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St. Thomas Aquinas (1224 - 1274 AD)

The General Problem

by Charles Davis

Chapter 1 from A Question of Conscience Hodder & Stoughton, 1967 pg 181-191

THE long, second part of this book has been written in confrontation with the Church of Rome. This corresponds to the evolution of my own thought. I was a member of that Church., and so, in reflecting upon the situation of the Christian Church today, I had to struggle with the claims and teaching of the Church to which I belonged. My thinking inevitably became a debate about the truth of the Roman Catholic Church. Since this book is a personal statement, it had to fall into the same pattern. And because my reflections led me to disengage myself from the Roman Church, the book had to take the form of an explanation of my reasons for doing so.

However, although my account is thus cast into a negative mould, I have tried all along to give the positive vision that lies behind my rejection. Readers by now should have a fair insight into my positive understanding of Christian faith, hope and love, of the Christian Church as embodying these, of its visible unity and permanent mission. Hence this last part of the book can be comparatively short. Its purpose is to complete the picture of the Church of Christ in the world today. To put it in another way, my aim here is to tie up the loose ends I have left.

But a misunderstanding must be avoided. I did not in leaving the Roman Church nor do I now claim to have all the answers. Clearly, without abandoning the Christian faith altogether, I could not have left the Roman Church if I had not had some alternative and positive perception of the continuing existence of the Church of Christ in the world of today. And, as a matter of fact, I had for some time been grappling with the problem of Christian presence in the modern secular world, as is shown by my book, God's Grace in History, to which I have already referred.

But it is one thing to have sufficient light to leave the Roman Church, while remaining a Christian, and for continuing the search in another direction; it is another to present a completely rounded picture of the social structure of the Christian Church in its present situation. Apart from my own inadequacy for the task, that social structure is only now emerging from the break-up of the existing Churches. The initiative here lies with the Spirit. It is as yet too soon clearly to discern what the Spirit is doing. All that can be done is to recognize the direction in which the Spirit is leading and follow that path.

Sensitive Christians in all the Churches are trying to discern how to embody their Christian faith and life in structures that make sense in the modern world. There is not one of the Churches whose more perceptive members are not tortured by the obsolete irrelevance of its Church institutions and practices. The Church of Christ is the permanent, visible presence of Christ in the world. In every period through the activity of Christians this presence has to find an appropriate embodiment. What should be that embodiment today? What is the institutional structure best fitted for the mission of the Church in the present situation? There are no easy answers.

I want to indicate the general direction of my own thinking,starting from the conclusions I have reached in my debate with the Roman Catholic Church. I must ask for the indulgence of historians and sociologists, impatient as these are with wide generalizations.Generalizations may indeed deceive as over-simplifications, but they can also serve as useful working hypotheses. It is for their latter function that I make them here. I see this last part of the present book as a sketch of themes for future books. My departure from the Roman Church is not the end of my work as a theologian, but rather a new beginning

To open then, with a general statement of the problem. Underlying all recent questioning about the social structure of the Christian Church is the long-delayed acknowledgement of the disappearance of Christendom. Christians at last are now accepting the emergence of the secular West as irreversible and the consequent need to understand and structure the new relation between the Church and the world. Many deep questions are involved. They can be summed up in this way: What is the relation between the purpose or mission of the Church and the movement of secular history ? How should the Christian community be structured as distinct from the inclusive society, whether considered as the nation or as the general community of mankind ?

In my book, God's Grace in History, I gave reasons for welcoming secularization when understood as a cultural process distinct from secularism. Christians should cease to lament Christendom and instead regard it as a transitory and now past stage in the history of Christianity. The welding of the Church and society into the single sacred, politico-ecclesiastical order of Christendom is historically , explicable and had advantages at the time. But it also had considerable disadvantages and should not be taken as the normative form of Christian presence in the world. Secularization, with its social, political and general cultural consequences, represents an advance of human consciousness. It has brought a differentiation of the secular and the sacred, with a healthy and fruitful acknowledgement of the autonomy of the secular. Admittedly, owing to the inter-mingling of secularism with the process, it has in fact done this in an ambiguous way. But the positive value of secularization should be recognized, unless Christians are going vainly to attempt to force men back into an earlier stage of social development.
In saying this, my general concept of secularization is the effective assertion of the proper autonomy of the secular. In other words, as a cultural process, secularization is the widening of the area of the secular over against the sacred. By the secular I understand the sphere of immediate reality. It is what lies open and present before man; it is all that is in principle knowable by human intelligence, subject to human investigation; it is the area of reality within which man exercises a practical mastery. The sacred remains outside man's understanding and control. Secularization means that various areas of man's experience, previously regarded as sacred and under the tutelage of religion, are acknowledged as in principle subject to man's intelligent mastery and, consequently, to his practical control. Thus, nature, the State and society have all been desacralized. They have been released in their proper autonomy, freed from the tutelage of religion and made the object of intelligent investigation, with the consequent possibility of their being directed and controlled, modified and adapted by man's practical and organizing intelligence.
Is this process of secularization a pushing back of the sacred, with its eventual elimination ? I do not think so. I see it as a process of differentiation. True, much that man formerly regarded as sacred has now become secular. But when man saw almost everything as sacred, he was confusing the sacred and the secular. To put it more accurately, he still had an undeveloped and undifferentiated consciousness. To overcome all confusion of sacred and secular, to differentiate clearly between them, enhances the sacred as well as as well as the secular; it purifies man's concept of the sacred.
The sacred still remains. It is the area of mystery. But not mystery in the corrupted sense of an awkward puzzle, not in the diminished sense of what yet awaits successful investigation. It is mystery in the sense of a presence in man's experience, of a darkness he acknowledges as light but cannot see, of an intelligibility too bright for his gaze, of a transcendence that evokes his adoration. Mystery or the sacred is the presence of God. It is an undefined presence which imposes itself upon man's experience but escapes his understanding,
Christians, however, believe more than that. They believe that God, the transcendent has revealed himself within human history. This revelation has not removed the mystery; God remains the transcendent, distinct from all creatures and beyond man's grasp. But it has established a new relation between God and man. There has been a self-gift of God, resulting in a new presence of God to men through Christ and the Spirit. This gift has its repercussions upon human life and history.By a union with God through Christ a higher integration of human living is achieved leading to a new community amongst men, with a life and personal relationships based upon those higher values made known by Christ. And faith in Christ implies the conviction that only through Christ men, whether they know it or not, receive the liberation and fulfilment for which all men long, but which they cannot achieve of themselves. It comes to them as a gift from the transcendent God, who has revealed himself and acted in Christ. Faith presupposes an open and active receptivity to God's gift; a willingness not to remain enclosed in a human self-sufficiency. And it takes concrete and explicit form as a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. And this faith carries with it a conviction that through union with Christ and submission to his Spirit human history is being directed towards a final end, in which the purpose of God in creating will be achieved. All history will find its fulfilment in the final Kingdom, where the work of Christ will be complete.

It follows that there is an area in man's experience which is always sacred and can never become secular. And the sacred is not just a transcendent remaining at the background of man's consciousness. Owing to the self-gift of God and the repercussions of his intimate presence through Christ, there is an element in human life and human history which escapes man's understanding and practical mastery. And it is precisely that element which determines human liberation and fulfilment and the end of human history. The mystery of God as present to man demands faith. And without faith there is no salvation.

But Christians now recognize that, besides the visible form of Christ's presence in the community of Christian believers there is a universal, latent presence of Christ. This means that, although not all have the opportunity of an explicit faith in Christ, faith as an open and active receptivity for God's gift is a possibility for all. People will conceptualize that faith differently, even confusedly and inaccurately. But this need not prevent the basic relationship with God by faith, with its saving effects.

Recognition of the universal, latent presence of Christ and the universality of God's gift through Christ leads to the conclusion that the differentiation of sacred and secular does not mean their separation in the concrete order in which man lives. There are secular realities and secular activities which have their place and autonomy.

