Monday, April 16, 2012


In a recent blog post, Catholic philosopher Edward Feser discusses the interaction of faith and reason. According to traditional theology, the better the natural soil, the easier it is for the supernatural to take root. Along these lines, Feser offers the paradox that the old pagan is closer to the faith than the modern agnostic. He refers to the "idea of what Aquinas called the praeambula fidei – the preambles of faith, by which philosophy opens the door for revelation." But for a few Christians this creates a problem. "Like the Pharisee who scorns the sincere piety and virtue of the Samaritan, some Christians scorn natural theology and natural law as impious or at least questionable. They... despise human nature, and with it any non-Christian understanding of God and morality, as altogether corrupt and without value...."
In a series of sermons collected in The Hidden Stream: Mysteries of the Christian Faith
Msgr. Knox addresses this same topic. He speaks not only of the intellectual or philosophical "preambles" to the faith, but even non-Christian spiritual practices which prepared individuals for the new religion. The English priest offers the view that "Divine Providence encouraged the human mind to develop these myths, these fantasies, these mumbo-jumbo ceremonies, precisely so that the human mind might be ready for the true revelation when the true revelation came." He refers, for example, to the receiving of ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday as reminiscent of ancient pagan purification ceremonies.
There is no sort of doubt that the Church has, and deliberately, retained in her method of worship some of the externals to which the pagan world, which she conquered, had grown accustomed. She incorporated paganism, if I may put it in that way; she didn't abolish it, she swallowed it up.... Of course that made, and makes, the Puritans terribly angry; they think the Christian religion ought to be something absolutely different from all the other religions in the world; to have no leaven of natural religion in it. And all that goes back in the long run to the question whether you think of grace as the old Protestants did, as something which supersedes nature altogether, or think of it as we Catholics do, as something which perfects nature.
While the traditional anti-papist (a somewhat fading breed) always reviled such parallels, the "post-Christian" skeptic (which remains with us) has gone to the other extreme so as to over-emphasize features common to our religion and other creeds. They say that our practices are "just pagan ideas, mostly stolen from the mystery religions." They also point to Babylonian tales about the first parents, the Epic of Gilgamesh and a great flood, the Greek myth of Pandora, or the outward trappings of Mithraism which were similar to Christian worship. Such comparisons would, on the face of it, tend to devalue the unique claims of Christianity. Knox is no syncretist, of course, and he acknowledges this temptation as well:
I suppose there has been no subtler attack upon the Christian faith devised by its enemies in these last hundred years than the attack made in the name of "comparative religion". If you pick up a book on "Atonement", and plough your way through ideas of atonement among primitive tribes, pagan ideas of atonement, Jewish ideas of atonement, Christian ideas of atonement, you will find that by the end of it that atonement, for the author's mind, has ceased to have any meaning. And he has been successful, in so far as he has managed to infect your mind with the woolliness which is the leading characteristic of his own. Comparative religion is an admirable recipe for making people comparatively religious. And the same kind of pitfall awaits us, when we have reached that point in apologetics which we are supposed to have reached now.
The point is not that we explain religion by explaining it away. Rather, God has made people (all people) essentially alike. There are recurring themes, not only spiritually, but psychologically, artistically and morally. Independent of comparative religious studies, scholars have shown how many mythic themes and even ancient bardic plot devices repeat themselves from one culture to the next. What a Catholic apologist or missionary attempts to do is meet people on some common ground, like the Jesuits who went out to the North American Indians and explained that the God of the Bible was like their "Great Holy Father" who lived in the heavens. So what makes Christianity something "more" than other religions?
When you compare Christianity with Confucianism, you are comparing two systems of personal morality. When you compare Christianity with Mahomedanism, you are comparing two forms of fighting enthusiasm. When you compare Christianity with Buddhism, you are comparing two streams of mystical tendency. And, unconsciously, you have recognized that Christianity is something greater than the other three; because each of those others corresponds to one particular need, one particular mood, of man, whereas Christianity corresponds to all three.
Matthew Anger has written for Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Latin Mass Magazine, and New Oxford Review. His commentary on books and authors can be found at The Vociferous Reader.