatever confusions are placed in our path - to know this if not instantly and infallibly, then always sufficiently and following appropriate consideration.



Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

But the question 'where is the church?' (i.e. the real, significant mystical church) is a matter for individual discernment...

No. Personal discernment is preceded by a historic and public display of who the One true Church is: she is a lamp on the lamppost, verily, and it takes the smokescreen of anti-Catholic propaganda to hide it from those who otherwise would go to her with all their heart.

I really don't know where you fish this supposed double-bind between Pelagianism and the opposed view. From the fact that many self-identified Catholics are heretics of some sort, you are not entitled to such a conclusion. It only means you did not study the faith and theology from authentic Catholic perspective.

Alan Roebuck said...

Mrs. Rousseau has given the (Capital C) Catholic solution of the problem: Trust her Church.

But any authority must first be investigated, to see if it is trustworthy. Since man is not omniscient, and since there are competing and contradictory claims made, we have no choice but to investigate.

But once we have found a good authority, we must hold fast to it, that is, obey it. See 1 Thessalonians 5:21.

God is the highest and most trustworthy authority, but many people make questionable claims about what God has said. We need a public record of the words of God. That public record is the Bible.

(All the major Christian denominations affirm that the Bible consists of the words of God. But all but the confessional Protestant churches fail to take the next logical step and identify Scripture as the highest authority, higher than Pope or Magisterium or Tradition.)

But the meaning of the Bible is not self-evident. Therefore we must test the authorities.

To test an authority that claims to know what the Bible means, we consider what he says, and examine his criteria for understanding. What system of interpretation does he use? Is his interpretation faithful to that the text of Scripture says? Does he refer to an existing tradition of biblical knowledge or does he make it up as he goes along?

But our testing ultimately rests on what the text of Scripture says, for that is the God-given basic data. The ultimate test is whether the offered interpretation is faithful to what the words mean.

Since man cannot know very much about God and ultimate things on his own, he must rely on Scripture for ultimate knowledge, and for the truth he needs in order to live.

About Calvinism. You said

“…'Christian' denominations where the emphasis is strongly on the utter depravity of Man - that Man is completely helpless in sin, and must be rescued from this state without any decision or action from himself (because he is incapable of any correct decision or action). “

True Calvinism teaches what Christ and the Apostles teach: That man is rescued by being given the ability to respond with repentance and faith in Christ when he hears an accurate presentation of the Gospel. So there is something that man must do, and some men can do it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - My comment is directed to those who do not see things as you do - and for them there is no clarity about the location of the true church, nor any means of attaining clarity other than by trusting their own discernment.

@AR - You answer is perfectly reasonable for some people, but for others the point: "To test an authority that claims to know what the Bible means, we consider what he says, and examine his criteria for understanding. What system of interpretation does he use? Is his interpretation faithful to that the text of Scripture says? Does he refer to an existing tradition of biblical knowledge or does he make it up as he goes along?" unclear; since there are so many existing traditions when it comes to the controversial aspects of Biblical interpretation - and there is no objective way of choosing between them; nor indeed of knowing the extent by which tradition has erred or been corrupted (so that what is claimed by experts as tradition, is not truly traditional) - except by trusting one's own discernment.


The big problem is that just at the point in history where discernment is more needed than ever before (due to the collapse of most Christan traditions and the proliferation of choices/ heresies/ temptations); so discernment is also at its lowest ever average level...

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Thanks for your kind answer, Bruce. My comment, poor as it is, was meant for everyone intent on finding out where the full Christian truth is, and it is not because it is “my” Church. She was around for so long that she is certainly not mine. But I am hers and I had myself at one point to make about her the very same decision I am speaking of below.

Objectively, the true Church is not hard to find. Subjectively, it is more problematic, and the reason why discernment is at an all-time low is precisely because of the modern individualism, which was confused with liberty and given the status of a sacred truth from the Reformation. This was a total reversal of truth, however.

The only personal religious decisions we can make are in fact all about our own self: to believe in God or not (faith is at the same time a gift and a decision, like any other virtue), and whether, if so, we submit or not our will to God, that is, we obey his commandments or decide for ourselves what is good or wrong according to our own partial judgment. I say “personal” and not “individual” decisions, because the least of them has unfathomable consequences, good or bad, on others and on the entire Creation, ultimately.

Our only way to know with certainty what God commands is the living Church. A Catholic does not judge individually on doctrine or morals, he has the Church to rely on for that: all what matters is written down clearly and can be so concisely put as to be understood in the main by children and simple people. Through teaching, example, prayer and, most importantly, the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of unity, children as well as adult converts are infused this special part or the gift of faith that we call: sentire cum Ecclesia (feel with the Church), or sensus fidei (inner sense of faith). Jesus described it in the Gospel as the faculty to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd.

The Reformers’ individualistic views, on the contrary, inconsistently put too much stock in man's will to choose the good on one hand and, on the other hand, require that everyone be an intellectual and a theologian before even choosing to believe in God. But look who is going to teach these well-meaning intellectuals and theologians: they begin with Luther and Calvin and they end, very logically, with Rousseau and Nietzsche.

Alan Roebuck said...


You point out the difficulty of discernment. Of course it’s difficult. If it were easy, we would not be in the mess we’re in.

The point is, man must find an authority that is trustworthy, and no generally-acknowledged path is available. What advice then can we give?

You say “…there is no objective way of choosing between [competing biblical authorities.]” I would say that is an assumption on your part. There is no generally-accepted way, but that does not mean there is no valid way.

If God exists, and if He has given us a written, public Revelation that is understandable, then this Revelation is the fully trustworthy authority. Sure, people disagree on what it means. People always disagree. That does not mean there is no correct interpretation.

We Protestants know that the Bible is understandable. We sometimes need help from scholars who can clarify what the text means, and we sometimes need help from creeds and confessions which summarize biblical teaching in a more direct way, and we sometimes need help from teachers and pastors. But the point is that the Bible is understandable on its own. We do not need an Organization or a Tradition to give us additional words telling what Christianity really means. A God who intends to communicate with us would ensure that His words can be understood.

Sylvia gives the Roman Catholic answer to the dilemma: Our Organization is the trustworthy authority. We define what Christianity is.

Maybe so, but this doctrine is not true just because she says it is. There are many organizations and traditions that make similar claims. We therefore must investigate to see whether the Catholic Church is as trustworthy as she says.

I could just as well say that one of the Protestant denominations is the most trustworthy religious authority. Sylvia would say that they are heretical, but they would reply that Rome is heretical, because they departed from the teachings of Christ and the Apostles. So we’re back to square one.

According to the Bible, man does not need to be an intellectual to recognize the highest authority. According to Scripture, when the elect read the words of God, and when they understand what those words mean, they respond with faith in Jesus Christ. That is the simplest, and the best, solution to the dilemma.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AR - My feeling is that discernment is 'always' sufficient to get someone to Mere Christianity - and in that sense I regard both you and Sylvie as correct - but that the problem of choosing a denomination,or where truth lies between denominations (or which is the *most* truth-full) is very difficult indeed, since there is much to be said for several ways of proceeding. In the end, I think we can, should, perhaps must be engaged in a permanent activity of discernment - testing and validating by reference to one's innermost conviction, alert for signs of uneasiness, revulsion, disgust, despair etc which may indicate that we are being led astray - and opposite feelings of deep joy, hope, love which - over time - are the surest guide to the fact that we are in harmony with reality.