Follow by Email

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Two reasons for converting

In following the stimulating discussions over at Pontifications, I've become increasingly convinced that there are two rather different reasons why people convert to Catholicism--unity and authority. By this I don't mean that the same person can't be concerned with both--probably most converts are. Indeed, it would be hard to follow the one impulse into Catholicism without also finding oneself in the wake of the other. But I think on the whole one or the other is likely to be more important, and if you listen to people talk about their reasons for converting (or for considering the possibility) you can usually figure out which.

I'm also not denying that there are many other reasons for considering Catholicism, of course. But in the absence of one of these two concerns (or of personal reasons for choosing Catholicism), any other reason is as likely as not to lead the seeker elsewhere. For instance, someone primarily concerned to recover sacramental piety and the beauty of the liturgy is likely to end up Anglican or Orthodox. Someone concerned for a coherent, logical theology with well-defined boundaries between truth and error may well become Reformed. Someone whose deepest desire is for an ancient, unchanging faith that is clearly reflected in the writings of the Fathers is likely to become Orthodox. And so on, and so forth.

The desire for unity and authority, on the other hand, can be fully and legitimately satisfied (for the Christian) nowhere else but in the Roman communion. As a Protestant (unless one adopts a purely invisible view of the Church), one is continually yearning for a unity that is not fully expressed in one's own denomination. That just comes with the territory. And even the Orthodox, while they try to avoid the fact, have stubborn bits of evidence in their own beloved Tradition that the See of Rome has a unique role in the preservation of unity. That doesn't mean that the Orthodox position is incoherent--a unique role does not have to mean a necessary role. It may be that Rome has in fact fallen into heresy, and can only fulfill its historic role through repentance and reconciliation with Orthodoxy. But meanwhile there is a vacant place in the choir--and it's the place of the conductor. The choir, being Orthodox and knowing all the chants anyway, can probably get on OK without a conductor. But it's still not quite the same.

Similarly, I think it's impossible to deny that the Church cannot speak with full and final authority if the voice of Rome is lacking. I am not a Catholic in part because I don't believe that the consent of Rome is _sufficient_ to make a group of bishops an Ecumenical Council. But I am firmly convinced that it's _necessary_. One can't speak of "the Church" when speaking of dogmatic definitions without speaking of Rome. Any non-Roman ecclesiology is going to find its style a bit cramped when it comes to fighting heresy and laying down the boundaries of orthodoxy. It's going to have strong temptations to slide into either a sectarian orthodoxy that makes certain local peculiarities (such as the Protestant view of sola fide) Dogmas of the Church, or a barren swamp of tolerance that cannot name any heresy except whatever the broader culture of the given time and place considers offensive.

People for whom either or both of these issues are desperately important are going to find it very difficult to resist the pull Romewards. But depending on which issue is more important to them, they will experience that pull in quite different ways.

For the authority-minded, everything tends to boil down to epistemology. How do you _know_ that you are in possession of the truth? How can you believe X and reject Y without having a theory in place that explains why one is true and the other is false? This is one of the issues that most clearly separates those drawn to Rome from those drawn to Constantinople. The Orthodox can never answer these questions in a very satisfactory way. They believe what they believe because it's been handed down. And they believe that the Church that handed it down is the true Church because--well, because it's the Church that has handed down the truth. Catholic online apologists jump all over this kind of thing, with great glee.

For the unity-minded, on the other hand, the primary issue is one of allegiance. How can I live out the Christian life without having unswerving allegiance to the actual Christian community in which I participate? Nothing less than the Universal Church can demand that kind of allegiance. Therefore, one can only live out the Christian life in a community with a credible claim to universality. A unity-minded person with no concern for the authority issue may well become Catholic without worrying about infallibility--but with a deep allegiance to the concrete reality of the Catholic community. Indeed, some such people become Catholic while disagreeing flatly with certain Catholic dogmas. This is much decried by conservative Catholics, but it happens.

To some extent, clearly, these two categories correspond to the labels "conservative" and "liberal." Certainly it's hard to imagine a liberal Catholic being "authority-minded," but the reverse is not necessarily true. "Liberal" is of course a relative term--a primarily unity-minded convert is probably always going to look "liberal" to the authority-minded. But such a person will most likely see the need for authority and dogma, and submit to all the teachings of the Magisterium. At bottom, however, the unity-minded person is not motivated primarily by the need for settled, authoritative dogma. (In the same way, authority-minded converts are usually acutely concerned for unity--my point is simply that the issue of authority tends to come first, with the need for unity being a consequence.) A unity-minded Catholic could submit quite happily to a church that got things doctrinally wrong, occasionally. The fine points of ex cathedra vs. ordinary magisterium, vs. non-infallible statements that demand submission of will and intellect, are not going to bother such a person all that much.

