Truth and Tradition
by AfP


Agenda for Prophets has received a few messages criticising the “authoritarian” aspects of Catholicism. Some readers are alienated by the concept of a teaching office which they see as arrogantly claiming a monopoly on truth. Here we try to respond thoughtfully to such criticisms.
The first thing to note surely is that the Church doesn't in fact claim to have any monopoly on truth. Catholicism in particular has always shown two tendencies. The first is to have a strong teaching authority and to draw the lines of doctrine and moral teaching firmly and clearly, and this may have been overdone in the Enlightenment period and after, when church authorities in Europe took a very defensive and politically conservative stance against developments in society and culture - democracy, liberalism, freedom of conscience, etc.
But even there, when we read some of the criticisms of “modern society” written by e.g. the popes in the nineteenth century they now have a relevant prophetic ring to them. Our own society, as the culmination of three hundred years of secular, post-Christian development, is hardly the liberated utopia dreamt-of by the first generations of rationalists.
The other tendency in Catholicism which has been criticised by many of the Protestant churches as being unfaithful to Scripture and denying the uniqueness of Christ was a tendency to welcome and absorb currents of thought and philosophical positions which seemed compatible with Christian faith: certain ideas from Greek philosophy, natural law and so on.
There was always a conviction that wherever human beings were striving to discover the truth about themselves, human nature, the world, the reality of the divine, then to some extent God was present and active. That principle surely underlies the Church’s present efforts at inter-religious dialogue, especially in areas troubled by religious violence. In the case of the Catholic-Muslim dialogue in Nigeria, to give one example, the Catholic Church appears to be far more open towards other faiths than many of the fundamentalist Protestant churches whose policy is to seek to persuade Muslims to abandon Islam and accept Jesus' role as saviour as we understand it.
The Vatican II Declaration Nostra Aetate on the relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions stated that Catholicism rejects “nothing of what is true and holy” in the other world faiths (art. 2). Similarly article 18 of the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, Ad Gentes Divinitus, suggested that missionaries in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist parts of the world should "reflect on how Christian religious life may be able to assimilate the ascetical and contemplative traditions whose seeds were sometimes already planted by God in ancient cultures prior to the preaching of the gospel" – an explicit disavowal of any claim to monopolise knowledge about God.
That leads onto another point. We (“western Christians”) might think that we are being very open-minded by adopting aspects of eastern faiths - Zen Buddhist meditation techniques or whatever - on the grounds that Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on truth. But sometimes this practice has drawn objections not from supposedly narrow-minded church authorities but from the members of the other religions themselves, who want to protect the integrity of their faith and don't like spiritual tourists from the west dabbling, cherry-picking, and severing elements of their beliefs from the context of the whole faith, taken seriously and earnestly practised in its own right.
The most fruitful inter-faith dialogue surely takes place between participants who are deeply committed to their own particular religion, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and with a recognition of the profound differences.
Within the Church itself, as opposed to its relations with other denominations or religions, there is a difference between having a received content of faith, fairly precisely defined, and claiming a monopoly on all truth.
As a revealed religion and as a set of beliefs shared by members of a community now numbering millions, Catholicism needs some kind of principle by which to safeguard the meaning and interpretation of our sources of revelation about God, presenting the content of Christian belief as an integrated whole, and countering false interpretations. What do we mean by faith after all? Isn’t it the personal response to, and acceptance of, the content of belief, handed down through history by each generation of the faith community? Authentic Christian faith can never be something created by men and women solely from their own subjective experience. Fundamentally it has to be received from the community which is its bearer.
From the start of the Church's existence the Christian community had to work out and settle the content of Christian belief in relation to Christ's nature, the meaning of his death and resurrection, God's nature and the Trinity, the Eucharist - all the major Christian doctrines. It had to decide which writings were to be considered inspired and revelatory and what ones weren't, the relationship of the Christian Church to the experiences of the Hebrew people recorded in the Old Testament, etc.
The eventual conclusions became the content of belief which the community then had the duty of handing on (tradere - tradition). Can we reasonably treat all these areas as completely open questions to be settled according to individual viewpoints, experiences, indeed tastes? In what way then is Christian faith something embodied in, and passed on though the life of, a community?
Certainly, as John Macquarrie, the Anglican theologian, says, there is always a danger of "tradition" becoming a sort of dead, mechanical handing-on of teachings which inhibits growth and healthy development. If the Church has a living faith, he says, each generation of Christians "must appropriate the tradition, and in order to do this it has to interpret the ancient formula, or whatever it may be, into its own categories of thought. This means that one has to ask what the formula was trying to express in its own historical context, or what error it was trying to guard against, and then rethink this in our own situation. This needs more insight and patience than the simple rejection of the tradition, but such reinterpretation is needed if the tradition is to be carried on critically and responsibly as a living and growing tradition".[1]
But he says on the other hand that when people break with the tradition - maybe with the intention of rejecting illegitimate historical accretions and getting back to the original Jesus or whatever - what they've really done is they've brought about a break in the life of the community - "or rather the community has been abandoned and a new community set up".
