Saturday, December 18, 2010

'The Seven Storey Mountain' by Thomas Merton: Divisions

Starting here in Thomas Merton's book 'The Seven Storey Mountain' Merton writes about part of the process of his conversion to Catholicism. He speaks about taking a class at Columbia from a professor named Dan Walsh, who was a visiting professor from Sacred heart College at Manhattanville. The class was on St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. If you read at the link and go a few pages you'll get to the place where Merton admires Walsh for having
"the most rare and admirable virtue of being able to rise above the petty differences of schools and systems, and seeing Catholic philosophy in its wholeness, in its variegated unity, and it its true Catholicity. In other words, he was able to study St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus side by side, and to see them as complementing and reinforcing one another, as throwing diverse and individual light on the same truths from different points of view, and thus he avoided the evil of narrowing and restricting Catholic philosophy and theology to a single school, to a single attitude, a single system.
I pray to God that there may be raised up more like him in the Church and in our universities, because there is something stifling and intellectually deadening about textbooks that confine themselves to giving a superficial survey of the field of philosophy according to Thomist principles and then discard all the rest in a few controversial objections. Indeed, I think it a great shame and a danger of no small proportions, that Catholic philosophers should be trained in division against one another, and brought up to the bitterness and smallness of controversy: because this is bound to narrow their views and dry up the unction that should vivify all philosophy in their souls."

This is a very striking statement of Merton's, first of all because as a protestant it speaks to me of the stifling effect of sectarianism among protestants, who are subject to separation because of issues of philosophy, doctrine, and also of ecclesiastical structure, etc. There are valid reasons for separation, but in many cases I believe Christians allow differences and conflicts to come between when they should be learning from each other with forbearance and love. There are some differences that do not affect salvation and should not come between fellowship in the body of Christ, but these differences are often allowed to cause bitterness, pride, and broken fellowship in the body that should be united with Christ as our Head. Paul said in Ephesians 4:1 I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

Jesus said in John 15:16-17 You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. These things I command you, that you love one another.
So, as Merton said about Catholicism, I believe many of protestantism's differing views could be seen as perspectives that can complement one another and lead us all into greater understanding and unity, rather than division, such as the sometimes rancorous division between Calvinists and Arminians, whose respective advocates have been known to regard one another as even being heretical.

Merton's words are striking, secondly, because of the admittance that there is sectarianism within Catholicism, between different philosophies, followings, and orders, which causes division and bitterness between them; as well as the idea that this adherence to one philosophy brings "the evil of narrowing and restricting Catholic philosophy and theology to a single school, to a single attitude, a single system." The latter criticism could be applied to the whole of Roman Catholicism itself, because the dogmatism of Rome has restricted 'Christian' doctrine and philosophy to its own tradition and made these traditions the only ones that can be accepted and believed in order for its members to be saved; for example, Catholics must accept the dogmas of transubstantiation, Papal infallibility, and the Marian doctrines in order to be considered in fellowship with the Church. This narrowing by Rome has caused division after division over the centuries by those believers who could not in conscience accept these dogmas. Yet these dogmas and others were not accepted or even thought of by the early church, which was taught to 'preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace' and knew how to do it in humility and love. Jesus taught in Matthew 18 that "offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes." In other words it could also say: sins that cause division must come, but woe to him by whom those sins come. Here's the whole passage, which then goes on to say that we must separate ourselves from what causes sin:
6 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!
8 “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.

The whole passage of Matthew 18 is talking about the body of Christ, and the 'little ones' Christ speaks of are not children, but those who have 'become as little children' by faith. If someone causes the little ones of God to stumble into sin, then woe to that person. The Reformers believed vehemently that the church of Rome was causing many little ones to stumble into idolatry, as well as preventing many from entering into the Kingdom of God by teaching a false gospel of works. The Reformers hoped to reform the church from within, but eventually were forced out by the Church itself and by their own consciences. The offenses of Rome caused a 'cutting off' in the body of Christ because one part of the body caused the other parts to sin.

Paul also taught in 1 Corinthians 3:1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?....18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their own craftiness”; 20 and again, “The LORD knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come—all are yours. 23 And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
We Christians are too quick to puff ourselves up in our own supposed wisdom and look down upon others with differing perspectives as if they had nothing from God to give. We forget that all we have and all we know comes from God, and we have nothing that comes from ourselves. We were commanded to love one another in humility and patience, and we totally disregard that command given by the Apostle and by Christ our Lord Himself.
As a final note, I believe we can pursue unity with individual Catholics when we see the bond of common faith in the Spirit, though I can't see that unity with the Roman Church will ever be possible. An obstacle I encounter in fellowship with individual Catholics is that they have so completely accepted the idea that the RCC is the one true infallible church that they can't go very far in a reciprocal relationship where we can learn from each other, because they don't believe the Spirit and the Word speak directly to believers outside the magisterium, so that believers can exhort one another; nor can they believe that the true church is not the RCC, but consists of a remnant all over the world inside and outside of the many church organizations.

1 comment:

Jennie said...

Christine linked to this Called to Communion post on another thread and I thought it was an interesting perspective in contrast to mine: