December 2003By Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She is author, most recently, of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Drydens The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press).
The Hidden Stream: Mysteries of the Christian Faith. By Ronald A. Knox. Ignatius. 230 pages. $13.95.
Ronald Knox (1888-1957), the son of an Anglican bishop, is one of those English converts who, in the last century, were the glory of the Catholic Church. The Hidden Stream was originally a series of talks he gave to Catholic students in Oxford. It has not dated. Its language is fresh and appealing, and its message more timely than ever in that it presents the Christian mysteries not as a psychological experience, but as supernatural reality. Knox defines religion as living in the presence of an unseen world, a world that gets hold of you, binds you, and makes claims on you. In particular, Christianity makes the demand that you humble yourself and offer yourself up in union with Jesus Christ to give God the honor which is his due.
Knox insists that the five classic proofs of Gods existence carry conviction, and if we imagine they dont, maybe we just dont grasp them. Although there has been a great fall from the realism of Christian times to the subjectivism of our age, Catholics are still committed to the principle expressed in Wisdom and St. Pauls Letter to the Romans, that the existence of God can be inferred from consideration of the works which he has made. This reasoned belief in the existence of God is found in the classic proofs, which protect us from the dangerous error of thinking that religious differences are a matter of taste, instead of a matter of truth.
The five proofs are needed for us to look at the world sanely, to see it not as something which exists in its own right, but as deriving its existence from Something outside of and higher than itself. We read meaning into the world, and the classic proofs are fundamental to doing this. Can we really think of all that exists in the world as producing itself? The five proofs assure us that the God-dependent construction we put on the universe is the right one. Someone might object that many clever people dont believe in God, so how can these proofs be convincing? Knox replies that they involve a sane view of life, and people who are clever are not necessarily a very sane set. There is something subhuman about these clever types who have a blind spot in them which makes all human commerce with them difficult.
Knox explains lucidly how God can be known by affirmation, negation, and analogy. If we say that God is beautiful because otherwise He couldnt have made such a beautiful world this is knowledge by affirmation. If we say He is not beautiful, because beauty is a matter of form, color, and line, and none of this applies to God this is knowledge by negation. And further, if we say that God possesses a beauty beyond what the human mind can conceive this is knowledge by analogy. Now, analogy differs from metaphor. When we call God angry, we use metaphor, comparing Him to an angry man; but when we call Him wise and good, we use analogy, saying something about Him that is true as far as it goes, although our limited conceptions make it impossible for us to realize how staggeringly true it is. Someone might object that we show complete ignorance of God by calling Him, in a litany of negations, immortal, invisible, immutable. Knox ripostes that we say something frighteningly positive, for we deny merely that God has the defects of our nature.
In a passage on the soul, Knox offers this illuminating analogy: that just as the organ exists for the sake of the music, not the music for the sake of the organ, so the body exists for the soul. In a passage on Original Sin, he reflects that even if the exact extent of human depravity is not known, one thing is sure the Fall weakened not only mans will, but his intellect, his natural ability to find truth. Since time could not correct this, God made Himself felt by Revelation, and so the supernatural entered the natural world.
The unbeliever, of course, wants the natural world to be the whole show. Brandishing Frasers Golden Bough, he argues that paganism has its trinities, falls, and resurrections too. Knox replies that there is much in Frasers method that is quite obviously bogus, but insofar as such resemblances exist, we accept them with a shrug. God prepared both Gentiles and Jews for the coming of Christ, giving the first some hints of the shape of revealed truth, and the second the prophecies of the Messiah that make the Old Testament the lock into which the key of the Incarnation fits. Knox uses a splendid analogy for Divine Providences preparation of mankind for the coming of Christ: Just as the birds instinct causes it to make a nest before there is a need for it, so Providence made sure there would be a common language (Greek), roads making travel easy across the Roman empire, and a Jewish diaspora allowing Christs disciples, wherever they went, to find a synagogue as their starting place. Knox exclaims: could any more elaborate nest have been built in readiness of the coming of the Dove at Pentecost?
