Saturday, January 27, 2007

Doctrinal Development I: The Image

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.


I have been intending to lay out my own view of the development of doctrine for some time now, abstracting from all controversy and just putting my own opinion plainly. I intended to do it in one post, but it quickly became clear that it would have to be spread out over several. In this one, I'm going to look at the more Newmanian side of my view.

Newman in one of his Oxford University Sermons discusses the puzzle of how moral truth is propagated. There are a number of problems with moral education that come from the peculiarities of what we are trying to teach. It is very difficult to convey in words a whole stance of life, but this is precisely what a moral teacher is trying to do. Further, truth in this sort of case suffers under many disadvantages. The skeptic can always propose more hard questions than anyone can answer; people can get caught up in the grammar, the words, rather than what is being taught by them; error, unlike truth, is free to oversimplify, pander to prejudice, and the like; superficially similar things may in reality be divided by an abyss; words may be multiplied indefinitely, and propagated to the farthest ends of the earth, whereas good deeds are one-by-one and rarely can have many witnesses; and so forth. So what are the means whereby moral truth is effectively propagated?

Newman suggests that "it has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such men as have already been described, who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it." The idea is that of a moral teacher who doesn't merely teach goodness and holiness but exemplifies it. Men may scoff at virtue in a book; it's much harder to scoff at virtue in a person. Virtue has a splendor, an excellence, that is difficult simply to dismiss, and the obvious difficulty of imitating a truly holy person elicits some sort of admiration, however grudging it may be. Faced with clear superiority it would take an extremely hard heart not to be humbled and awed. Moreover, virtue in a holy person shows itself to have both a stability and a flexibility that is unmatched -- the truly good person can, one feels, handle just about any situation, but there's this curious sense that they can do so precisely because in some fashion they are always the same. There is a beauty and a grace to seeing virtue in action; it touches the heart, and excites our taste for it. And while Newman is considering moral teaching alone, it's clear that to some extent this is true across the board. The most powerful teachers are those who don't merely teach but exemplify, and by their personal influence help to spark that same exemplification in others. Personal influence is not the only factor; it's probably only rarely a sufficient factor in itself. But its importance as a factor in the propagation of truth is undeniable. Even granting that, it's easy to underestimate it. The moral teacher who exemplifies moral greatness can have a powerful influence even in casual encounters with the general crowd; how much more such people must have on those who constantly surround them! Fire sparks fire, and the flame begins to spread, to the extent that those who inflamed have been gifted with the means of keeping up the exemplification:

Such men, like the Prophet, are placed upon their watch-tower, and light their beacons on the heights. Each receives and transmits the sacred flame, trimming it in rivalry of his predecessor, and fully purposed to send it on as bright as it has reached him; and thus the self-same fire, once kindled on Moriah, though seeming at intervals to fail, has at length reached us in safety, and will in like manner, as we trust, be carried forward even to the end.


But what is exemplified in the case we are considering is more even than a moral teaching, although it is clear that this is the case. It is rather an Idea, an Image. In Christ we find not merely a holy teacher (although undeniably he is that) but the Word made flesh, who died for our sins and was raised to bring us into newness of life. This is what is propagated; it is what was impressed upon the souls of the early Christians and thence spread to us, and the teachers who have had the most influence and power in spreading that Image to us are those who exemplified it themselves in their own diverse and peculiar ways -- people like Augustine, or Athanasius, or Francis of Assisi, or Seraphim of Sarov, or Teresa of Avila. St. Francis is a vivid case of it, because we have much clearer information about the path of his personal influence, which continues to this very day. You can still find people, here and there, who are marked by Francis, who are in their own little ways crucified seraphim.

