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The Oxford Movement’s Critique of Modern Rationalism

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oxford-movement-newman-keble

The Oxford Movement was a 19th century movement within the Church of England that eventually developed into Anglo-Catholicism. The movement’s manifesto was set forth in explicit terms in the Tracts for the Times, published from 1833 to 1841.  However a parallel expression of principles took poetic form — in the Lyra Apostolica (1836), an anthology whose principal author was John Henry Newman, and with contributions by several others, including John Keble.

Newman, Keble and the others sought a return to a more authentic and full-blooded Christianity as found in the writings of Church Fathers.  Their critique of rationalism is relevant for our times.

The Introduction to the 1901 edition of the Lyra, written by Henry C. Beeching, excerpted below, explains with admirable clarity and eloquence the Oxford Movement’s critique of modern rationalism and Lockean Liberalism.

* * *

WE must remember what the Liberalism of the Thirties was, if we would understand the indignation with which these men set themselves to repudiate it. It was the Liberalism of rational enlightenment. It believed that the evils and sorrows of humanity would fade away before the instructed intelligence. It was hard, confident, aggressive. It had the easy air of superiority which belongs to those who have never faced the deep underlying issues of life.

It omitted these from its calculation. Everything, for it, was on the surface; was plain; was uncomplicated. The cool reason, the average commonsense, the ordinary experience of the man in the street, were its sufficing standards. It abhorred mystery. It had no touch of reverence, awe, mysticism. It was frankly utilitarian. It was at the mercy of a bland and shallow {xxvii} optimism. Not that it was not doing an immense deal of practical good. It was opening doors of freedom. It was breaking down barriers. It was spreading knowledge. It was extending the range of social happiness. It was widening the old horizons of philanthropic effort. It was relieving men from the burdens and terrors of ignorant bigotry. It was insisting that institutions should do the work for which they were intended. It was bent on applying the test of real use for the public welfare to all the resources of Civilisation, which were locked up, too often, by the selfishness of prejudice, and the idleness of indifference.

But, in spite of all this beneficial activity, Liberalism was felt, by those ardent young men at Oxford, to be their enemy. And it was this, because it left out that which to them was the one fact of supreme importance—the soul.

Liberalism, as it was understood in the days of Lord Brougham, and of Benthamism, knew nothing of the soul’s enthralling drama—its tragic heights and depths, its absorbing wonder, its momentous agonies, its infinite pathos, its tempestuous struggle, its mysterious sin, its passion, its penitence, and its tears. All this Liberalism passed over, as of no account. It was for it a veiled world, into which it possessed no way of entry. It came not into its secret, and moreover, it was content to be excluded. It was inclined to sweep it all aside, as the rubbish of superstition. It was unaware of its own blind-{xxviii} ness. It was confident in its own adequacy to set human life straight, without regard to this disturbing matter.

It was this shallow self-sufficiency which stung the strong soul of Carlyle into fierce revolt. In him, the elements which rational enlightenment fancied it had disposed of, re-asserted their volcanic intensity. Through his voice, humanity defied the comfortable bribes of utilitarianism, and revealed itself once again as the passionate Pilgrim of Time, for ever seeking an unknown and eternal Goal. And this recoil of Carlyle, prophetic in its force, yet empty of any Gospel message, had its parallel at Oxford. . . .  Every fibre of Keble’s soul revolted against any temper that would smoothe over the dark realities of sin, or would cheapen the tremendous issues of human character and human choice, or would rob earth of its imaginative mystery, or would {xxix}trifle with the awful significance of word or deed in the light of Doom. Truth was, for him, no thin logical consistency, but a Vision of Eternal Reality, which smote in upon the conscience of man with the solemnity of a moral challenge.

Liberalism embodied, according to Newman’s analysis, the spirit of rationalism, and the claim of the human reason to sit in judgment upon dogmatic revelation. And, against this, Keble recalled to men the teaching of Bishop Butler on the moral nature of the evidence by which spiritual convictions were reached. To the mere reason, this evidence could not get beyond suggestive probabilities; but these probabilities were used, by the living spirit of man, as an indication of the personal Will of God, which could be read by the soul that was in tune with that Will. So probabilities became certitudes. “ I will guide thee with mine Eye,” was Keble’s favourite example of the mode in which Divine truth touched the soul. By deep glimpses, by rare flashes, by a momentary glance, the Eye of God could make us aware of Truths far beyond the understanding of reason. Such Truths possessed authority, which we could not dissect or critically examine. They were revelations of the mind of Him with Whom we had to deal. So Authority was the key-note of Keble’s thinking, in antithesis to the Reason of Liberal enlightenment. And Authority was shown, as Mr. Balfour has again shown us in our own day, to rest on profound instincts of human nature, which had their roots far down out of sight, and defied rational analysis. Emotion, Imagination, {xxx} Association, Tradition, Conscience, all played their part in the creation of that temper which found its joyful freedom in surrendering to Authority.