While pagan literature looks back to a golden age, the Old Testament looks forward to the fulfillment of Gods promises. In the Gospels, Knox observes, you get the impression that the chief business of history is to make prophecy come true. Our Lord is carefully and consciously tracing out the blue-print of prophecy just when it looks as if he were getting it all wrong. He rides into Jerusalem on an ass, an action prophesied of the messianic king, to make a quite deliberate gesture. Men asked to see the Son of Man made visible in triumph, but it was as a king without a kingdom that our Lord was condemned. The Church was yet to come.
In a chapter on the New Testament as a genuine record, Knox relates that there are manuscripts of these texts dating from the fourth century and quotations drawn from them in the Church Fathers in even earlier centuries. Therefore, you can build up, on critical principles, a sufficient scaffolding of knowledge about what Christians believed in the middle of the first century to make all our other knowledge of such remote times look silly by comparison. He exults in the remarkable absence of anything that could be called phoney in the New Testament. What is written there rings true and belongs to real life. St. Paul does not write letters for effect you feel the actualities of the situation tingling in every line and his dogmatic asides overflow from the fullness of his heart. Nor will he let us think of Christ after a human fashion, now that His Incarnation has infected the human race, as it were, with his Divinity. Written only twenty years after the Crucifixion, St. Pauls letters contain in them the whole Apostles Creed, a whole elaborate theology of the Trinity and the Incarnation which has already become the fixed belief of Christians. Knox then asks whether the founder of Christianity could have been an ordinary man, the memory of whose recent passage through the world had created such a repercussion!
That miracles should have been the atmosphere of Gods unique self-revelation, Knox assures us, was fitting. The two great miracles which are terminal landmarks of our Lords human life are the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, and in these the invasion of the supernatural world shakes nature to its depths: A Man comes into the world unbegotten, leaving His Mother a Virgin, and goes out of the world alive, leaving the seal of his virgin tomb unviolated. Knox beautifully describes these miracles as a sign-language between heaven and earth, and pictures of eternity cast onto the screen of time.
There is a secret fallacy in comparing Christianity with any other religion, Knox tells us, because when we do so we isolate a fraction of Christianity. Buddhism is a mysticism, but Christianity is a lot more than a mysticism. Islam is a culture, but Christianity is a lot more than a culture. Knox shows how Christianity assimilated Aristotle in the Middle Ages, while Islam was not capable of doing this because it was a good fighting religion, but not really a good thinking religion. By contrast to Mohammed, our Lord established a religion that could be argued. Not only did He Himself reason effectively against His antagonists, but He expected His disciples to reason about religion too, as when He reproached them after His death and Resurrection for not reflecting on the prophecies. Thus, Christianity is a lot more than a mysticism, a culture, or a philosophy. Our Lord is not just another world teacher. He is nothing, if he is not unique for did Buddha or Mohammed ever say that all power in Heaven and on earth was given to him and that no one can come to the Father except by him?
In a chapter on the Church, Knox ponders her being called one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. First, she is the Bride of Christ. How could our Lord ever have more than one Bride? As for holiness, Knox deplores our terrible second-rateness as individual Catholics, which prevents conversions. Plainly, the visible Church is a mixture of rogues and honest men, yet even so, the Church is holy, because she does not derive holiness from her members, but rather she confers it upon them. Knox rejoices that the Church in communion with Rome is catholic (i.e., enters into the mind of every nation) and is apostolic (i.e., hands down the same doctrine that was taught by a set of working men in an obscure province of the Roman empire two millennia ago).
On the salvation of those outside the Church, Knox observes that a baptized Christian who has rejected the claims of the Catholic Church because of invincible ignorance can be saved by the merits of Christ. He is a Catholic without knowing it. As for the unbaptized, it was the common opinion of theologians even in the days of St. Thomas Aquinas that if they did what was in their power, God would reveal to them what was needed for salvation by sending them interior inspiration or a preacher. Yet they too can only be saved through the merits of Christ.
