Thursday 7 December 2017

Traditional/ Orthodox Church-led Christianity is now impossible - and people are (literally) fooling-themselves to think otherwise

When I became a Christian; I following CS Lewis's advice and went to the nearest branch of the tradition into-which I had been baptised. This rapidly unravelled as I realised that the Church of England was split and at-war, and my local branch was firmly on the wrong side.

After a while of trying to find a (not dying and spiritually-helpful) place in the Anglican communion and Roman Catholic Church - and failing to escape endemic debate and fighting; I tried to avoid this whole arena of dispute by trying to become Eastern Orthodox, which I understood to be based on Tradition. I just wanted to believe and do what the church said - and leave myself out of it...

However, I found exactly the same bitter division and dispute going right through Orthodoxy, wherever I looked. I was driven to use personal discernment again and again...

And gradually I realised that we moderns cannot be orthodox or traditional - for us to live in mere obedience to The Church is impossible - because there is no The Church (without first discerning what that is...), there are only layers upon layers of dispute and disagreement. In All churches and without exception.

We simply cannot escape the requirement to use our own personal discernment again and again...

Then I thought - if this is indeed the situation everywhere and for everybody, there must be a reason. God must have made things this way (he would not leave us bereft). And the reason seems to be that this is our task and duty - we are bred as individuals, and we must be Christians as individuals whether we like it or not.

Orthodoxy and Tradition and self-effacing obedience are only possible when they are taken for granted. Here and Now they are Not taken for granted - and therefore we need to live as Christians by our own discernment, taking responsibility for our own salvation and theosis.

We have-to do this, and we are doing it - all of us. 

And we therefore need to be honest and clear about the fact - and do it well and openly, rather than covertly and in a state of self-denial.

Orthodoxy/ Tradition/ Obedience are not just impossible - they are not even optimal. They have not been possible or optimal since about 1800 - but man has failed to grasp the necessity to remain Christian, and really-real Christian; while becoming a new kind of Christian.

This is Not liberalisation, because it is not an excuse to ditch Christianity and replace it with Radical/ Leftist politics and the Sexual Revolution as life priorities.

We must be Christianly-motivated - honestly so; and we must take personal responsibility for the individual discernment that (anyway) we cannot avoid making: so we should make it a focus, make it explicit, make discernment clear to ourselves: that discernment is the basis of any and all possible Christain lives, here-and-now.

There is no other honest alternative.

Note added: To clarify, I am Not saying that the churches are obsolete or should be discarded or that real Christians should leave their churches... I Am saying that real church-Christians actually-are using their personal discernment to evaluate their churches, and to decide what to do, what not to do, which side to take, who is to be trusted, who is a demonic infiltrator and so forth. In other words, real Christians cannot (here-and-now) simply obey The Church, cannot 'passively' be ruled-by The Church, cannot opt-out of using personal discernment again-and-again - in sum, they cannot accord The Church ultimate authority over their personal salvation and theosis. And the same applies (from a Protestant perspective) to The Bible -- personal discernment must and will be used in choosing a translation (or in learning the original language - in discerning the meaing and context of words and phrases), in understanding and interpreting The Bible in terms of history (whose history?); in deciding which scholarship is necessary, which to believe and which to ignore. So I am first making a negative point - and the positive point which follows is that we can and should have faith that our powers of discernment are adequate to this task (because our God of love and power would not leave any single one of his children bereft of true-guidance, and if guidance is not to be trusted in the social or institutional environmment (as is the case), then we can be sure that true-guidance *will* be found by each man who seeks it).


Unknown said...

I actually agree with this completely, all institutions are corrupt and one cannot rely on them at all today. We are just in a completely different situation.

However, I don't know if this was *intended*, as surely we have free will. To say of every last development that it has a reason would surely be to deprive us of free will.

Sometimes our predicament must be simply our fault.

But while we can no longer seek the religious life within institutions, but must do so as individuals, does that mean the main goal of the religious life has changed?

(incidentally, Buddhism highly favors individual religious striving in a lonely area)

According to the great saints and holy men of former times, the religious task is to develop within us a supra-cognitive faculty that allows us access to ultimate reality in a non-conceptual way, and thus elevates us to a higher world beyond this one.

As I understand it, Bruce, you contrast conceptual thinking with original participation, which is pre-conceptual thinking, and a draw a clear evolutionary line between the two, and you claim tbat today our task us to append ultimate reality through conceptual thinking.

The problem is, Bruce, that while primitive man may have been largly ignorant of conceptual thinking and thus not qualified to render judgement on it, the great saints and holy men of traditional religious were extremely well aware of conceptual thinking and even used it extensively in its appropriate sphere.

Yet they all claimed that there was a level above conceptual thinking, that goes beyond thought and concepts to give us access to ultimate reality.

