Idealism, Realism and Churches

My intuition of going the philosophical way seems to be confirmed by my posting on the recent developments in the American Anglican world and the emerging Old Catholicism from the Nordic Catholic Church and the PNCC. I am confronted by the recurring issue of uniting Christian communities with a similar ethos but often with other ideas and practices that make such a union impossible.

Though I remain a priest in the ACC and warmly support all initiatives to resolve our conflicts and separation, I have always been sceptical about the theories behind ecumenism and the way things are attempted at various meetings and think tanks. I am very impressed about the success of the movement between four Continuing Anglican Churches (including the ACC) and am encouraged to know that the work is far from finished and will be continued at other synods and meetings. The Continuing Anglican world is united and compatible once the difficulties caused by personalities of some bishops in the past have been resolved. Being a bishop these days is more about ideals, service and hard work rather than bolstering the self-importance of cantankerous and bitter old men! There is no comparison between the ACC I now serve and the same Church as it suffered in 1997 from the “Bishops’ Brawl”.

I hope that our united Continuum will continue in its way of integrity and idealism, and from that high road engage dialogue with other apostolic churches sharing the same or similar ideals. For this to work, the ideals have to be understood without ambiguity of language and reflected upon in depth. The Catholic revival in England began with Romanticism and the idealism of a small number of Anglican clergy and intellectuals attached to the University of Oxford. The whole thing depended on Romanticism and Idealism like any attempt in Europe in the early nineteenth century to combat atheism and materialism and revive the ideals of transcendence and humanism. I see the points of comparison between the specifically religious movement in Oxford with similar movements in France that became known as Liberal (the desire for a separation of the Church from an atheistic, materialistic and hostile state). I then took a keen interest in German Idealism, whilst studying the differences between the diverse theories of metaphysics and knowledge as represented by men like Kant, Fichte, Schlegel, Schelling, Novalis, Schleiermacher and others. The thought was converging even if those groups never met or knew each other. Today, we have the Internet and the possibility of exchanging ideas and knowledge in spite of geographical distances – so that we don’t have to live in a single city or within walking or horse-riding distance.

I would like to promote this reflection on metaphysics and our possibilities of knowing something of transcendence. This contrasts with the pragmatic considerations of human institutions and making them sustainable by having human and financial resources. In my reckoning, the ideal must prevail over the “reality” of what is brought to our knowledge through the five senses. Pragmatism is necessary because we are incarnate and social beings, but this must be subordinated to the spiritual if we are a religious communion rather than a business or government / political agency.

Surely, it won’t be possible to reproduce the Oxford Movement or the little group of long-haired Germans. Such is not necessary, because we have no need to be concerned for appearances. Our context isn’t the same, and we lack the naivety and innocence of those eras. We have lived through modernity and are confronted by a paradigm that has no use for modernity or even the values of Idealism. We can draw from history, but we have to think and understand things for ourselves, and come up with something new. I am also convinced that history is not only linear but also circular, in cycles. I see parallels between 1790, 1890 and 1990 and the forty or so years that followed those symbolic dates. We belong to the third. Though things are analogies of each other, there is no metaphysical connection.

There is a lot of concern for setting achievable goals, and some have paid off. Some have followed ideals and not merely questions of buildings and money. There has to be a balance, because pure idealism will not necessarily achieve anything and will leave only disappointment and cynicism. Christianity itself is an ideal, and its adversaries and critics blow it away as an unrealistic system that penalises the strong and meritorious in favour of the weak. We have only to read Nietzsche! We dream of a single Communion with Rome, Constantinople and Moscow in mutual recognition and Vladimir Soloviev’s vision of the role of the Reformation churches in affirming human freedom. It hasn’t happened and I fail to see how it could happen in the future.

I will do my best with my little team (we are three committed members so far) to get the ideals out and have some influence on the movers and shakers of this world. There was an iconic slogan in France in the 1970’s – “Vous le voyez, en France, on n’a pas de pétrole mais on a des idées !” originally said by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Referring to the energy crisis, France lacked oil but had ideas. In a certain way, The Blue Flower will work like that, as useless as a monastery of monks, but may be able to offer something more precious than oil or gold! I hope so and entrust this to God in my prayers.

