Volume > Issue > Briefly: December 1995

December 1995

Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religions

By Frank Schaeffer

Publisher: Holy Cross Orthodox Press

Pages: 327

Price: No price given

Review Author: Philip Blosser

Frank Schaeffer, son of popular Evangelical apologist Francis Schaeffer, here offers an apologetic for his conversion from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. He undertakes to show that: (1) Western secularization has produced a culture of religious confusion and apostasy, (2) Protestantism is to blame for cutting Western Christianity off from its historical roots, (3) Roman Catholic abuses and distortions gave rise to Protestantism and secularism, and (4) the roots of authentic Christianity are found in Eastern Orthodoxy.

There is much that is reminiscent of his father in Schaeffer’s sweeping indictment of contemporary Western culture. But his defection from Protestantism leads him to identify new causes of American secularism in the religious subjectivism, individualism, anti-traditionalism, and sacramental nominalism of the Puritans, Quakers, and revivalists like Finney. He argues, provocatively, that the pluralistic impulse of denominationalism became the “principal engine of secularization” through the apotheosis of “choice” and relativism. He argues that American religion has become so trivialized, if not secularized, that it has little guidance to offer in the public arena.

There is much that is familiar in (1) Schaeffer’s critique of Protestantism (the hermeneutical anarchy of “sola Scriptura,” private judgment, individualism), (2) his critique of Catholicism (scandalous popes, politicized bishops, “Protestantized” liturgies, banal hymns, and stripped sanctuaries that “often look like some United Nations meditation center rather than a church”), as well as (3) his argument on behalf of early Tradition (patristic evidence of episcopal polity, collegial authority, liturgical worship, sacramentalism). His account of salvation as a lifelong journey of often painful growth and self-discipline, rather than a once-for-all “decision for Christ,” is deeply personal and compelling.

Still, Schaeffer often comes across like a loose cannon. He makes formidable leaps, declaring that “Protestant theologians are the fathers of deconstruction,” and tracing the pro-abortionist view of the unborn baby as a mere “blob of tissue” to Zwingli’s view of the Eucharist as mere bread and wine. His hyperbole and sarcasm can seem harsh, as when he compares Protestant Bible-study methods to astrological chart-reading, or calls the Calvinist God “a great unfathomable Zeus-like computer in the sky who arbitrarily saved some while damning others…irrational, perhaps berserk…no more loving or predictable than a forest fire.” His logic is often strained, as when he blames Augustinianism for everything from a “dictatorial papacy” to “Calvinist-inspired South African apartheid,” or when he says that “atheism is a logical, perhaps even desirable, choice if God is presented as the sort of ‘God’ that the Scholastics, like Thomas Aquinas…believed in or as the god-devil of Calvin.”

Schaeffer’s quarrel with Rome centers on papal authority and Augustinianism. Against the former, he advances patristic support for the principle of episcopal collegiality. He notes that Pope Gregory I rejected the title of “universal” bishop, but without explaining that this title implied “sole” bishop, or noting Gregory’s repeated declarations that Petrine primacy made all churches, Constantinople included, subject to Rome. He appeals to the undivided Church of the first seven Ecumenical Councils, without acknowledging that the East was then in communion with popes who unequivocally maintained their jurisdiction over Eastern churches, or that Byzantine patriarchs and theologians (even Maximus the Confessor) readily accepted this. Schaeffer denies that the Church had ever “seen itself as under a dictator or ‘infallible’ pope,” but fails to convey accurately the Catholic understanding of infallibility as a limitation on papal authority, preventing infallible definitions of prior popes from being arbitrarily “reformed” by the pope in authority at any given moment. Further, by proposing Orthodoxy as a happy medium between “Protestant chaos” and “papal dictatorship,” he skirts the Orthodox problem of an autocephalous polyarchy, which lacks a central Magisterium.