{xxxvi} . . . .Newman, who has denounced the attack of Liberalism so vigorously, finds the weak and worldly defence of the traditional Conservatism as repulsive and as dangerous.

Italics added. Source: John Henry Newman, John Keble, et al. Lyra Apostolica. (Introduction by Henry C. Beeching.) London, 1901.

Written by John Uebersax

December 12, 2016 at 10:57 pm

A Meditation on Man’s Transcendent Dignity

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Satyagraha

Pope Francis

On November 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, exhorting them to greater concern for what he called man’s transcendent dignity. The next day one newspaper ran the somewhat misleading headline, “Pope Calls for End to Hunger.” Now clearly ending hunger is a good thing, and the Pope did mention it. But this was not his core message, which considered not so much man’s needs and dignity at a material level, but man’s transcendent dignity.

What, then, is man’s transcendent dignity? This is clearly too large and involved a topic to pursue in detail here. Rather it is more fitting to call attention to the fact that it is a question. Our first task, that is, is to come to a more clear and explicit understanding of this term, transcendent dignity, which we seem to collectively intuit has some valid meaning…

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The Coverdale Psalms and Orthodox Psalter Project

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The Orthodox Psalter Project

“A new [revised] translation of the Psalter. The Coverdale translation of the Psalms, best known for its superb beauty and style, and because it has remained central to the traditional Anglican/U.S. Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, has been chosen as a literary foundation for a revised translation. However, there are many places where the translation from the Hebrew Massoretic Text does not agree with the recieved Septuagint text This project attempts to rectify the situation without departing from the traditional style of language.”

The importance of the BCP [Book of Common Prayer] and the Coverdale Psalms cannot be understated, not so much for its content, but for its contribution to the English language of a style of liturgical language that has become ingrained into the common culture as deemed “appropriate” or even “hallowed” for worship. Any successful translation of the Orthodox Scriptures and services must necessarily draw upon this literary tradition in some measure. The following resources are for those who want to further investigate the use of traditional liturgical language and its style.)”

Written by John Uebersax

April 10, 2010 at 12:11 am

Posted in Europe, History, Psalms

The Gnosis of St Thérèse de Lisieux

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The Gnosis of St Thérèse de Lisieux

For October 1 2008

Summary: One can view St Thérèse de Lisieux as a gnostic — and, in a manner of speaking, an ‘alchemist’. A true alchemist seeks not gold, but happiness, and love is the key to true happiness.

Today the Roman Catholic Church is privileged to commemorate the life and example of St. Thérèse de Lisieux. God has providentially supplied for our benefit many saints. Each expresses and manifests certain of God’s attributes. As our soul contains the image of God, the imago Dei, we possess latently those divine virtues and potentialities manifest by the saints. Each saint reveals some dimension of our own soul. Studying their lives and writings assists us in the gradual restoration of the imago Dei, in our self-realization.

In few cases is the saint’s role of exemplar more evident than with St. Therese, the “Little Flower” and the saint of love.

Let us recall some of her more famous quotations:

“Each prayer is more beautiful than the others. I cannot recite them all and not knowing which to choose, I do like children who do not know how to read, I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me. For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.”

“Sufferings gladly borne for others convert more people than sermons.”

“The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of it’s scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its lovliness.”

Her saintliness is obvious, but why do we call St. Thérèse a gnostic? Would even she herself not have denied this?

That St. Therese is to be counted high among gnostic Christians is readily seen. It is true, she professed simplicity and adopted no pretense of great learning. Yet this same humble soul is reckoned, by virtue of her insightful writings and exemplary life, as a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, sharing this title with the likes of Augustine, Ambrose, and Aquinas. In in her grasp of Scripture, her ability to sense the deep meanings and subtle nuances of passages, great wisdom is evident. Most of all the illuminated nature of her thinking is demonstrated by its habitual content: Love — its reality, immanence, and greatness. If she is not readily recognized as a gnostic that is only because we ourselves so easily fall from the state of wisdom, and begin to imagine there is some greater thing than Love.

We are too accustomed to seeing simplicity and wisdom as opposites, when in fact they go together. The Lord said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes (Matt 11:25). And as St Paul wrote: the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:25). We know that, as Socrates taught, true wisdom comes with recognition of ones ignorance. Thus we should not hesitate to consent to the classification of St. Therese as a gnostic.

