SoF and the Roman Tradition

The second in our series on some of the streams which feed the Sea of Faith, written from within the tradition in question. John Challenor is Chair of Catholics for a Changing Church, which works for change and renewal "as envisioned by the Second Vatican Council"

A young RC priest came to the 1994 SoF conference. Two senior priests who read about this in the Sunday Times wrote forceful letters of complaint to Cardinal Hume... This tells us there are catholics for and catholics against SoF. (Sadly, there are many more who have never heard of it). The story also reveals one face of catholic authority - the doleful man (always a man, up to now) in the cross-fire between opposing parties. Catholics are a mixed lot, and we can be very disputatious.

Most SoF members, sitting on the beaches of their Sea, reading their magazine, will look behind at the distant landscape of catholic tradition and see a waterless wilderness of rock and sand and scorching winds. At one level, they will be right. There is precious little thinking in the statute-book of official pronouncements.

At another level, they will be wrong. Official pronouncements have their place, of course. But in Thatcher's Britain, social and community life went on, and in John Paul II's church religious and intellectual life go on. Conditions vary, from more favourable to less - but the opposition, the minority, carries on. A second look reveals the streams we are looking for, running half hidden in valleys, sometimes even underground.

The principle stream is called the Negative Way. We can speak of God truly, literally, only by using negatives. God is not this, not that, not any thing we can know. If we say God is love, or our Father, using affirmative language, we are far away in the realm of metaphor, image and analogy. So there is an inescapable element of agnosticism here, and on this basis there is within Catholicism a tradition of apophaticism, or verbal silence, which calls God ineffable (a negative, beyond words) - and acts accordingly.

Denys the Areopagite was the early spokesman for the apophatic mystical tradition. Denys was a sixth century Greek or Syrian monk who gave his writings extra weight by purporting to be the man St Paul converted in Athens (Acts XVII.34). For Denys, God is not an object or distinct reality but a mystery, beyond words and reasoning. A ninth century Celtic monk, Erigena, spread Denys's teaching in Western Europe. Abbot Symeon (early eleventh century) took it further in the East, saying we know God not as an objective fact but as a subjective personal enlightenment.

The Church's division in 1054 into Eastern "Orthodox" and Western "Catholic" was caused in part by the Eastern stress on apophaticism and their deep dislike of Western rationalistic, university-based Scholasticism. In particular, the West had decided that the Holy Spirit proceeds not from the Father only but from the Son as well (Filioque) - as if to know the private life of God. Easterners were outraged.

Scholasticism declined, monastic theology re-emerged in the West, and mysticism flourished again between 1300 and 1600 in Eckhart, Gertrude, Tauler and Suso in Germany; in Rolle, Hilton and Dame Julian of Norwich in Britain; in Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross in Spain. The mystics, as "workers at the coal-face" in the matter of knowing God, deserve to be listened to. They journeyed to the outermost edge, and to the innermost centre, suffering long and painfully, and they reported finding darkness, emptiness and silence - together with ecstasy, tranquillity and love. The official church harassed them as subversives. Eckhart was on trial for heresy when he died in 1327. He was rehabilitated by the Roman bureaucracy in 1980.

The Reformation, by its successful protest, put the Roman Catholic Church on the defensive. Whereas before about 1550 the catholic leadership had welcomed the new cultural movement of the Renaissance, and promoted a more humanist version of Christian teaching, after 1550 it rejected Galileo and the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth. With John Paul II, a Pole from a culture which experienced the coming of modernity only at second-hand, the church is still busily defending the old order, the supernatural, and the Supreme Being Out There.

That said, the Second Vatican Council of 1962-5, called by Pope John XXIII, did agree on a change of course for the Catholic Church. Catholics were to abandon their defensive mentality, value non-Christian religions positively, respect the rights of conscience and religious freedom, and - observing the "signs of the times" reformulate beliefs in a way the modern world could understand. The programme has not yet been put into effect. Pope John fell sick and died in the Council's first year, and his project was resisted by a determined minority opposed to change. But a General Council of the Church represents a powerful stream of tradition, even if for a time it is forced underground.

In a lecture entitled "Rediscovering God" given in Leuven, Belgium, in 1990, the catholic theologian Hans Kung said that for many catholics now suffering in our institutional crisis, the mystical way is the way forward. "It seems to be the way to escape from the doctrines which paralyse traditional religion, the institutional weight of inherited Christianity, without giving up religion. It looks like an opportunity to abandon traditional Western religion without sinking into a spiritual vacuum". The upsurge of courses in self-awareness, relaxation, spirituality, meditation and so on is significant. Meditation is leading us "not into a religious world 'above' or 'behind' reality but into the inner world, the depths... to fullness, in Hinduism, or emptiness, in Buddhism".

Kung's generalisations can be illustrated by a particular example - the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. He was, from 1941, a Cistercian, based in a monastery in Kentucky, USA. He became, with special permissions, a hermit, an author of best-selling books, and a travelling lecturer. Born in Europe in 1915, he died in Thailand in 1968, electrocuted by touching a faulty table-lamp. In sharing with the world the fruits of his contemplation, he and his abbot were following the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas, who said the highest form of Christian life is not contemplation alone, or action alone, but a combination of the two - what some Catholics today call praxis.

In his biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, Michael Mott records that Merton was in Asia building bridges between his own apophatic mystical tradition and the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. One of the best and clearest expositions of the apophatic tradition is given in Merton's essay "D.T.Suzuki: the Man and his Work", printed in "Zen and the Birds of Appetite".

Was Merton on the way to the Sea of Faith when he met his sudden death? Discuss, with reference to his works!

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