Wednesday 18 July 2018

My conversion and the necessity for discernment

When I became a Christian aged 49; under the influence of CS Lewis and following his advice, I simply joined the nearest Church of England congregation, and immediately arranged to be confirmed (I had been baptised as a child).

To help confirmation I joined a discussion group at another CoE church down the road.

At this point I simply accepted that being a Christian meant joining, and pledging obedience to, some church or another; so that whatever I was asked to promise in the confirmation ceremony must be right. Anywhere I disagreed, I must change, and it was my job to work towards church doctrine.

So I found no problem in making the confirmation oaths.

Nowadays, I could not do this; partly because I was very quickly forced into discernment among the profoundly disagreeing, mutually hostile, factions of the Church of England, with the two churches I was attending being on opposite and hostile sides.

(This was very fortunate; because in most places in England all Church of England congregations are on the anti-Christian side; I was lucky enough to have a real Christian Anglican church within a mile of my home.)

This situation of 'my' two churches being on opposite sides of the battle, meant that I personally needed to discern (as a matter of urgency) which side was right and which was wrong. I could not be guided by passive obedience to any external standard without prejudging the issue of whose guidance to follow. Even the theological authorities I selected for guidance disagreed on the litmus test issues. It had to be my decision.

Eventually, this worked-through into my realisation that all conscious Christian faith in modern circumstances just-is based-on individual discernment; which means that the nature of Christian life is not what I used to assume.

When Christian life is based-upon (rooted-in) at least one, major and defining, act of individual discernment; then this means that individual discernment has greater authority than any specific and actual church.

This is an unavoidable fact (under modern conditions), and not an assertion.

And as such, it seems to me that we are all required to use individual discernment in our personal Christian life as much as possible; rather than (as is usual) trying to deny it, and trying to pretend that we are merely living in obedience to external authority.

To put it another way, and despite the many pitfalls and dangers of this path; modern Christians ought-to-be explicit that their primary beliefs derive from a direct relationship with God; and not, therefore, from obedience to any particular institution, denomination, Church.

Of course, developing individual discernment in relation to any specific issue takes time and effort; therefore it is an ongoing process, never completed. And in the meantime we will probably want to make a discernment that 'X' (e.g. a church, a pastor, an author...) is a reasonable source of guidance which we will obey (passively, as it were) for the time-being.

But eventually, Modern Man seems to be called to a Christian faith in which the goal is to test and discern each element for our-selves. And a specific, actual, church or Christian group may help this process - may help it a lot. On the other hand, as with the church I first joined, an actual church may confuse, mislead and corrupt the Christian.

Much depends on local conditions. 

Most people need a group of some sort in order to function in society; but better no congregation than a false church - better a few, perhaps scattered, companions in Christ, than attempted-obedience to a large and powerful bureaucracy whose leadership are strategically net-evil.

Note: This post is, in part, a response to an ongoing discussion at the blog Dark Brightness (which I read regularly, and would recommend). 

I added a further clarification of my position:

My concern is that, in these end times, our psychological need for membership of a group may overwhelm our spiritual need for a *Christian* church; it may be the major temptation, and may be the reason why the devout are perhaps especially vulnerable to Antichrist (as implied by some Biblical prophecies).

It seems that our only defence is to discern well, to learn and practise discernment, and to trust our best and most solid discernment over external authority (*despite* the obvious hazards and dangers of this...)


Chiu ChunLing said...

While it is true that we must increase our dependence on God in all things, including for moral and even merely factual discernment of truth, I think it is worth noting that this is a means, not an end.

In the end, God desires to strengthen our independence, we will still depend on God, because He is dependable, but we shall be able to show an increased portion of that divine nature in ourselves.

The real objective is for us to develop the mature relationship of being ever more fully independent on God while always being able and willing to depend on Him without reservation. Described thus, it may sound like mere friendship, but not the friendship which is less than familial love but that which is the fulfillment of such love. The entire idea of being a parent is to prepare your children to someday do all that you ever could, while never doubting that you still do all that you can for them.

And the corollary is our role as children of God, our perfect and Heavenly Father.