There is here, moreover, an important general point: too often those who wish to be gnostics are overly attached to scholarship, books, and the external trappings of philosophy. It must be admitted, in short, that pride often or usually accompanies an interest in gnostic matters. Many who see themselves as gnostics look consdecendingly on “non-gnostic” practitioners of religion. This was carred to extremes in some heretical gnostic sects, which claimed that only special individuals, that is, those with arcane knowledge reserved for a select few, will be saved.

Al Ghazali on Alchemy

We may easily demonstrate the falseness of a view that equates saving gnosis with special, arcane knowledge. Suppose that great gnosis or wisdom, such as that sought by ancient gnostics, alchemists, and magi, of the sort that would give one the ability to perform miracles or accomplish anything, is indeed attainable. Suppose, further, that some master alchemist, after years of difficult labor and study, finally succeeded in creating the fabulous philosopher’s stone, which gives the possessor the ability to have or do anything wished for.

What, then, would such an alchemist do?

Would he turn lead into gold to gain great wealth? Perhaps; but if so, what after that? Of what use would gold alone be? Simply to have gold, unless it procures for one something better, is insufficient.

One might reply that he would make gold and then buy things with the gold, expecting these things to bring enjoyment and happines. But what this means is that what the alchemist actually seeks is not the gold, but happiness. At best, the gold would be only instrumental in gaining happiness.

But what brings happiness? Plainly, nothing for a human being brings so much happiness as love. It follows that the perfect alchemist would seek perfect love. Gold or wealth might possibly be helpful for this, but, so too it might be a hindrance. For all we know the perfectly attained alchemist might choose the life of a beggar!

As novel as this idea might seem, it is not new. The same principle was expressed in a dazzling spiritual treatise by the Islamic cleric and philospher Al Ghazali in the 11th century, called, fittingly, The Alchemy of Happiness.

Al Ghazali keenly discerned that the idea of turning lead into gold is merely a metaphor for the far more important process of transforming our base personality into something pure and beautiful. This form of alchemy seeks not gold or material wealth, but virtue and love. It is the gaining of virtue that is is the topic of this masterful written work of Al Ghazali.

Considering all this, we may say confidently that St. Therese was a great alchemist and a great gnostic. She found the secret, the formula for happiness — and so completely that she was able to dispense with showy displays of erudition and false knowledge.

Epilogue

I was pleased, or perhaps reassurred, to notice for the first time, only after writing this note, the Apostolic Letter in which Pope John Paul II in 1997 declared St Therese a Doctor of the Church, namely Divini Amoris Scientia (The Science of Divine Love). Some passages from the Letter follow:

1….During her life Thérèse discovered “new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings” (Ms A, 83v) and received from the divine Teacher that “science of love” which she then expressed with particular originality in her writings (cf. Ms B, 1r). This science is the luminous expression of her knowledge of the mystery of the kingdom and of her personal experience of grace. It can be considered a special charism of Gospel wisdom which Thérèse, like other saints and teachers of faith, attained in prayer (cf. Ms C, 36r·)….

7. From careful study of the writings of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and from the resonance they have had in the Church, salient aspects can be noted of her “eminent doctrine”, which is the fundamental element for conferring the title of Doctor of the Church.

First of all, we find a special charism of wisdom. This young Carmelite, without any particular theological training, but illumined by the light of the Gospel, feels she is being taught by the divine Teacher…

Thérèse offers a mature synthesis of Christian spirituality: she combines theology and the spiritual life; she expresses herself with strength and authority, with a great ability to persuade and communicate, as is shown by the reception and dissemination of her message among the People of God.

The last point is important: Thérèse’s pursuit of gnosis was not motivated by selfish aims, as is so often true with those who merely call themselves “gnostics”, but by a great love and intense desire to share the good news of the mystery of God’s salvation with others. Such compassionate yearning for others to know the meaning of God’s love is deep, innate, and immensely powerful. This sense of compassion is a powerful and perhaps essential motive force promoting the attainment of true gnosis.

Thérèse’s teaching expresses with coherence and harmonious unity the dogmas of the Christian faith as a doctrine of truth and an experience of life. In this regard it should not be forgotten that the understanding of the deposit of faith transmitted by the Apostles, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit: “There is growth in insight into the realities and words that are passed on… through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Lk 2:19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience.

Again, a broader point here is to remind those of us who who pursue scholarship, research, and philosophy that these constitute neither the only nor, arguably, the most important path to wisdom or gnosis. The gnostic should never feel superior to or denigrate the accomplishments of a devout and pure “simple soul”, whose attainments in love — which is the ultimate standard of gnosis — may far exceed our own.

In seeking gnosis let us never overvalue our books, translations, history, and metaphysical speculations. Such things constitute philosophical scholarship, which is potentially important, but is not to be confused with philosophy itself, which, as its very name suggests, is an activity of love.