Now the way I've put this probably tips my hand. In fact, my first interest in Catholicism was highly authority-driven. I wanted a haven of certainty, to preserve me from liberalism while rescuing me from fundamentalism. I didn't (and don't) trust myself to make up my own religion.

Yet the more I explored Catholicism the more problems and contradictions I found with this approach. Between the difficulty of interpreting all the Magisterial documents, the questions about what is and is not infallible, and the propensity for the Vatican to demand and conservative Catholics to give a high degree of assent even to non-infallible teaching, it all got very confusing. There came a point where it seemed to me that so many of my issues were at a high level of abstraction and had little to do with the problems I faced in actually living the Christian life. As the years passed, while my interest in Catholicism never went away, I gradually moved over from the "authority" to the "unity" side of the scale. Side of the scale, be it said, not end of the spectrum. I always have been and am concerned with both issues. But it now seems to me that the Church can live relatively well (though not perfectly) without the kind of authority offered by Rome. It's no longer clear to me (if it ever was) that doctrinal certainty is so much more important than some of the practical issues with regard to which the Roman Communion is manifestly imperfect. If I do become Catholic some day, it will not be because I'm convinced that we _must_ have an infallible authority. It will be because I'm convinced that I cannot in good conscience give my heart to any Christian body not claiming to be the Universal Church. Infallibility would, in that case, simply be one of the things that came with the package.

Pontificator, on the other hand, seems to me to be primarily authority-driven. Not of course that he isn't concerned for unity as well. But in recent posts he seems increasingly concerned with issues of epistemology. He's been reading a lot of Newman and seems convinced by Newman's view that the only real alternative to skepticism and individualism is the infallible authority of the Catholic Church.

For me, the coup de grace that fully convinced me to abandon this approach was William Abraham's book _Canon and Criterion_. I disagree with significant parts of Abraham's argument, largely because I think he ignores the distinction I've been making in this post and assumes that the only basis for being (let alone becoming) a Catholic is the concern for an authoritative epistemology. But I find his basic premise thoroughly convincing. Abraham argues that the importation of epistemology into Christian dogma (in the West) has been thoroughly disastrous. For the early Church, according to Abraham, the norms of belief and practice (making up what he calls the "canonical heritage") were simply given. On the dogmatic level, they didn't need to be justified. They just needed to be accepted. The reasons _why_ any given individual chose to believe the Christian faith might vary, and were not themselves part of the Faith.

If Abraham is right, then the Catholic internet apologists who chase the Orthodox round the Golden Horn asking them "how do you know a Council is ecumenical" are pursuing a red herring. Such decisions are made on an ad hoc basis. This Council is ecumenical for one reason, and that Father is a Doctor of the Church (to use a Western term) for another. The reasons are not themselves part of the Faith. To resist heresy one doesn't need to have an authority one knows beforehand to be infallible. One simply needs (as Abraham has argued in his more recent book _The Logic of Renewal_) to have the will to exercise discipline.

This does not dispose of all concerns with authority, of course. The See of Rome _is_ clearly part of the canonical heritage (this is one of the things I don't think Abraham recognizes adequately), even if its current claims are not. Rather, what Abraham's argument demolishes (if we accept it) is the _epistemological_ argument for authority. If certain structures of authority are necessary, they are necessary simply because they are part of the tradition. They are not necessary on a priori philosophical grounds.

The need for unity, however, remains intact. How can we speak of the canonical heritage if we cannot claim full membership in the historic bearer of the canonical heritage? This is, for me, the great issue. I'm going to try to lay out a possible Protestant answer to this question in subsequent posts. I welcome comments (or even anathemas).



15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Of late, I fear damning people with my praise, but this post is excellent Edwin. You say everything I've been trying to say, but more accurately, coherently and elegently.

We have certain a priori concerns that naturally lead us to one communion or another. I became Orthodox in quite a simplistic manner, but the more I go on, the more I understand that things are far more complex than I made them out to be. We can create a rough set of categories, which you've done here, but the larger point, I think, is that we approach the matter with different "burning questions." Which burning questions we have determines to a large degree where we end up.

