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The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church

Chapter Seventeen: Enter Modernism
(Part 3)

In The Christian Faith, in spite of its title, Schleiermacher does not retreat from his previous position. Christianity remains only one of many expressions of the feeling of dependence or "God-consciousness". But he tries to show why it is the best expression so far: Christ was the man in whom God-consciousness reached the highest intensity. Christ was not God. He did not found a Church. But the followers who naturally gathered round so remarkable a man received the impress of his personality, his special way of feeling dependence on God, and later, by forming themselves into a permanent community were able to transmit his special way of feeling or personhood down the ages. We do not know how many, if any, of the words attributed to Christ by the Gospels actually come from him. But each Christian receives the impress of Christ's way of feeling, by living and experiencing the sense of absolute dependence within the Christian community.

What differentiates the Christian religious consciousness from other forms of religious consciousness, and makes it superior to them, is the sense of having been redeemed from sin by Christ. This does not mean that Christ paid the debt for mankind's sins by his death on Calvary. Such a notion borders on magic. Redemption means that by receiving the impress of Christ's personhood, the Christian is better able to overcome sin (or whatever is an obstacle to the feeling of absolute dependence) and reach the highest level of God-consciousness of which he is capable.

One is inclined to agree with Karl Barth a century later that a characteristic note of Schleiermacher is an astonishing self-assurance. Schleiermacher is the real founding father of modernism. With Schleiermacher, everything essential to modernism has arrived. Radical biblical scholarship destroys belief. There follows a desperate attempt to construct a gimcrack religious shelter out of the ruins with the help of some form of modern philosophical subjectivism. This in turn leads to the positing of the two fundamental modernist theses. First, since there is no reliable external source of religious knowledge, it can only be found in personal experience (early modernists inclined to stress individual experience, today's modernists communal experience). Secondly, doctrines - those at least which are found "difficult", or, as would be said today, "lacking in credibility" - should not be regarded as statements of fact, but symbolic expressions of personal experience. Supernatural happenings, like the parting of waters at the Red Sea or the Resurrection, take place in people's minds or imaginations, never in the real world.

Personal experience is therefore the judge before which every objective statement of belief, whether in the Bible, the creeds, or any other source, will have to justify itself. If a teaching finds an echo in personal experience it can be accepted, if not, it should be left on one side or rejected. That is why, in The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher relegates the Trinity to an appendix: "What is not directly given in Christian consciousness", as a contemporary admirer of Schleiermacher puts it, "is of no primary concern to faith". We can have a feeling of sinfulness (concupiscence), or of having had our sins forgiven (redemption). These ideas are therefore "meaningful", but we no more feel that there are three persons in the One God, than that there are four, five or six.

Schleiermacher stands at the turning point in the history of Protestantism where the fierce certainties of Luther, Calvin and the other reformation patriarchs start to crumble, and doctrine or any clear statement of belief comes to be seen as something repulsive, something that, instead of giving light to the mind, weighs on it like a sack of cement which the mind wants to throw off.

As the 19th century proceeds, this turning away from doctrine will become first a flight, then a stampede, and finally a Gadarene rush, until in the mid-20th century it hits the rocks at the bottom of the cliff in the patronising agnosticism of Bultmann and the barely disguised unbelief of Tillich. Catholics swept into the stampede usually express their dislike of religious certainty with the lament "Oh, no! Not another infallible doctrine".
The one interesting feature of Schleiermacher's theology, from the Catholic standpoint, is his shift of attention away from the Bible to the "Christian community". What Schleiermacher meant by that term is not what Catholics mean. Nevertheless he reintroduced into Protestantism as a whole an awareness of the Church as a factor in Christianity of at least equal importance with the Bible. The Bible might be untrustworthy. But the Christian community with its personal experiences was an indisputable past and present fact.

Notes to Chapter Seventeen

1.The term "higher criticism" was reserved for analysing texts, whether biblical or profane, in order to elucidate their authorship, date and meaning. The higher critics regarded textual criticism as a lower branch of scholarship.

2. Quoted by Pius XII, Divino Afante Spiritu, 47.

3. For Origen's doubts, see Eusebius, Hist. Eccles., 6.25, 11-13. For St. Jerome's: Eph. 129. C.S.E.L. 55169.

4. See Geschichte der Griechischen Literatur, Franke Verlag, Bern, 1963 (English translation 1966) by Albin Lesky, professor of Greek, University of Vienna.

5. Some examples will help to illustrate the difficulty of assessing the significance of stylistic differences. (a) Dr Johnson's two accounts of his journey to the Western Isles - one in letters written on the spot, the other in book form published after his return - are so unalike in style that, in Macaulay's opinion, if we did not know otherwise, we should find it hard to credit that they were written by the same man. (b) The 17th- century mystic St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was ordered by her superiors to write her memoirs. The result was found too unpolished for the intended readership, so they were rewritten in a style suited to the Grand Siècle. Should we infer from this that St. Margaret Mary had nothing to do with them? (c) There are versions of Chaucer in contemporary English. If these alone were to survive, what conclusions would be drawn about their authorship? The style of a text can belong to a period later than that of the author, with the content remaining essentially his product.

6. See Ricciotti, History of Israel, Vol. 1, Milwaukee 1955, who cites a succession of cases where texts of enormous length have been handed down orally, with apparently little if any alteration, for centuries. See also William Dalrymple, City of Djinns, HarperCollins, 1996. According to this author, in India today there are still "bards" who can recite from memory the whole of the Mahabharata, an epic longer than the Bible.

7. In taking this line, the critics were making, even by their own standards, an illegitimate inference; namely that the books of the New Testament were necessarily formed in the same way as those of the Old Testament as though literary composition and culture had remained unchanged between the period of Sennacherib or Cyrus and the age of the early Caesars. In fact, after two centuries of debate, there seems to be no compelling reason not to accept the already ancient tradition enshrined in the History of Eusebius of Caesarea (264-340), that the Gospels were written by the four Evangelists at roughly the time and in the way always believed. Justin Martyr (100-165) calls them the "Memoirs of the Apostles". Vatican II affirms both their "apostolic origin" and "historicity". (Dei Verbum 18 & 19). How could St. John have recalled lengthy speeches like Our Lord's at the Last Supper? We have only to recall similar feats of memory on the part of Macaulay and Mozart to realise it is entirely possible even without special divine assistance.

8. It is now common, in Catholic Bible study groups and popular commentaries, to hear the Exodus miracles described as merely literary devices used by the author to convey the idea of God's power. See, for example, A Catholic Guide to the Bible, Oscar Lukefahr C.M., Liguori Publications, Liguori, MO.

9. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought, Macmillan, New York, 1971, pp. 96-113.

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Philip Trower is a British writer and journalist who covered five episcopal synods in Rome from 1980 to 1990. Born in 1923, Trower was educated in English private schools and attended Eton from 1936-40. He earned a B.A. in modern history from Oxford University 1941-2. He worked in literary journalism for the Times Literary Supplement and Spectator; in 1951 he published the novel Tillotson. He is also the author of the novel, A Danger to the State (Ignatius Press), about the 19th century suppression of the Jesuits.

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