To depend on anyone else instead of God is to distance ourselves from Him. This was never meant to be, the purpose of all true religion is to lead us ever nearer to God, not to interpose a stranger to bind us down in slavery to some worldly agenda.

To depend on God helps us grow in divine independence, to depend on anyone else leads only to ever more abject dependence.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Yes.

Traditionalists seem to suppose that merely to point-out the dangers of this kind of 'going it alone' is to dispose of the option; but (for the reasons I describe in the post) the available alternatives must in practice be weighed one against the others, in light of an evaluation of personal motivation, and without prejudgement of the best spiritual outcome.

*One* factor in my reaching this perspective, was reflection on the lives of some early saints and also the Christians in communist countries (such as the USSR). Such people were ostensibly 'Catholic' (mostly Orthodox) but went sometimes for decades in solitude and/ or without contact with priests - without participating in Mass/ Divine Liturgy/ Holy Communion... often without scriptures; living their (often exemplary) isolated Christian lives (sometimes) nourished only by memory, meditation and prayer.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Well, I think that by calling reliance on God "going it alone", they are revealing what they really think of God.

Which gets back to another comment I made on the same subject, either our intuition of divine guidance is really God communicating to us, or it is a figment of our imagination. While there is certainly much to be said for carefully distinguishing these, it's not useful to say that any difficulty in telling them apart means that there is no difference.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - "it's not useful to say that any difficulty in telling them apart means that there is no difference."

Indeed. Yet the two are very often conflated, as a generalisation.

I suppose this is implicitly 'pragmatism' as a philosophical stance - which is the mainstream modern 'epistemology' - for example, our old pal Jordan Peterson articulates pragmatism when he suggests that we adopt beliefs that make us happy and well adjusted.

Pragmatism is, pretty much, an individualised version of utilitarianism (happiness of me, rather than of the greatest number). Pragmatists tend to be 'libertarian' while utilitarians tend to be communists - both are a-theist Leftists.

lgude said...

I found your treatment of discernment very helpful in this context. For me it precisely indicates the difference between what I wish or hope might be true to the clear moment when I see what is actually and deeply true. Perhaps it is one of those moments when what you call primary thinking just kicks in. When I read in Corinthians "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" I was about 12 years old. I noticed that it awakened some faculty that knew it was true and on an ultimate level. I believe I was adult enough at that point to be surprised at being able to discern something I had no objective justification for knowing about one way or the other. In childhood I believe we semi consciously 'know' a great deal because we are still more or less in original participation, but once a person establishes an objective idea of truth then they become capable of consciously recognising that something has cut through the modern enlightenment mindset. So I agree that in our modern environment discernment trumps religious institutional authority which is often seriously undermined by contemporary notions of political correctness and, yes, evil.

Chiu ChunLing said...

If pragmatism is about doing what makes one personally happy and well adjusted, then God is the ultimate pragmatist, as well as its ultimate proponent.

Which is very possible.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - Yes, philosophical pragmatism is a half answer to a half understood problem - but it is at least that. I was a pragmatist much of my adult life and vouch for its strengths as well as the fact that it does not work.

The problem is probably that pragmatism, like all atheist philosophies, reduces to mortal psychology; which is unstable and incoherent.

God's pragmatism reduces to creation and its purpose; which is coherent.

Chiu ChunLing said...

In other words, whatever the official definition of most philosophical stances, most of them include atheism as an unspoken assumption (and usually the motive for starting a philosophical rather than religious movement).

Of course, returning to a previous comment, the assumption of atheism infects many an overtly religious enterprise, as indicated by the assertion that relying on God is "going it alone".

"Well-adjusted" is inherently a reference to external reality. If reality were incoherent and meaningless, then it would be impossible to be adjusted to it at all, well or badly. So to say "well-adjusted" already assumes not only a definite relationship to external reality, but implies that external reality has implicit order and purpose beyond what we impose on it by perception.

It does not quite imply God. God is defined by benevolence towards us, one can imagine the ultimate order and purpose of reality being quite indifferent to humans generally. But it is very difficult to see how one could ever be well-adjusted to a basically indifferent reality without having within one's own power the capacity to ultimately avoid death.

Except by ceasing to desire life.