But, for Schaeffer, Rome’s Augustinianism is the root of her “profound differences” from Orthodoxy. In contrast to Orthodox mysticism, he suggests, Augustinianism represents a “rationalistic” Western proclivity for “cold,” detailed, logical “explanations” of divine mysteries, producing theological systems “stripped of awe and mystery,” and the view that persons are bereft of freedom and unable to influence their predestined fates. Schaeffer overlooks (1) Rome’s historical defense of free will and co-operation with grace, and (2) her condemnations of the fatalistic deformations of Augustinianism in Jansenism and late medieval Nominalism. Further, his repudiation of “Western rationalism” ignores (3) the Western traditions of mysticism and via negative (even in Aquinas!), and (4) Orthodoxy’s hair-splitting opposition to the Filioque clause of the Nicene Creed.

Schaeffer’s journey into Orthodoxy has made him “catholic,” but not Catholic. Like Protestants, he protests Rome’s claims. But what he says about forgiveness could be asked of him as well as of Protestants: “How many times must we forgive the Church Her torn skirts” before we “fall out of Communion with Her in the name of purity?… Seventy times seven.”

The Religion of Jesus the Jew

By Geza Vermes

Publisher: Fortress

Pages: 244 pages

Price: No price given

Review Author: S. Gudowitz

In this century many scholars, including Christians, have been trying to learn more about the historical figure of Jesus through an understanding of His Jewish milieu and His place in it. The historian Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford, is one of the leading lights in this scholarly endeavor. This book is the last in his trilogy about Jesus of Nazareth, the others being Jesus the Jew and Jesus and the World of Judaism.

Vermes believes there is a radical discontinuity between the religion of Jesus and that of the Christian Church. He thinks that the focus on Jesus as Savior rather than on God as Father, the belief that Jesus will come again to establish the Kingdom of God, the transformation of Jesus’ Jewish movement into a gentile Church which claims to be the new “Israel of God,” and the abrogation of the Law of Moses all are at variance with Jesus’ own religious beliefs and piety. This being so, will Christian readers unwilling to go along with Vermes’s views have anything to learn from this book? I think so.

The chapter “Proverbs and Parables” offers an extensive examination of the teaching forms of Jesus and relates them to other Jewish examples of them, and concludes that Jesus, by and large, was not engaged, as were some others who used these forms, in biblical exegesis, but rather in vividly calling people to repentance and trust in God. One of the points in Vermes’s chapter “Jesus and the Kingdom of God” is how the imagery of “bloody eschatological battles led by a Warrior God,” that is so prominent in the Hebrew Bible and the intertestamental literature, forms no part of Jesus’ teachings. As portrayed by Jesus, the coming of the Kingdom of God is no less important but is, in a sense, far more quotidian and far less “cosmic, ” and closer to the ideas of the Tannaitic rabbis.

Vermes’s book is well-written, thorough, and, without talking down to readers, deliberately accessible to a general audience.

Does Catholicism Still Exist?

By James V. Schall

Publisher: Alba House

Pages: 258

Price: $13.95

Review Author: Gregory Doolan

Every house divided against itself, Christ tells us, shall not stand. In many respects, the Catholic Church in the years since Vatican II seems to be just such a house. Can it stand? Will it stand? Does Catholicism still exist?

The Church has suffered attacks from enemies throughout history. Today, however, it is threatened less from without than from within. As Rome is increasingly ignored, the sense of unity within the Church — the sense of Catholicity — diminishes. Schall states: “Rather too many modern Catholic intellectuals ask, ‘How can modern man believe these odd truths presented by the faith?'” Actually, however, Schall notes that we do not lack true Catholic apologists, but individuals who are willing to listen to them.

Catholicism embraces both faith and reason. It is an intellectual religion. But it is precisely as an intellectual faith that Catholicism faces one of its worst problems today: what Schall describes as “intellectual infidelity.” Many intellectual Catholics have abandoned the theological and moral tradition of the Church.

This intellectual infidelity is most strikingly apparent in what John Paul II has referred to as “that glorious institution to which the Church gave birth”: the university. Most Catholic universities today are virtually indistinguishable from their secular counterparts, offering little or nothing in the way of spiritual and metaphysical guidance. What is most lamentable is that what secular schools have simply lacked, Catholic universities have abandoned. Schall, who teaches at Georgetown, sees little hope for Catholic universities today, concluding that “this battle is already lost, however quietly this must be whispered to our neighbors and benefactors…. The only thing missing is the honesty on the part of the universities and the hierarchy itself to admit the fact.”