But the mark of Francis is in fact just a variation of a deeper and more ancient mark. The study of the saints is the study of Christ in them; hagiology is Christology in a different key. And what we find is that the faith has chiefly been propagated through the personal influence of Christ; so that all of us bear His Character -- some of us sometimes in little more than external ritual, to be sure, but bear it we nonetheless do. This Character is often faint and undeveloped, so that its outlines can't be traced if we only consider ourselves; but when we take into account the whole of the community of the faithful, we can see it more clearly. I keep talking about development of doctrine being an expression of the entelechy of the Church. But entelechy is the form of a thing that makes it actually what it is, in accordance with its end; so the question naturally arises as to what this form is. The answer, I think, has to be the Character or Image or Idea of Christ.

Gibbon attempted to give a causal account of the spread of Christianity that appealed to five factors, which Newman summarizes in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent as "the zeal of Christians, inherited from the Jews, their doctrine of a future state, their claim to miraculous power, their virtues, and their ecclesiastical organization." The problem with this, of course, is that even if these factors are the causes for the spread of Christianity, what is relevant to such an explanation is not the factors themselves so much as their combination, and that is what is really doing the explanatory work in an explanation like this; and, moreover, they do not, in fact, seem to be adequate for the proposed explanandum, namely, the masses of men and women who became converted to Christianity. What really seems to explain it is something different, although perhaps related to Gibbons five causes as root is related to leaves:

A temporal sovereign makes himself felt by means of his subordinate administrators, who bring his power and will to bear upon every individual of his subjects who personally know him not; the universal Deliverer, long expected, when He came, He too, instead of making and securing subjects by a visible graciousness or majesty, departs;—but is found, through His preachers, to have imprinted the Image or idea of Himself in the minds of His subjects individually; and that Image, apprehended and worshipped in individual minds, becomes a principle of association, and a real bond of those subjects one with another, who are thus united to the body by being united to that Image; and moreover that Image, which is their moral life, when they have been already converted, is also the original instrument of their conversion. It is the Image of Him who fulfils the one great need of human nature, the Healer of its wounds, the Physician of the soul, this Image it is which both creates faith, and then rewards it.


We forget that people did not convert to Christianity so much as convert to Christ. The Image of Christ, which is the shape of the Christian moral life, is the "original instrument" of our conversion, the thing that both creates faith and rewards it. This Image is the vivifying principle of the Church. People became zealous not because of any propositions but because of the Thought of Christ; they became convinced of their eternal security not for any reason Gibbon gives, but because of the Thought of Christ Crucified, which the apostles had taught. For such a thing men and women, adults and childrens, senators and slaves, might well endure persecution and death for their faith and count it all joy, however hard a joy it might be. For such a thing profligates might become celibates, misers paupers, and dreamers doers.

It is important to understand that stating it this way is not mere poetry, but a straightforward truth, whatever one may make of it: people came into contact with the Inward Vision of Christ and were drawn to it; it was to this image that they themselves usually attributed their conversions; it is bound up in the very notion that the martyrs were, in fact, martyrs, i.e., witnesses to Christ. Many people only gave what Newman calls a 'notional assent' to Christianity; but some there were who gave a 'real assent' to Christ. As he puts it elsewhere:

And so again in this day the belief of so many thousands in His Divinity, is not therefore notional, because it is common, but may be a real and personal belief, being produced in different individual minds by various experiences and disposing causes, variously combined; such as a warm or strong imagination, great sensibility, compunction and horror at sin, frequenting the Mass and other rites of the Church, meditating on the contents of the Gospels, familiarity with hymns and religious poems, dwelling on the Evidences, parental example and instruction, religious friends, strange providences, powerful preaching. In each case the image in the mind, with the experiences out of which it is formed, would be a personal result; and, though the same in all, would in each case be so idiosyncratic in its circumstances, that it would stand by itself, a special formation, unconnected with any law; though at the same time it would necessarily be a principle of sympathy and a bond of intercourse between those whose minds had been thus variously wrought into a common assent, far stronger than could follow upon any multitude of mere notions which they unanimously held....For an abstraction can be made at will, and may be the work of a moment; but the moral experiences which perpetuate themselves in images, must be sought after in order to be found, and encouraged and cultivated in order to be appropriated.