God's gift, while taking these up into a higher integration of human living and thus enhancing them, does not destroy them in their proper consistency and autonomy. To refuse to acknowledge their secularity is a failure to recognize the transcendence of God's gift. The lack of autonomy granted to the secular in Christendom degraded the sacred as well as stifled the secular. But when we consider the total lives of men in the concrete, there is no self-contained secular order. History in the concrete is never a merely secular history unaffected by God's gift through Christ. And to speak of the secular world as such is to name an abstraction. When by the world distinct from the Church is meant the totality of the lives and activities of men outside the Church, then it is not exclusively secular. It is the effect of God's gift, the product of the universal presence of Christ among men. Not unambiguously so, because of the corruption due to sin. Nevertheless, Christ is the Lord of history. And the historical process is a working out of God's plan through Christ and a progress towards the Kingdom. God's plan embraces the whole of human life and history, not just the part directly related to the visible Church.

We have, therefore, to work with a concept of the visible Church which does not see it as an enclosed sacred and religious sphere surrounded by a secular world. The visible Church is not the exclusive area of the sacred nor the community of the exclusively saved. Nor does it mark the limits of Christ's presence in the world. There is no profane world in which to set such a Church. The Church is the visibility of what is universal, the disclosure of the meaning of all human life, the revelation of the direction of the whole of human history, the expression and embodiment of a Christ who is present universally. When understood as a distinction between sacred and secular, the distinction between the Church and the world is a false distinction. This has important repercussions upon our understanding of the structures appropriate to the visible Church. They should not be the structures of an enclosed religious system set in opposition to a profane world. The meaning of Christ as universal Redeemer implies the destruction of all such religious systems.

So far, I have outlined briefly what I have expounded at greater length, though still with brevity, in God's Grace in History. But it is now necessary to inquire more closely into the reasons why secularization has been accompanied by secularism, which means the exclusion of the sacred altogether. Here my purpose is not to give a total explanation, but to draw attention to the part played by a failure of the Church, the recognition of which should guide both a renewal and a restructuring. There is no need to deny the element of wilful apostasy in the rise of secularism. But Christians would do well not to adopt that simple explanation before they have eliminated the obstacles to faith erected by the Church. Again, it would be a mistake to exaggerate the import of the de-christianization of the West. The faith lost by the average man was an imperfect faith, what might be called a cultural faith. Open de-christianization is more the uncovering of the defect in Christian evangelization and the breaking down of the political and social facade that hid those defects than the destruction of a genuinely personal faith among the general populace. All the same, the increasing hold of secularism upon our present culture cannot be denied. Likewise, we should ask the reasons for the obstinate rejection of the Church on the part of so many, who often show a greater perception of Christian values than church-going Christians themselves.

Secularism, I have said, is the exclusion of the sacred. It commonly takes the form of agnostic humanism. But secularism is less a philosophy than the presupposition behind a number of contemporary philosophies. Existing on the level of presuppositions, it finds expression in a variety of cultural forms. It is the assertion of the complete autonomy, as far as man is concerned, of the secular, the natural, the temporal, the relative, and the rejection or ignoring of all ultimacy. It leaves aside the search for or affirmation of an ultimate meaning or ultimate ground and cause of reality, of an ultimate order or coherence in the flux of phenomena, of an ultimate end or purpose of history. Since it excludes the transcendent, it is referred to as radical immanentism, which some see as typifying modern culture. Although its negation is now much wider, historically it emerged as the rejection of the Church and the God of the Christian Church.

The latter rejection raises a fundamental problem beyond the scope of this present book: modern atheism and agnosticism have their historical roots in Christianity itself. These are in part the effect of the inadequate concept of God fostered by Christendom.

I do not have in mind the metaphysical systems of the Scholastics. Admittedly, the limitations of these in so far as they were expressions of a particular culture should not be overlooked. But the Scholastic concept of God was not crude. And the debate about the status and scope of metaphysics, the possibility of a natural theology and the nature of religious language raises questions which, Christendom apart, would necessarily at some time have engaged the reflection even of believers and demanded elucidation. But the direction of philosophical debate usually reflects wider cultural preoccupations and changes in the economic, social and political orders. Without minimising its importance, we must therefore look outside the realm of philosophy itself for an explanation of the strength of the reaction against the Christian God and what has been called the death of God in modern culture.