Despite this intellectual infidelity, Schall contends, the Church continues to have at root a consistent and coherent understanding of itself. Nowhere is the presence and persistence of the Church’s intellectual heritage more evident today than in the new catechism, which provides a clear statement of what Catholicism truly is. It is here, then, that we see that Catholicism does still exist, with the Church as both Mater and Magistra, providing spiritual and intellectual guidance for her flock.

Schall’s book offers a heartening glance at how Catholicism still does exist. But it does more than that. It reminds us of Christ’s words: “and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Carmina Gadelica

By Alexander Carmichael

Publisher: Lindisfarne Press

Pages: 684

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Charles A. Coulombe

When Catholicism takes root in a country, traditions of the people not irreconcilable with the Faith can survive with and under the new religion. One immediately thinks of Christmas fir trees, holly, ivy, and mistletoe. But such traditions can go beyond the realm of custom and enter into actual belief.

Similarly, in the countries overwhelmed by the Reformation, Catholic practices and beliefs have often lingered on in the memory of the people. In England, Oxford dons at medieval colleges continue to bow by rote as they pass certain empty niches on their walks — niches which before the change of religion held statues of the saints. Sailors in the Royal Navy embarking on a ship turn to the quarterdeck and salute. This activity, which has been preserved by the U.S. Navy and is often said to symbolize a salute to the ship’s commanding officer, in reality originated in the Middle Ages. The sailor was saluting the image of the Virgin which graced all English warships’ quarterdecks until the time of Henry VIII. Saints and the Virgin Mary are to be found in the collections of British and Hessian folktales gathered respectively by Katherine Briggs and the Brothers Grimm. Many rural folk in Denmark retain a belief in the intercession of the saints, while their Icelandic and Swedish counterparts preserve certain local medieval hymns in honor of the Virgin; this is condemned by much of the official Protestantism of those countries.

Both principles have long been at work in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. Although the Lowlands were the early stronghold of Calvinism, the old religion retained a majority of the people north of the Highland line until the clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries sent so many of the Catholic Scots into exile (resulting in the anomaly that there are more native speakers of Scots Gaelic in Canada than in Scotland). Yet many managed to remain, and even the rural Presbyterians of the Scottish north retain something of a Catholic (and/or pre-Christian) flavor in their piety.

During the last century, the influence of Romanticism, with its thirst for the medieval, sparked a keen interest in the folklore of European nations (theretofore scorned by heirs of the Reformation and Enlightenment alike). In Ireland members of the Anglo-Irish intelligentsia like Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats committed to paper many of the songs and stories of the despised Irish Catholic peasantry. In Scotland a similar service was performed in the Gaelic-speaking Highlands and islands by Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912). An exciseman by trade, his work took him through the Highlands and islands, where he would seek out people known to preserve the songs, prayers, and other traditional matter of their fathers. Two volumes of this appeared during his lifetime; his heirs completed four others posthumously. In the years since, this massive collection has been mined for everything from poetry anthologies to wall samplers to hymnbooks. At last, in the edition under review here, the entire wealth of knowledge is available in a single volume. The result is breathtaking.

Here prayers for the intercessions of various saints, customs at baptism, songs for wayfarers, and so forth are present. Here we see a way of life where the Faith is not merely a set of abstractions, but a totality which encompasses every aspect of existence. Here too we see a people for whom the Sacraments had great objective value. Baptism, for example, is invested in everyday life with all the unseen power which the Church’s doctrine claims for it.

Such a marriage of life and faith, and such insight into the everyday reality of the supernatural, is rarely to be found today outside of such places as where this book’s contents originated — perhaps in out-of-the-way places like Galway, rural Poland, Brittany, Corsica, Guam, Peru, or Louisiana, but hardly in the great cities where most of us Westerners live.

Of what use, then, is this material to moderns, other than certain scholars? Why should we care? Because the union of faith with daily life is essential to salvation, and people in the modern world need much assistance in gaining it. Louis Pasteur said, “I have the faith of a Breton peasant; I hope by the time I die to have the faith of a Breton peasant’s wife.” Repeated meditation upon this book will be a great aid in attaining such faith.

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