Your scheme, Bruce, is - 1) sub-conceptual consciousness (op) 2) conceptual consciousness of matter (science) 3) conceptual consciousness of ultimate reality (fp), science applied to ultimate reality.

But the traditional religions have all said that level 3, the highest stage - is beyond all concepts altogether. And they said this after being well acquainted with concepts, not, like primitive man, in a pre-conceptual state.

So, one of you is right, and one wrong, and it cannot be a question of right at one time and wrong at another time, once we properly understand the issue.

Anonymous said...

True on the human level, not on the supernatural level. My guess is that Providence has many surprises in store.

ted said...

Bruce, I like your refinement here. I pulled a quote from Schumacher in "A Guide for the Perplexed" that resonated with me:

For man to discern what constitutes the true progress of a human being:
- His first task is to learn from society and 'tradition'
and to find his temporary happiness in receiving
directions from outside.
- His second task is to interiorise the knowledge he
has gained, sift it, sort it out, keep the good and jettison
the bad; this process may be called 'individuation',
becoming self-directed.
- His third task is one that he cannot tackle until he
has accomplished the first two, and for which he needs
the very best help he can possibly find: it is 'dying' to
oneself, to one's likes and dislikes, to all one's egocentric
preoccupations. To the extent that he succeeds
in this, he ceases to be directed from outside, and he also
ceases to be self-directed. He has gained freedom, or,
one might say, he is then God-directed.

Michael Dyer said...

One of the things you write about that strikes me the most is that you cannot avoid the problem of ultimately needing to trust your own mind, or be able to.

You probably know this anyway, but you might be interested in the thought of Roger Williams, the first American Baptist (I also see some John Bunyan as well). It is only the individual that can make a choice to go to God, it cannot be outsourced. Even if you choose to trust the judgement of other men regarding it, it is still in reference to their closeness to God, according to your own judgement.

Personally, I'm still unsure about "which church". The Jewish religion of Jesus' day was excoriated by Him, but He still told His disciples to obey, because the scribes and Pharisees still had God appointed authority, even if they were a generation of vipers. That's a wonderment to me. At the same time their authority was limited, if they exceeded their brief, they were to be actively resisted. A saved man had to obey a damned man, in religious matters! At least so far as was possible. Bears pondering.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Unknown - I can point out some things I have discovered for myself, by intuitive discernment, if you like. But the point is that intuitive discernment is, it seems, what each sincere Christian is now compelled to do, for himself. So I don't expect you to agree with me unless you have also discovered it.

Truth is one - but my knowledge and expression of it is partial and distorted; and therefore may not address your condition.

But you, personally, will need to make the effort to discover that part of the truth you need - and faith tells us that you will be able to do this.

@NN - True

@ted - I would regard what I am saying as different from what Schumacher said - indeed, I suspect that the idea of dying to oneself is an error when most modern people express it - they mean something like Buddhism (Schumacher was an ex Buddhist). I am sure that God wants us to be ourselves and unique to the highest possible degree - but obviously Not to be worldly, hedonic, selfish, self-promoting...

Christianity is a religion of unique children of God - we don't want our children to be identical un-selves, neither does God want this for us. He wants his children to grow and develop to be like himself in nature... I suppose the problem is that many Christians regard God as an abstraction, not as a person - and therefore assume that we ought to become more abstract like him.

But Jesus may provide clarity - a great and unique personality, absolutely himself. So long as, in becoming like Jesus we should hope to be unique and distinctive personalities - living *from* our real and divine (and unique) selves, therefore able to discern well in each unique situation (not trying to copy Jesus's personality).

(I am of course assuming that divinity is a nature, a kind-of-thing, and not a unity - therefore divinity is *ultimately* plural. But that's for another time..)

@Michael - Good point about Jesus's advice - worth pondering.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I think it is dangerous to identify this as a new situation, as if it did not apply to Christianity since Christ's Ascension and to all humanity outside of those who had direct association during His mortal ministry. At the close of Christ's direct physical presence with the disciples on Earth, He said, "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you."

Even before that, Christ taught, "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves."

Now, I do not say that there was no social benefit to a strong tradition of "orthodox" Christianity prior to modern is clear that there was, or the modern world could not have risen from the wealth and technological revolutions founded on the Christian character of Western Civilization. But Christianity has always been about the salvation of the individual disciple, and it has always required discernment by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost, with the small exception of that short time when Christ walked bodily among us.

We should seek to establish strong Christian communities, because of the social good of pervasive Christian influence. It is no less a good thing than to feed the poor and provide medicine to the afflicted. But it is not the same thing as learning to rely on the divine influence of the Holy Ghost. We must not think that, if only we were part of a soundly Christian community, we should be saved without having to bother about seeking the Spirit on our own initiative.

Well, not that we're in much danger of that till Christ comes personally, at the rate things are going in most of the world. And when we may look upon Christ personally, the danger of slumbering spiritually is abolished for any that have any inkling of holiness. It is not too easy for even the worldly and wicked to look on the face of He who is and was, and who is to come, without cognition that they see more than a mere man (and apparently relatively few of them will get that chance anyway).