One person discovers Newman and everything starts making sense to him. Another reads Newman and is not moved at all. On the other hand, a person reads Florovsky and everything starts making sense to him. Another person reads Florovsky and might be interested, but remains unmoved.

Which is to say that I think there's an element of "pyschology" in conversion that's rarely addressed, but definitely worth beginning to think about. There are "right answers" (ie-truth is not relative), but if the answer is an answer to a question a person is not asking, I think it's more useful to try to understand what question the person is asking and work to express the answer in such a way that answers his question, not mine (sorry for the tortured sentance).

It may be that, ultimately, it's necessary to convince a person of the urgency of my question. But I don't think I can do that by simply pressing the answer. (I hope that makes at least some degree of sense).

And, lest anyone lurking think I'm criticizing anyone in particular here, I have in mind mostly the "simplisticness" of many Orthodox. Ironically, it was going back to Florovksy and taking him seriously (on "The Limits of the Church," if you remember any of my postings on that) that cured me of this.

Again, great post. I think we're thinking along the same lines here (and, again, I apologize if I damn you by agreement!).

Cheers,

CP
skopos

Anonymous said...

Of late, I fear damning people with my praise, but this post is excellent Edwin. You say everything I've been trying to say, but more accurately, coherently and elegently.

We have certain a priori concerns that naturally lead us to one communion or another. I became Orthodox in quite a simplistic manner, but the more I go on, the more I understand that things are far more complex than I made them out to be. We can create a rough set of categories, which you've done here, but the larger point, I think, is that we approach the matter with different "burning questions." Which burning questions we have determines to a large degree where we end up.

One person discovers Newman and everything starts making sense to him. Another reads Newman and is not moved at all. On the other hand, a person reads Florovsky and everything starts making sense to him. Another person reads Florovsky and might be interested, but remains unmoved.

Which is to say that I think there's an element of "pyschology" in conversion that's rarely addressed, but definitely worth beginning to think about. There are "right answers" (ie-truth is not relative), but if the answer is an answer to a question a person is not asking, I think it's more useful to try to understand what question the person is asking and work to express the answer in such a way that answers his question, not mine (sorry for the tortured sentance).

It may be that, ultimately, it's necessary to convince a person of the urgency of my question. But I don't think I can do that by simply pressing the answer. (I hope that makes at least some degree of sense).

And, lest anyone lurking think I'm criticizing anyone in particular here, I have in mind mostly the "simplisticness" of many Orthodox. Ironically, it was going back to Florovksy and taking him seriously (on "The Limits of the Church," if you remember any of my postings on that) that cured me of this.

Again, great post. I think we're thinking along the same lines here (and, again, I apologize if I damn you by agreement!).

Cheers,

CP
skopos

Contarini said...

Thanks so much for your praise (why you'd consider it damning I don't know). At the risk of turning this blog into the Ithilien Mutual Admiration Society, I think that _you_ summed up more cogently everything I was trying to say, when you wrote: "we approach the matter with different "burning questions." Which burning questions we have determines to a large degree where we end up."

Exactly. That, I think, is the truth in relativism. Not that there is no absolute truth, but that which angle of it we happen to get a hold of depends on our perspective. The old saw about the blind men and the elephant is a perfectly good one in itself, I think. The problem is that those who cite it have often overlooked that there is such a thing as an elephant--and there are such things as snakes. The universe is not One Vast Elephant. And furthermore, if what we think is a rope really is an elephant's tail, we will, by hanging on to it, eventually find our way to its rump. Where we will no doubt meet some foul-smelling filth that we wouldn't have met with if we'd grabbed the tusks. But if we'd grabbed the tusks we might have wound up as Elephant Shish Kebab. And so on, and so forth . . . . The point is, through whatever dangers and indignities, in this life and the next, to reach at last a true and complete knowledge of the Elephant.

cparks said...

(why you'd consider it damning I don't know)Well, there's been some trouble in EcumenicalDialogueLand recently, and I didn't want to give anyone the impression that I had ulterior motives in agreeing with you. (See! Edwin agrees with me!)

Anyway, that's interesting about the elephant story. I've read it to my son in book form a number of times and I'm so dense, I didn't get the significance. Ah well. I'm pretty tired when I read to him....