"A Christian theology can no more fly in the face of the mainstream of tradition than it can in the face of Scripture. To deny fundamental doctrines, like that of the Trinity; to reject the creeds; to set aside the beliefs of the early councils of the still undivided Church - these may be actions to which individuals are impelled by their own thinking on these matters, but they cannot take place in Christian theology, for they amount to a rejection of the history and therefore of the continuing identity of the community within which Christian theologising takes place".
Authority in the Church derives from, and has to serve, faithfulness to the tradition. In the Old Testament, after all, the prophets were those who accused the community of idolatry and drifting away from its founding principles. "Repent" meant "back to God". If one opinion or view of God is as good as another, these biblical concepts would be meaningless - and in actual fact the people on the receiving end of prophetic criticism in those days reacted to the prophets - and then to John the Baptist and Christ - in a recognisably modern manner: who are you to presume superior knowledge of God and to tell us what the faith consists of? etc.
What Macquarrie says about theology is also true for our own individual spiritual development. Faith should of course be intelligent and critical, not stupid and credulous, but surely an attitude of faith by definition leans in the direction of acceptance and assent.
If someone's attitude is one of constantly criticising, raising objections, being preoccupied with rejecting rather than accepting the articles of belief, the moral values, the liturgical practices of their Church, then apart from anything else they are unlikely ever to make much progress in their personal spiritual life. They are like someone constantly hovering outside a building and never going in. At worst their attitude can be quite parasitic, in that they cheerfully take what they want from the community that is dutifully preserving and handing on the tradition while leaving the crucial work of preserving and handing on to others. The promised guardianship of the Holy Spirit apart, the Church could not survive as a community of faith if every believer took such a stance.
But even here it is important not to absolutise doctrines and beliefs. At the end of the day the essential thing is our relationship with God, being changed into his image by our contact with him. When people become aggressive and dogmatic about what we must accept as authoritative teaching, they are often simply showing their type of personality – one which needs a high level of certainty, stability and clear, firm categories etc. (And after all, religious faith should answer that emotional need - which we all have to different extents - maybe more so in times like ours when culture and society are such a moral shambles).
But there are two basic facts we should not allow ourselves to forget: First, faith in God for most people is a lifelong journey with many doubts, uncertainties, and unresolved dilemmas. People's faith grows in response to their experiences and in their own concrete circumstances. Today especially great harm is done by rigid and unsympathetic religious types who want to rush the pace of God's grace or force square pegs into round holes.
Second, God is ultimately beyond the categories and definitions of theology which we conjure up with our limited and incomplete vision of things. We'll only know and experience God fully when we see him face to face in the next life. In other words, it is wise to acknowledge the limits of doctrines and dogmas. They are only glimpses and partial attempts to understand what is ultimately a deep mystery, something beyond our grasp and our control, and that should be a brake on attempts at religious imperialism or casting faith as a purely intellectual exercise, as though our relationship with God can be reduced to signing a piece of paper with the creed written on it.
Apart from Macquarrie’s book, which is a rather dense and academic text, similar themes are explored thoughtfully in a short book, Learning to Love, by Martin Israel, an Anglican priest who is a doctor, a lecturer in pathology and a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. He is also an exorcist and has had a lifelong interest in psychic phonomena (he says he himself is telepathic) and Christian mysticism. He has his own website where most of his other books – many of which are now out of print - have been uploaded chapter by chapter: www.martinisrael.u-net.com.
Finally, from the thousands of useful sites on the world wide web here are just two resources which help to illustrate the true breadth of Catholicism. One is the Inner Explorations website where - in the authors’ own words - "Christian mysticism, theology and metaphysics meet Eastern religions, Jungian psychology and a new sense of the earth" (www.innerexplorations.com ). Second, the various sites associated with the Catholic Worker Movement (www.catholicworker.org) – often described as a kind of Christian anarchism – shows the social and political radicalism which is possible from an orthodox Catholic standpoint. The Houston Catholic Worker site in particular has scores of well-argued articles in its online newspaper (www.cjd.org).
These are a few thoughts on the relationship between the tradition of faith handed on by the community and the – hopefully - intelligent and reflective assent given to the tradition by each individual believer.


Notes and References
[1] John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, SCM Press London, 1966, p.12.
[2] Ibid., p. 11.
[3] Ibid.. p.11. Later in his book Macquarrie discusses the relationship between unity and diversity in the Church. A rich diversity is undoubtedly a source of great strength to the Christian community, he writes, but "everything cannot be left to the particular situation or its context". A community needs an identity, he says, and "there is a critical point somewhere when the diversity begins to subvert the identity of the community and begins its dissolution". He adds that from the very beginning the Church has contained considerable diversity, but "also it has had to strive to maintain its identity and has exercised discipline over individuals or groups who had departed too far from its norms, in some cases even expelling them." The authority of the Church's pastoral and teaching office arose from the need to address this practical issue. Ibid., pp.338-39.