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - I think it is important to recognise that things really do change through history - human consciousnewss has changed. Our situation is qualitatively novel.

Chiu ChunLing said...

At a social level, this is certainly true. It would be impossible for people of any prior age to have the same relationship to the world we now experience...or at least some of us. I think that for many, the reality of people in other lands is more of a picture book story, it is only for the highly literate, who have the gift of encountering other minds through the medium of written language, that people in distant lands can become as experientially real as those near them. For the average person, limited to audio-visual media, the people of another nation can be no more real than the fictional characters in the lineup of summer blockbusters (and considerably less so, for the most part).

Even at that, these kinds of experiences were not available to people of past eras, nor was their world so populous. And I think you are right that the real changes come with the rise of mass transport enabled by steam-powered vehicles. A society limited to animal-powered locomotion simply cannot have a very widespread experience of the vastness of the world.

At the same time, the vast social changes in our outlook do not really transform the ageless questions of real import to the individual. Yes, a society must become more skeptical about their own orthodoxy where the great majority of people are fully aware (not just through travelers' tall tales, but through the evidence of their own eyes) that other villages, towns, cities, and even nations exist with divergent customs and beliefs. But this skepticism is of itself no boon nor real hindrance to the intensely personal relationship with the spirit of divine truth. As many as were really saved in any former age submitted the question of whether their own particular culture's beliefs were true to the fount of truth given to each of them by God. Whatever the answer was for any particular question their own culture addressed.

Instead of "orthodoxy" or tradition, we must challenge Zeitgeist, a more global and insidious pretender to truth. And one that is constantly at war with parochial remnants of traditional pretenders, who strive to expose the flaws of Zeitgeist as it also attacks them. Whether this makes it easier or harder to seek divine spiritual guidance may vary from individual to individual, I detect no difference either way for myself. It has been different to contend with the Zeitgeist than with Orthodoxy, but not in difficulty.

Perhaps God selects us to meet the age and culture our innate spiritual character is most likely to ward by reliance on His spirit of truth.

Nigel Worthington said...

Hi Bruce
In the RCC and Eastern Orthodoxy (and possibly some others) isn't there a distinction between (divinely inspired) doctrine and the (human) institution?

So it is true leftism has infiltrated the church at the highest level, and certainly I see that as weakening the spiritual affect of the institution and weakening of tradition. But to be Catholic/Orthodox (as far as I understand it) one must believe the traditional doctrines despite the corruption and anti-spiritual worldview promulgated by left leaning church leaders. Couldn't one live simply in obedience to the traditional teachings of the church and forget the modernist embellishments? When you say "there is no The Church" couldn't one counter that the core doctrines of RCC/EO/Others haven't changed significantly? Or maybe you think they have?

I'm very curious your thoughts on this topic.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nigel - In the first place, I don't think one can lead a traditional Orthodox life except in a traditional Orthodox nation - a society subject to a divinely-ordained monarch, in a society permeated by the Church, its festival, fasts, rituals etc.

If this is not the case (or if one's life is not - more or less - enclosed by a monastery, a microcosmic world in which the above predominates) then Orthodoxy can only be a kind of half-life, mostly practised in private with occasional attendance at liturgy.

But the modern individual has multiple discernments to make - to become Orthodox, which national church to affiliate to, which calendar to follow, which form of which language, and when the national branches are in schism (for example the Oriental Orthodox Copts versus the Russian or Greek) which to regard as correct...

My point is that one cannot take anything for granted but must make choice after choice - one is simply forced to use personal discernment; yet the basis of the church is that such fundamental personal choices are to be avoided, and such decisions should be made by tradition.

Something similar applies among Roman Catholics - who make choices concerning many things; yet regard their faith as based on the divine authority of the Church and its hierarchy.

But the tendency is to 'downplay' the frequency and significance of these choices, and to *pretend* (not least to oneself) that one is living a life of simple, spontaneous, humble obedience to The Church.

So one can live 'simply and in obedience' etc but this is a personal decision based on personal discernment. And if personal discernment is to be used for that fundamental matter of principle, then why not for other, lesser, matters of more specific detail?

Incoherence looms on all sides!

Nigel Worthington said...

Bruce - I see your point. It seems to me that the plethora of contradictory choices and truth claims is also a source of doubt in any particular choice. Incoherence indeed. To speculate a bit - is it possible we are here to some extent to learn to discriminate?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nigel - I think we are each here for a different main-reason, and our situation is (overall) tailored to our main spiritual needs. Insofar as discrimination is especially demanded in this time and place, there is presumably a prevalence of people alive today who esepcially need to learn it (however, we cannot really ever know what are the spiritual needs of millions of strangers. That is not our business).