But this makes it sound more hodge-podge than it actually is. In reality it really is one Image, that of the Word made flesh who died for us and rose again, who lives for us and in us that we may live in Him; that it begins to take shape in us through different causes doesn't change this, since these causes are in fact just various forms that personal influence can take. And it is this Image given to us through personal influence, I propose, that has chiefly guided the doctrine of the Church; every new claim is tested by its conformity to it, or the degree of its appropriateness in light of it. Brought together in confidelity, we find ourselves expressing in various ways and degrees this Image in our own lives, and it is this that regulates change of doctrine, making it development rather than mere change.

One of Newman's other Oxford University Sermons is an excellent one called, The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine, in which he points out that seeing it this way makes it possible to resolve an apparent paradox. On the one hand, we are to hold the same faith unchangingly; on the other hand, we are to grow. But this is entirely possible if the articulation and the thing articulated are not conflated:

Now, here I observe, first of all, that, naturally as the inward idea of divine truth, such as has been described, passes into explicit form by the activity of our reflective powers, still such an actual delineation is not essential to its genuineness and perfection. A peasant may have such a true impression, yet be unable to give any intelligible account of it, as will easily be understood. But what is remarkable at first sight is this, that there is good reason for saying that the impression made upon the mind need not even be recognized by the parties possessing it. It is no proof that persons are not possessed, because they are not conscious, of an idea. Nothing is of more frequent occurrence, whether in things sensible or intellectual, than the existence of such unperceived impressions. What do we mean when we say, that certain persons do not know themselves, but that they are ruled by views, feelings, prejudices, objects which they do not recognize?


Although Newman doesn't draw the connection, this is related to the issue of personal influence again. Someone who inspires both awe and imitation becomes an exemplar; but the relation between exemplar and those guided by it is more like the relation between the objects sensed and our movements around them than it is like conclusions drawn from a pool of premises. It allows for what Newman calls here 'unperceived impressions' and for our ability to learn something despite our difficulties in verbally formulating this thing learned. It is difficult formulating in words what we have learned from our parents at their best, for instance; there is so much to it, and so much of what there is could only be discovered by ourselves after serious thought and careful inquiry. None of this means that we did not learn it. We can, so to speak, entertain angels unawares; and this is as true dogmatically as it is elsewhere. This also sheds light on another apparent paradox of development, namely, that we have to come to learn what we all already possess, to come in the end to know our beginning for the first time; that all the faithful are said to possess it, but it is so difficult for us to find it. As he very fittingly says, "Creeds and dogmas live in the one idea which they are designed to express, and which alone is substantive; and are necessary only because the human mind cannot reflect upon that idea, except piecemeal, cannot use it in its oneness and entireness, nor without resolving it into a series of aspects and relations." Even the Creeds do not exhaust Christ, to whose Image we have been formed. But while the Image is inexhaustible, it is also regulative; as Newman puts it,

though the Christian mind reasons out a series of dogmatic statements, one from another, this it has ever done, and always must do, not from those statements taken in themselves, as logical propositions, but as being itself enlightened and (as if) inhabited by that sacred impression which is prior to them, which acts as a regulating principle, ever present, upon the reasoning, and without which no one has any warrant to reason at all.


This is what differentiates orthodox from heresy; it is the oft-noted point that the heretics take some piecemeal point and run with that to the exclusion of all else. They are seized by a formula, not by the Vision it expresses. In the sermon on development, I think Newman treats the Idea and its Archetype as being more separable than they actually are, and thus puts the dogmatic definition at too far a remove from the heavenly reality; but this is a mistake easily made and easily fixed. What is important to note is that our warrant for reasoning on these matters is rooted in the Idea of Christ; and this governs everything.

There is much more to be said on this subject of doctrinal development, however, and I hope to discuss the matter more in a future post. (All of my ideas on this subject, it should be noted, are only partly formed.)

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