I've also been thinking a lot about that line from the philosopher John Dewey, about philosophy beginning with a "felt difficulty." I think this is part of the main point. We don't start asking questions or trying to sort things out until we feel some difficulty. We assume, however, that everyone else feels (or should feel) the same difficulties to the same degree.

And, for me, I simply feel no difficulty when it comes to, say, the papacy, or to certain doctrines held to be central for many Protestants (and, correspondingly, many don't feel the importance of those things Orthodox go on and on about). They don't seem "necessary," for some reason. Others, however, feel quite strongly about it. And unless we're going to get hyper-Calvinist about the matter and insist that everyone who disagrees with us is blind because they're unregenerate (or not trying hard enough), then it seems the matter has to be more complex.

I have an idea this is analagous to what Tim Enloe is currently saying about "the dark side of absolute truth," but I'm not familiar enough with the modern sources he's citing to say for sure (after the time of, say, scholasticism, it all gets quite fuzzy for me....)

Sorry, I'm rambling now....

Contarini said...

:(after the time of, say, scholasticism, it all gets quite fuzzy for me....):

How Orthodox of you!

:Sorry, I'm rambling now....:

After my wacky post about the Elephant, nothing counts as rambling. Mind you, I had some excuse--I'd just been lecturing on Ancient Mesopotamia to two different classes of undergrads. I had fun retelling various myths about death and immortality, but I was exhausted afterwards.

cparks said...

How Orthodox of you!You jest, but this is part of the thing. As an example, part of me thinks that there's really no fundamental difference between me and a person like Tim Enloe (not that I am at his level of erudition), except that we see the world through different time periods and geographical locations. So to speak. I can only talk about the Cappadocians for so long and he can only talk about 14th century this or that for so long before we lose each other. So, we each have "burning questions" that incline us to different places. The fruitfulness of my interacton with Tim increased dramatically when I stopped trying to make him share my "burning questions." A certain kind of unity has been obtained that wasn't there before, in terms of trying to be able to see things from where another person sits.

I also wonder what you think of the "felt difficulty" thing. Does it ring any bells with you?

I. Shawn McElhinney said...

Very perceptive analysis Edwin. I will only respond in this comment to the part of your post where you mention the confusion of interpreting so many texts and the like. This is something that everyone struggles with to some degree or another. And because of this, it bears considering the reason why the Catholic Church takes the approach towards doctrinal/philosophical/theological issues that she does.

A significant part of the reason that the Catholic Church teaches the rendering of religious submission to all magisterial teaching is precisely because not everyone is a theologian or oriented in that direction. (Though many delude themselves into thinking that they are.) I think it is very easy to fall into the trap of viewing everyone as approaching issues pretty much the same way -in this area the apologists of various professions produce their canned arguments of various sorts -something that I have noted my displeasure about before. In reality, there are Scholastics and Mystics among us viz. the approaches different people take -and most of us are some combination of the two.

That point noted briefly, it also seems to me that most people's faith is of a simpler variety than even the simplest apologetical explanations. (And those who get into the higher abstractions are even rarer still.) The value of religious submission in areas where one may be confused (or even be naturally inclined against) is that it provides the person with a "safe haven" of sorts whereby they can work through with prayer and study those areas that they struggle with.

On not a few issues over the years (that I was later able to discuss with reasonable intelligence and nuance) would have surely been botched if I had fought the instinct to give religious submission even in areas where there were problems for me. Of course in my trad days when I did not have this instinct, there was no shortage of problems and anxiety with issues. This is hardly in itself a definitive argument for the "authority model" that you refer to but certainly it has (I believe) some value to it.

Pontificator said...

Trackback of sorts on Pontifications.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Edwin,

Hope you are well. Thanks for your nice comment about me in the big controversy on the AH Board. I appreciate it.

I have responded to this paper on my blog:

"Response to Anglican Edwin Tait, on Conversion and Historical Ecclesiological Arguments"

(http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2005_01_23_socrates58_archive.html#110679476409423263)

As always, I would value your thoughts in reply.

God bless,

Dave Armstrong

Pontificator said...

Edwin, I really think you might find Martin Moleski's book Personal Catholicism very helpful. Moleski compares the epistemologies of J. H. Newman and Michael Polanyi.

Pontificator said...