At least part of the explanation is that the Christian God, whatever the distinctions of the theologians, was built into the cultural, social, politico-ecclesiastical system of Christendom as its ultimate ground and sanction. God was the supporter of the status quo. He was represented on earth by popes, emperors and kings as sacred rulers. The hierarchical order on earth reflected the hierarchical order of angels and saints in heaven, and God was at the summit. The whole was a static, sacral order, established and sustained by God. Needless to say, this was more of an ideal construct than a true account of the concrete reality even of medieval Christendom. But it was a world view that closely associated God, entangled him one might say, in a particular cultural complex. When various causes brought the cultural upheaval we call secularization, and social and political changes destroyed Christendom, the Christian God went with it. He had become too much the God of Christendom to survive its disappearance.

Further, Christendom never succeeded in purifying itself from paganism. That is evident enough in the insistence upon a static and enclosed sacral order, more a pagan concept than a biblical or Christian one. The biblical God is not a supporter of the status quo, but a God who breaks it up.. He is the God who acts, and acts to shatter all the established orders which men erect for themselves. The Spirit was given for an ongoing mission, given as a liberating and creative force, constantly calling men forward, leading them to make and accept radical changes for the renewal and transformation of the face of the earth. He was not given as a gift at man's disposal, a permanent sanction for settled and unchangeable systems of law, a force to be tamed and safely distributed through what are called the usual official channels. And Christianity is an eschatological faith, a faith that looks to the future and to an end outside history. In so far as it cannot be enclosed in any cultural complex, not even a Christian one, it is not a religion in the usual sense. Any religious system it forms in union with a particular culture is transitory. It cannot settle down in any order, even of its own creation, as if it were the final Kingdom. Involved in the movement of the whole of human history, it looks forward beyond history to the end and fulfilment of all history in the Kingdom of God. And all history, including its own, it regards as under God's judgement. Rather than being a settled nation, with a fixed hierarchical structure, the Church is a pilgrim, nomadic people, constantly uprooted, constantly on the move, needing constantly to improvise to meet new and unexpected situations. Christendom was a passing phase, and the God that Christians used to complete its sacral structure was not the true God of Christ. Christians have now the mission to show men that.

There were other pagan elements. Apart from the tendency of the Church to treat God as if he were at its disposal, with his truth in the possession of the Church authorities and his saving gifts in their hands for distribution as they saw fit, men still clung to their idols, though in Christian dress. The popular concept of God was often a projection of psychic needs. God provided a security men could not find elsewhere. He fulfilled their needs and was looked to for the solution of all their problems. Such a God could not survive the advent of secularization, when men recognized the autonomy of the secular and looked to their own efforts to fulfil their needs and solve their problems. The transcendence of God's gift, leaving intact the secular in its consistency and autonomy and itself working within, enhancing not replacing the dynamism of man's own intelligence; the universality of that gift, not restricted to the operation of a religious system: these two points had been obscured, and so secular man in leaving his idols thought that he was leaving the Christian God. Within modern secularism is a protest, fundamentally Christian, against false gods.

So, the disappearance of Christendom has left Christians with a problem of God. Not just a problem for philosophical theology, but a cultural problem. Christians have to purify their concept of God from those elements which tie it to the culture and world view of Christendom. This is an immense task. The biblical language has been used so long according to a particular understanding that it has lost much of its force. And in any case a fresh understanding will require a fresh conceptualization and language. But even such a purification will not of itself solve the problem of relating modern culture to the Christian faith. Modern man has developed his culture largely under the aegis of secularism or radical immanentism. He will not be easily converted. To convert the post-Christian is not the same as to convert the pagan And the Christian Church will have to die in its present state before it rises again. Unfortunately, the Churches as institutions are clinging desperately to the outlook, structures and trappings they have inherited from Christendom. They prefer a decrepit survival to the hope of a resurrection through death.

I have said that I am not directly concerned in this book with the problem of God. I have introduced some remarks on it because it is related to the question of the Church. My concern is in fact with the Church itself.

We have to ask why the Church has failed so badly to bring the Christian faith to bear upon modern culture. That it has failed is indicated by the tension that exists in Christians themselves, who sense the incompatibility between their lives as modern men and the lives they are trying to lead as Christians. Admittedly, that tension could not have been completely avoided. Secularization and the break-up of Christendom would in any case have left Christians with a difficult problem of God and the necessity of making other less major adjustments in their understanding of the Christian faith. But there is another element in the present experience of Christians: the sense that their membership of the Church is an added problem. The present structural forms of its life impede rather than help the confrontation with the modern world. The urgency with which the renewal of the Church is being welcomed and pursued shows that. The more perceptive already recognize that renewal of the Church will not of itself solve all the problems now facing Christians. But the sense of being blocked by the Church, hampered within its rigid framework, prevents a confident tackling of the deeper problems.

