Where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint,but blessed is he who keeps the law. (Proverbs 29:18)
We’re not cats, bats, or moray eels, as I pointed out in a recent post. “We humans are different. We are, again, unique among the world’s creatures. We’re not governed by instinct, we alone can make free choices about how we act.” Just because we have free choice, however, does not mean that all possible choices are good, and it certainly does not mean we can simply disregard the experience of our ancestors. We disregard the value of tradition at our peril.
And yet tradition is not a very fashionable concept in some quarters. Nonetheless, since today is Thursday, which (traditionally) we honor as “Throwback Thursday”, I’m reposting a piece from a few years ago exploring why we might want to pay a little more attention to what the Romans called the mos maiorum.
Many years ago, shortly after I had returned to the Church after my youthful sojourn among the secular agnostics, I read a book called The Education of Henry Adams. Although it doesn’t sound like it from the title, it is an autobiography, and the author was the grandson of U.S. President John Quincy Adams, and the great-grandson of the second President and revolutionary leader John Adams. The one thing from Adams’ book that made the largest impression on me was the author’s dissatisfaction with (among other things) the spiritual emptiness of the Unitarian churches which his family attended; here, the drama of Salvation had been reduced to little more than guidelines for moral conduct. It struck me that these same churches, just a few generations earlier, had been peopled by zealous Calvinists fleeing the Anglican Church because it had, in their view, strayed too far from the Gospel. What had happened? How had they changed so much, so quickly?
It occurred to me that the cause of the erosion of their faith was that they had cut themselves off from the guidance of the Apostolic Church, from the power of its Tradition and its infallible Magisterium, from the Church that St. Paul had named “The pillar and the foundation of the Truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). After all, however zealous our belief, however sincere our intentions, we fallible humans tend to wander off course without direction from above. We can see the proof not only in Henry Adams’ Unitarians, but in Protestantism in general. All the historic Reformation churches have gone through numerous changes, not just in externals but in doctrine, and have continued splintering until it is impossible to say how many separate ecclesial bodies there are. Whatever the eccentricities or errors of individual Catholics, however (including rather significant failings on the part of some Catholics in rather prominent positions of authority), and despite the two thousand years’ worth of baggage, the Catholic Church today is still, in its essentials, the Church of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and the Apostles.
A cafeteria is not a Wedding Feast
Let me emphasize that this has nothing to do with the virtue or sincerity of individual Christians of any denomination. I know and have worked with many non-Catholic Christians who live their faith in an exemplary way, and many Catholics who do not (including, sometimes, myself, I am sorry to say). Over the long run, however, we can’t do it ourselves: we need Christ’s help, in the guidance of his Church and by the Grace that he confers through the Sacraments administered by that Church. More than that, it is through the Church and its sacraments that we most directly encounter Christ in this world.
Of course there are Catholics, too, who don’t understand how essential the Church is to their relationship with their Lord. They want to strip her of the things that they don’t like, but still receive the sacraments (when it suits them) and present themselves as Catholic. A few years ago I ran across an essay by David Carlin called “Reducing Religion Down”, subtitled “How Liberal Christians Shrink the Faith”, in which Carlin dissects this phenomenon, which he calls “Liberal Christianity” (we could also use the term “Progressive Christianity”), among both Catholics and other Christians. He explains that
Liberal Christianity is made up of three reductions:
1. The reduction of religion to morality.
2. The reduction of morality to love of neighbor.
3. The reduction of love of neighbor to tolerance plus welfare programs.
Notice that each of Carlin’s “reductions” becomes less demanding, and has less to do with our relationship with God. Christian Faith becomes only a minor encumbrance, as Carlin explains:
The reduction of love of neighbor to tolerance plus welfare programs makes it relatively easy for very busy men and women to be good Christians. Being tolerant of almost everything except murder, rape, arson, bank robbery, child molestation, and a small number of other crimes – this is something you can do, at least once you’ve developed a knack for it, with a minimum expenditure of time and energy. As for loving by means of welfare programs, all you have to do is pay your taxes and vote the straight Democratic ticket.
This is not so different from the process we saw at work in Henry Adams’ Unitarian Church, and it’s internal logic leads, in the end, to only one thing. Here’s how Carlin wraps up:
Speaking roughly and generally, liberal Christianity (and liberal Judaism too, for what I’m saying applies mutatis mutandis to Judaism as well) is a way-station – a temporary motel, so to speak – on the great ideological highway that leads from classical Christianity at one terminus to atheism at the other.
It makes perfect sense, once you think about it: having reduced the fullness of Christian faith to a mere moral code, and a pretty minimal one at that, there is no longer any perceived need for salvation: we can save ourselves by following “the law” (take that, St. Paul!). There is therefore no need for the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in fact no need for God at all; we’ve got it all covered, thank you very much.
Diseases of the Soul
Naturally, morality is very important: immoral acts lead to bad consequences in this world and can separate us and others from God forever; we are quite capable of sinning our way into Hell . . . but we cannot, by any effort of our own, earn our way into Heaven. For that we need God’s Grace, which is administered through his Church . . . which, as we have seen, is just what those whom David Carlin calls liberal Catholics are ready to jettison in all but name.
I am reminded of Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven, in which the character called Dr. Haber, having discovered the power to turn dreams into reality, eventually turns the world into a living nightmare composed of fragments of different times and different realities, in which nothing really fits or works. At one point, hoping to remove sources of division between people, Haber creates a world in which everyone is the same shade of gray, with the vast variety of different characteristics that make each of us distinct persons erased. I don’t think that LeGuin was a believing Christian, but she created a perfect picture of what happens when we, with our finite understanding, try to remake God’s world in our own image: a monstrous absurdity in which, in the end, the human person is crushed.
Finally, let’s return briefly to poor old Henry Adams. His autobiography exudes ennui and malaise (what one of Ursula LeGuin’s characters called “French diseases of the soul”), a sense of boredom, pointlessness, and dissatisfaction. He seems acutely aware of his own insignificance in the shadow of greater forebears. He has been given a moral code, but no sense that he plays a unique but indispensable role in the vastness of creation . . . and no realization that he is loved eternally and infinitely. The thing is, if we want to be loved, we must be prepared to love in turn, and Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). If we only keep the commandments that suit us, however, we don’t love Jesus, we really love ourselves . . . except we don’t, because true love can only be directed to an Other. And a solitary existence without the Love of God is, in the end, a very sad, lonely way to spend eternity.
*I am usually reluctant to apply the secular political terms “liberal” and “conservative” to religion; I use the terminology here because that is what Carlin uses.
Featured Image top of page: Marriage Feast at Cana by Gaetano Gandofi, 1766