Written by John Uebersax

October 21, 2008 at 4:21 pm

Why Catholicism for Europe: Reason 2

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2. Philosophical and psychological depth

Today many people equate Christianity with simple-mindedness. Another group — fundamentalists — naively insist on a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible.

The truth is that Christianity encompasses an extremely sophisticated system of religious, philosophical, and psychological thought. This system, though based on ideas present in Scripture, required several centuries to articulate and elaborate. This task was accomplished by the Church Fathers — figures such as St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. John Chrysostom in the East, and Sts. Justin, Irenaeus, Ambrose and St. Augustine in the West, to name but a very few. In fact there are well over 100 writers commonly considered as Church Fathers. But this is just the top tier; beyond these are dozens more erudite, profound, insightful, and articulate Christian thinkers of late antiquity whose works have come down to us.

They were among the most brilliant and best-educated philosophers of their times — men who followed in the footsteps of Plato and Aristotle. The works of these Greek, Latin, Syrian, and Egyptian Fathers are a vast storehouse of knowledge still scarcely mined. Many of their works have not been translated into modern languages yet — not even all those St. Augustine.

As these works become more widely known and studied (thanks in part to the Internet) the profundity and modern relevance of their thought will become increasingly clear.

Written by John Uebersax

August 11, 2008 at 6:40 pm

10 Reasons Why Europeans Should Rediscover Their Catholicism

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Today many people in Europe and the United States have rejected or view with little interest their own Christian traditions.  Since people naturally seek deeper meaning in life, this leads many to turn instead to Eastern religions — to Buddhism and the religions of India, for example — for spiritual answers.

There is certainly nothing wrong with studying Eastern religions.  But one should not dismiss ones own traditions in the process.  (Even the Dalai Lama says that!).

Here let me list some reasons why modern Europeans and Americans — especially those who come from a Christian background — should reconsider their native Christianity and, in particular, their Catholicism.

I’ll try to be as brief as possible. My view is that one person cannot prove or convince another of matters like this.  Instead, I work on the assumption that if anything I say here is true, then you already know it latently.  I just wish to give you a reminder, or to gently nudge your own inner intuition and attention.

I’ll start posting these reasons one or several at a time over the next few days or weeks. (Please excuse typos — I’ll edit these out later.)

Let’s begin, then, with the first reason.

1. Christianity is Europe’s “folk religion”.

Modern people greatly admire indigenous religions.  For example, the religions of Native Americans, Africans, or Australian Aborigines are studied closely; we seek in these traditions elements of deep, genuine, experience-based religion, “untainted”, as it were, by centuries-long accretions of overrationalized doctrines, dogmas, institutional formalities, etc.

Few consider that, after nearly 2000 years, Christianity has become a genuine indigenous religion of Europeans.  Further, much pre-Christian tradition has been smoothly assimilated into Christian practices and customs — and remains available to Westerners in this form.  To (re)connect with Christianity, then, is to connect with ones roots.

The Two Threads

There are two concurrent threads in the development of Christianity.  There is doctrine, as found in the Bible and developed by early Church writers and later theologians.  But also there are the unwritten customs and traditions of Christianity.

The latter include religious liturgies, practices, and art.  These things are not governable by written rules.

Religious art is of special interest.  Deep truths are expressed by religious art — truths of the heart and soul; things beyond words.  Generations of our ancestors have preserved and transmitted these truths to us in art and customs.  We would be most foolish to neglect these.

To walk into an old church in Europe and to see the magnificent, expressive, and deeply symbolic art is to be immediately struck with the richness and importance of this dimension of our religious heritage.

We look with admiration at ancient or indigenous art, trying to decipher its symbolism, convinced that it conveys some great hidden truths.  Yet how many approach our own rich heritage of Western Christian art with the same diligence, respect, and interest?

Similar considerations apply to religious practices. Why are Westerners intrigued with Tibetan prayer beads, while dismissing the Catholic rosary as superstition?  Why show such interest in the asanas of yoga, or investigate Buddhist hand mudras, while remaining unaware of the complex prayer postures of the Catholic mass?  Who today takes seriously the significance of kneeling, or of the folding of hands in prayer?  People seek to learn the use of Tibetan meditational mandalas, but fail to appreciate their own traditions of deep, devout prayer before an icon or religious statue.

Another example: many Westerners today are interested in Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam.  One wonders how many of these people know that Sufism was strongly influenced by earlier Christian monastic and mystical traditions in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.  While Sufism is all the rage, the numerous writings — inspiring and sophisticated — of this earlier Christian tradition are neglected.

Indeed, the grass across the fence always seems greener.

Written by John Uebersax

August 10, 2008 at 6:29 pm