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The Oxford Movement’s Critique of Modern Rationalism

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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.

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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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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 Essenes – Philo (Quod Omnis Probus Liber Sit )

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Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – 50 AD), on the Essenes

Quod Omnis Probus Liber Sit (Every Good Man is Free)


XII. (75) Moreover Palestine and Syria too are not barren of exemplary wisdom and virtue, which countries no slight portion of that most populous nation of the Jews inhabits. There is a portion of those people called Essenes, in number something more than four thousand in my opinion, who derive their name from their piety, though not according to any accurate form of the Grecian dialect, because they are above all men devoted to the service of God, not sacrificing living animals, but studying rather to preserve their own minds in a state of holiness and purity. (76) These men, in the first place, live in villages, avoiding all cities on account of the habitual lawlessness of those who inhabit them, well knowing that such a moral disease is contracted from associations with wicked men, just as a real disease might be from an impure atmosphere, and that this would stamp an incurable evil on their souls. Of these men, some cultivating the earth, and others devoting themselves to those arts which are the result of peace, benefit both themselves and all those who come in contact with them, not storing up treasures of silver and of gold, nor acquiring vast sections of the earth out of a desire for ample revenues, but providing all things which are requisite for the natural purposes of life; (77) for they alone of almost all men having been originally poor and destitute, and that too rather from their own habits and ways of life than from any real deficiency of good fortune, are nevertheless accounted very rich, judging contentment and frugality to be great abundance, as in truth they are. (78 ) Among those men you will find no makers of arrows, or javelins, or swords, or helmets, or breastplates, or shields; no makers of arms or of military engines; no one, in short, attending to any employment whatever connected with war, or even to any of those occupations even in peace which are easily perverted to wicked purposes; for they are utterly ignorant of all traffic, and of all commercial dealings, and of all navigation, but they repudiate and keep aloof from everything which can possibly afford any inducement to covetousness;
(79) and there is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, aiding one another with a reciprocal interchange of good offices; and they condemn masters, not only as unjust, inasmuch as they corrupt the very principle of equality, but likewise as impious, because they destroy the ordinances of nature, which generated them all equally, and brought them up like a mother, as if they were all legitimate brethren, not in name only, but in reality and truth. But in their view this natural relationship of all men to one another has been thrown into disorder by designing covetousness, continually wishing to surpass others in good fortune, and which has therefore engendered alienation instead of affection, and hatred instead of friendship; (80) and leaving the logical part of philosophy, as in no respect necessary for the acquisition of virtue, to the word-catchers, and the natural part, as being too sublime for human nature to master, to those who love to converse about high objects (except indeed so far as such a study takes in the contemplation of the existence of God and of the creation of the universe), they devote all their attention to the moral part of philosophy, using as instructors the laws of their country which it would have been impossible for the human mind to devise without divine inspiration. (81) Now these laws they are taught at other times, indeed, but most especially on the seventh day, for the seventh day is accounted sacred, on which they abstain from all other employments, and frequent the sacred places which are called synagogues, and there they sit according to their age in classes, the younger sitting under the elder, and listening with eager attention in becoming order. (82) Then one, indeed, takes up the holy volume and reads it, and another of the men of the greatest experience comes forward and explains what is not very intelligible, for a great many precepts are delivered in enigmatical modes of expression, and allegorically, as the old fashion was; (83) and thus the people are taught piety, and holiness, and justice, and economy, and the science of regulating the state, and the knowledge of such things as are naturally good, or bad, or indifferent, and to choose what is right and to avoid what is wrong, using a threefold variety of definitions, and rules, and criteria, namely, the love of God, and the love of virtue, and the love of mankind. (84) Accordingly, the sacred volumes present an infinite number of instances of the disposition devoted to the love of God, and of a continued and uninterrupted purity throughout the whole of life, of a careful avoidance of oaths and of falsehood, and of a strict adherence to the principle of looking on the Deity as the cause of everything which is good and of nothing which is evil. They also furnish us with many proofs of a love of virtue, such as abstinence from all covetousness of money, from ambition, from indulgence in pleasures, temperance, endurance, and also moderation, simplicity, good temper, the absence of pride, obedience to the laws, steadiness, and everything of that kind; and, lastly, they bring forward as proofs of the love of mankind, goodwill, equality beyond all power of description, and fellowship, about which it is not unreasonable to say a few words. (85) In the first place, then, there is no one who has a house so absolutely his own private property, that it does not in some sense also belong to every one: for besides that they all dwell together in companies, the house is open to all those of the same notions, who come to them from other quarters; (86) then there is one magazine among them all; their expenses are all in common; their garments belong to them all in common; their food is common, since they all eat in messes; for there is no other people among which you can find a common use of the same house, a common adoption of one mode of living, and a common use of the same table more thoroughly established in fact than among this tribe: and is not this very natural? For whatever they, after having been working during the day, receive for their wages, that they do not retain as their own, but bring it into the common stock, and give any advantage that is to be derived from it to all who desire to avail themselves of it; (87) and those who are sick are not neglected because they are unable to contribute to the common stock, inasmuch as the tribe have in their public stock a means of supplying their necessities and aiding their weakness, so that from their ample means they support them liberally and abundantly; and they cherish respect for their elders, and honor them and care for them, just as parents are honored and cared for by their lawful children: being supported by them in all abundance both by their personal exertions, and by innumerable contrivances.

Translation of Charles Duke Yonge

via Philo.

Written by John Uebersax

January 1, 2009 at 12:17 am

Posted in Essenes, History, Philo