The Christmas season prompts a few reflections on Christianity. Without Christianity, no Christmas.
Without the first Christmas, no Christianity.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton once remarked that Christianity could not be said to have failed. It had just not been tried. I have never found much comfort in that particular Chestertonian paradox.
In his magnificent television series, Civilisation, the late Sir Kenneth Clark pointed out that for more than a thousand years, Christianity in fact inspired the culture of Western Europe – its thoughts, its convictions, its art, its architecture, its spirit.
Under the circumstances, to claim that it had not been tried might be a paradox, but nevertheless a depressing one. How would one define the essence of Christianity to a being from another planet? It would seem to me that one would have to explain its three foundations: the Creeds; the Ten Commandments; Prayer, and especially the Lord’s Prayer, the only prayer composed by Christ Himself.
There are many more intellectual ways of describing the essentials of the Christian faith, but this is the way which appeals to one who is not an intellectual, but the descendant of generations of peasants and fishermen. It is a reassuring thought that the Apostles were chosen from the latter rather than the former.
Whereas in parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America and in the countries of persecution like Poland, Christianity flourishes, in the Western world, it is obviously in an advanced state of decay.
To characterise what is transparently disintegration as rebirth or renewal perverts the truth and does no good.
The reasons for the decay of Christianity in Western societies are manifold. Central to them was that recently pointed out by Dr Graham Leonard, the former Anglican Bishop of London, that all Christian denominations are rent by the same profound internal schism between the so-called theological liberals, and the so-called theological conservatives.
The former “believe both Scripture and tradition have lost their authority and want to reshape Christianity in accordance with modern ideas”. The latter “believe that the Gospel is revealed by God and maintain the unique authority of Scripture”.
In the New York Review of Books (June 14, 1984), Thomas Sheehan, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, Chicago, who is himself part of the new liberal consensus and approves the propositions of that consensus, described what is being widely taught in Catholic seminaries and teachers colleges in the United States and elsewhere.
In essence, what he writes is that none of the traditional beliefs about Christ – that he claimed to be God, that He performed miracles, the He rose from the dead, that He set out to establish a church – are any longer generally taught. The conflict with the content of the Creeds is total.
In an article in the Dominican magazine New Blackfriars, the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University, Michael Dummett, pointed to the inevitable consequences of permitting this schism to continue.
“If Jesus did not believe himself to be the Messiah,” Professor Dummett wrote “we ought not to give him the title ‘chris’ nor claim that the Messiah has already come; if he did not believe himself divine, then we have no ground to do so, and hence commit idolatry in praying to him; if he knew nothing of the Trinity, then we know nothing of the Trinity, and have no warrant whatever for supposing that there is a Trinity; if he intended to found no community, then the church has no standing and is an imposter institution; if he conferred no authority upon the apostles, no bishops, no priests and no popes have any status not allotted by men and rescindable by men.
“It is easy”, wrote Dummett, “to understand how someone may come to accept the views reported by Sheehan; it is a straightforward case of loss of faith É Their actions are helping to transform the church into something distinctly fraudulent.”
“The monolithic church”, Professor Dummett concludes, “was never a reality and is not an ideal; but the divergence that now obtains – between what the Catholic church purports to believe and what large or important sections in fact believe – ought in my view, to be tolerated no longer, not if there is to be any rationale for belonging to that church; not if there is to be any hope of reunion with the other half of Christendom; not if the Catholic church is not to be a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world.”
Whatever others may think, I admire Professor Dummett for straight talking. His theme is in fact identical in content with that expressed by Professor Elizabeth Anscombe, until recently Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, when she visited Australia ten years ago.
It is easy, of course, for trained theologians and Biblical scholars to dismiss the present writer as a theological illiterate whose views are unworthy of consideration. Surely, however, two Professors of Philosophy in two of the greatest universities of the West, both professing Christians, cannot be dismissed so cavalierly.