Edwin, I'm afraid I simply do not know how you can avoid the questions of Church and legitimate authority. I have not read Abrahams book to which you refer, so I am hesitant to say anything. I gather that Abraham denies sola scriptura and seeks to extend the notion of canon to include the whole of the Church's doctrinal and liturgical life. Is this not similar to how both Catholics and Orthodox understand Holy Tradition? If Abraham is right, then this, it seems to me, immediately commits you to one of the two ancient communities that practice this extended form of canon.

Abraham, of course, stands outside these two ancient Churches. He is seeking, just like the Tractarians, to transform his Protestant denomination according to a non-Protestant vision. What is wrong with this picture? Is he truly catholic or is he a patristico-Protestant? If the former, then he needs to be part of a catholic community. If the latter, then his project is doomed to fail, as attested again and again over the past 450 years. Catholicizing movements within Protestantism cannot succeed because they are butting up against the very nature of Protestant identity.

With regard to choosing between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, I do not see how one ultimately avoids a "leap of faith" of some sort, though certainly the kind of historical and theological arguments you and Dave Armstrong have raised can persuade one one way or the other. Dave mentions that Newman's theory of development was crucial in his own decision; and I agree that contemporary Catholicism seems to have a better way of comprehending developmental historical changes, which it seems to me are undenial, within her self-understanding than does Orthodoxy. I also agree with you that something is missing if Rome is out of the picture. I loved your image of a choir that knows the chants so well it can continue to sing them even in the absence of a conductor.

Ultimately, though, I do not see how one can avoid a step of faith (as well reasoned and argued as it might be) and thus avoid circularity. One believes in the teaching of the Church because it is the Church. But perhaps I'm just not seeing far enough yet.

Newman identified the Catholic Church on the basis of her notes. One could use the same method and end up deciding that Orthodoxy was the true Church. But one thing for sure, no Protestant sect claims to be the one true and no Protestant sect understands itself along the lines apparently indicated by Abraham. Newman's indictment of private judgment would appear to be apply to all forms of patristico-Protestantism.

basil said...

Going back to the elephant story: The proverb is often used to argue for either pluralism or relativism in religious circles. The interpretation is usually, "We're talking about the same reality, but like these blind sages, we see different parts. We should not be so dogmatic about our beliefs being 'correct' over and against someone else's, who is simply experiencing some different part of this vast, ultimate reality."

To which I say, unless the elephant revealed his nature to us. The proverb works very well in a Buddhist sort of way; it reminds one of a saffron-robed monk saying, "Your faith leads to enlightenment just as well as mine does." But, to a Christian, the prophets and apostles and fathers are not saying, "This is a tree," or "This is a rope." That's what every other religion is saying. The Christian tradition says, "This is an elephant. And I know this because the elephant reveal itself to me as an elephant." (Elephants don't reveal themselves, of course, which is why the story works so much better for Eastern religions with non-personal conceptions of ultimate reality than for Christianity or other Abrahamic faiths.) We aren't putting our faith in our limited experience of the divine reality but in God's self-revelation. —Basil

Anonymous said...

Pontificator wrote, with regard to William Abraham: "Is he truly catholic or is he a patristico-Protestant?"

I don't know the man, and I've only worked through "Canon and Criterion" once, and quickly at that. From what I can tell, he's a protestant theologian (he teaches at Perkins at Southern Methodist University in Dallas) trying to make sense out of Western Christendom. From what I recall, he traces Western epistemological failings back to the filioque controversy. So his sympathies on that one lean East.

I'm sorry to be so cynical, but it seems like labeling him a "patristico-Protestant" makes him easier to dismiss. If so, what is "truly catholic"? Somone who is either Roman or Orthodox? My brain can't conceive of a term that's inclusive of two bodies that aren't in communion with each other, if that is what is intended by it's use.

Edwin, I found your piece both interesting and helpful. I'll keep an eye on your blog for further postings and comments. Thanks also for alerting me to a new book by Abraham. I see his work as a ray of hope as the mainline continues to deconstruct itself. He is, from what my Perkins friends tell me, a strong force for good in their theology department. I also understand that he and other patristico-Protestants (I know it's not a complement, but I suppose it is descriptive) from other area seminaries are in dialogue with one another. This looks, to me, like a good development. If this means that we're just a bunch of Protestants, then I suppose I can hang out in that particular rogue's gallery.

Greg+

Young Anglican said...

( Linked at http://anglican.typepad.com/blog/2005/03/an_old_post_fro.html )

Anonymous said...

Nice site. Just bookmarked it. Hopefully you can take a look at my site below. Good info with some great bargains.

eBay misspelled auctions