The indications are that the Church is persisting in a refusal to accept various elements in modern consciousness that it could accept without succumbing to secularism. It is opposing secularism not simply on grounds of the Christian faith, but by insisting upon past cultural elements built into its present structure. Since what it is insisting upon is obsolete and can no longer serve as the vehicle of Christian faith and mission, the Church is opposing modern secularism on the basis of an equally unchristian ideology. But secularism has at least the advantage of corresponding with man's contemporary consciousness. That is why an increasing number of sincere Christians in the conflict between the Church and the modern world find themselves drawn to the side of the world. In some respects its outlook harmonizes better with the implications of their Christian conviction as held by themselves as modern men.

I have argued previously for a positive appreciation of secularization. Continuing in the same vein, I want to point to various elements in the modern world and modern consciousness which the Church should but does not yet consistently accept. These elements clash with the present social structure of the Church and render it obsolete. They can be accepted only by restructuring the Church. Consideration of them, therefore, will guide us in determining how Christian presence should be structurally embodied in its present situation. And that is the chief question I am raising here

Earlier in this book I described how after the French Revolution the political policy of the papacy had disastrous effects upon the mission of the Church and set the Roman Catholic Church in an undiscriminating and sterile opposition to the modern world. That considerably aggravated what would in any event have been a difficult transition. Institutions with a long history have a great tenacity. To have expected that the Church would smoothly undergo the break-up and restructuring demanded by the cessation of Christendom would have been extraordinarily naive. But people who are now confidently awaiting those postponed radical changes to take place without a disintegrating upheaval are in fact indulging in such naivety. I should like to know what basis they have in history whether sacred or secular, for such confidence. Great institutions are usually either broken up and reshaped by revolutionary force or they survive as curious empty shells on the shore of time. They are seldom radically altered by an evolutionary process of orderly change. The real question it seems to me is whether the Christian revolution now gathering force will succeed in breaking up and reshaping the present structures or, resisted to the end, sweep past them to leave them as a quaint, meaningless relics. The hope of a steady renewal under official auspices simply ignores the magnitude of the change required.

It is its magnitude that makes this change one that affects all the present Churches, not simply the Roman Church. While the Roman Church is the archetype of the Christian institutions inherited from Christendom, every Church that is clinging to a rigid Church order from the past is refusing to accept the conditions necessary for Christian mission in the modern world. Hierarchical or rigid Church structures are no longer appropriate. They clash with the legitimate self-understanding of modern man.

What, then, are the elements in the modern mentality which the Churches are refusing consistently to accept ? By a consistent acceptance I mean one that includes a readiness to embody those elements in appropriate new structures at the cost of radical structural change. There is much talk in the Churches about the modern world. Our age is characterized by an escape into theology. Beautiful theological constructs without reference to concrete reality are taken as a substitute for reform. More of that later. Enough at the moment to state that I am concerned with an acceptance of modern consciousness sufficiently firm and coherent to bring about a change in the structure of the Church as a social entity.

I will first examine the shift that has taken place in man's self-understanding. Then I will draw out the implications of this for the manner in which men now order their social existence. Next, I will deal with the question of the approach to truth demanded by man's present historical consciousness. Finally, on the basis of these previous observations and with the help of recent theological insights, I will discuss the relation between the Christian Church and the wider or inclusive society.

A preliminary remark: in speaking of the change in consciousness that underlies the modern mentality, I shall not attempt to trace its historical roots or phases of development. I am content that the reader should judge whether what I am going to say makes sense to him as describing his own outlook and whether he feels the opposition I discern between that outlook and the Church as it is. Historians may trace the ideas I will outline back a very long way and may debate the exact moment when they decisively emerged. For my present purpose it is enough to note that the modern world is different from earlier periods, that a change of outlook has taken place and that the Church clashes with the contemporary consciousness. I do not think that many will dispute those general contentions.


To See Chapter Two Click Here

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