Someone might object that if there are easier paths to Heaven, why should Catholics take the hard one? Knox replies that we are called to bear the brunt of the intellectual battle, to be the cadre of his army, to be the authentic reflection, on earth, of his perfect, and peaceful, and orderly kingdom. If we rise to the height of our vocation, we have the privilege of being able to give more than other people. This is the claim, the demand that our faith puts on us.
It is one of the glories of Christianity, Knox informs us, that it alone among world religions has blossomed out into a theology, something which proves it to be intellectually alive and capable of development. The mysteries of faith were initially like uncut jewels, and they became shining diamonds as a result of clever fools who got the mysteries wrong. The Church reacted by making her mysteries fool-proof. Like pearls an oyster creates in reaction to sand entering its chamber, so the pearls of Christian dogma have developed in reaction to heretics. These clever fools always wanted to make things easier for the faithful, by robbing a mystery of its mysteriousness. But the truth lay in a deep channel, with a shallow explanation on either side. The Church wisely sets out her dogmas like buoys marking safe waters for her children. Interestingly, Knox warns that the development of theology in the Church is utterly unlike Evolution: There is no possibility of a doctrine turning into something else. The Church never alters the Deposit of Faith, but only interprets it infallibly.
For the Protestant, Knox informs us, faith is an attitude of the whole person, an instinctive, irrational act of adhesion to the Person of our Lord. He doesnt want reasons for his faith to rest on. But the Catholic mounts by criteria of credibility to revealed truth, which he then embraces on account of Gods authority. This authority now becomes a firmer foundation than the earlier motives of credibility, just as someone climbing a ladder to a roof finds the rooftop a more solid footing than the ladder. When we reach a moral certainty that the Catholic Church is the true one, we square up to it, make the act of faith, and attain certitude. This certitude is theological, not emotional. It depends on the grace of faith, which transforms our reasoned certitude and elevates it to a supernatural level.
On the Sacraments, Knox observes that it was Gods will that water, bread, and oil be endowed with supernatural efficacy which would overflow from the body into the soul. Since man is the link between matter and spirit, it was fitting that God should give us Sacraments to join the life of our flesh to that of our spirit. Protestants reject the Sacraments as so much magic, but they are in error, because magic uses supposedly supernatural means to produce a natural effect, while Sacraments use natural means to produce supernatural effects.
Knox has a beautiful passage on the priest as a kind of sacrament, a sacrament of fatherhood. At Baptism, the priest is the father bringing children into supernatural life; at Mass, he is the father as bread-winner, giving his family supernatural food; and at Confession, he is the father correcting and training up his children. The priest is celibate, Knox explains, because he already has a family to provide for, a supernatural family.
In his remarks on Confession, Knox surprises us by saying that it has become difficult (even in 1953) to persuade people that any sins are mortal, because we are so ready to make psychological excuses. Yet sin is a breach of the eternal order of things, and though we receive forgiveness in Confession, we should ponder that the inner nature of the divine pardon is still a mystery. In his remarks on marriage, Knox presents monogamy as the divine plan for the human race. Thus, when Catholics are not allowed to get divorced and remarried, it is that Catholics know its wrong to get divorced and remarried. St. Paul speaks of matrimony as the same bond that unites Christ and His Church, and this means that, rightly understood, matrimony is the analogue and the extension of the Incarnation.
Knox concludes with remarkable reflections on the resurrection of the body. One striking point is that whereas Eastern spiritualism regards the body as something that doesnt matter and Western materialism as the only thing that matters, Christianity teaches us that the body has a supernatural importance. It must be treated with reverence. Far from being an encumbrance, our bodies are the first-fruits of eternity, entrusted to our keeping.
It has been said that a seeker may need only one solidly Catholic book to find his way, a book that presents the mysteries of the faith as supernatural reality. The Hidden Stream is this kind of book it leads one to reflect, resolve, and change course. It is not only inspired and sound in doctrine, but witty and eloquent.