As we read in Nicholas Berdyaev (Freedom of the Spirit), the Churches have to be concerned for the masses, and for this reason the liturgical life as we knew it is mostly gone. It is more concerned with getting a simple message over and working with human social instincts. There also have to be a kind of “aristocracy” involving very few persons of vision and with a calling to delve into the hidden things of God and the human spirit. Berdyaev, though he was Orthodox and Russian, was largely inspired by the German Idealists, a century apart from them, and so I am encouraged in going to the well-spring to drink from the same water.

The books are arriving, both in my library and my smartphone with its Kindle function. I still have so much to learn before I can begin to be creative in a new paradigm and way ahead for the treasure of Christ and a culture based on Jesus’ ideas and actions. Pray God I may come up with ideas that can inspire our bishops to bring about a union of churches based on spiritual integrity and all that is transcendent and sublime.

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16 Responses to Idealism, Realism and Churches

  1. Peter S says:

    Hello, really interesting article. Would I be correct in thinking you advocate both a sacramental Christianity (with a high view of baptism and the Eucharist) and a ‘libertarian’ Christianity (with less emphasis on being part of a particular institutional church)? If so, may I ask how you would reconcile the two? Most sacramental churches seem to emphasise access to the church sacraments and the institutional church as the primary means of salvation and often use their interpretation of scripture with church tradition to support this view.

    • I will use the analogy of the spectrum of visible light frequencies, which is very narrow. The other light frequencies are detectable by machines, and there are certainly many frequencies that cannot be detected either by humans or machines. Not all humans have the same degree of eyesight: some are colour-blind. Institutional Christianity only gives a narrow version of God’s revelation and ways of relating to the transcendent Absolute. This can be very frustrating for some people. A wider view is found by learning about other religions and philosophies, the arts and sciences. The Church is often in its history bound up with power, money and politics. The high-minded have often been forced to seek light and truth elsewhere. I pity those who believe that everything is contained in the Bible. Another view comes out when reconciling the Judeo-Christian tradition with Greek philosophy, especially Neo-Platonism. Without reaching out to the Gentiles, Christianity would have withered on the tree as just another Jewish sect.

      Why do we need the Church? “Some” is better than “none”! The sacramental dimension of the Church gives us a continual incarnation of Christ for us living in this world.

      How are the two reconciled? Perhaps using another analogy: a sub-set and a set, the Church being the sub-set containing truth but only part of the truth. It is our duty to seek as much as possible the fulness of truth, which we will never find totally in this life. From thence the notions I have been finding in Romantic Idealism reflected in some modern scientific theories about the relationship between consciousness and matter / energy and spiritual experience.

      • Peter S says:

        I agree with a lot in your response especially about what is often the political nature of church history and also about the importance of utilising philosophy. Having a very simplistic attitude towards Scripture is also unwise but then I have often seen roman catholic and eastern orthodox apologists use Scriptures referring to the sacraments to maintain that without partaking of them, one is placing themselves in spiritual danger. A favourite verse that is sometimes in this context is when Jesus speaks about the necessity of eating his body and drinking his blood to inherit eternal life. Do we then employ a more protestant interpretation of these type of scriptures whilst maintaining a high church sacramental theology? Nevertheless I do agree in what you say about no-one having access to the totality of truth.

      • I find it difficult to give you an answer to this. I would have to know you personally and know something of your religious background and what is really your intimate conviction. I would be the last to fail to respect that. I am at a stage of my life when I feel the need to do something important, so I have to get ready for it by improving my philosophical knowledge. I am more interested in “pagan” Christianity than “Jewish” Christianity, and warm more to Neo-Platonism than Bible-sifting. Protestantism leaves me cold, and I am not really “into” interpretation. I am not saying that one should avoid the / a Church or the Sacraments, but to be able to live as a Christian even if churches are no longer available to us (for example living somewhere like rural France or Saudi Arabia for one’s job in the oil industry or something along those lines). I also mean to say that the Church might take up a major part of our life. I am a priest. But, we should look beyond that horizon and to infinity, whatever form that might take for any of us.

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Under correction, I would note that in his 1954 volume of the Oxford History of English Literature, C.S. Lewis gives a good overview of ‘Anglican’ ecclesiology as enunciated by Richard Hooker in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593), which is to a considerable extent in keeping with what you here characterize as a ‘libertarian’ sacramental Christianity.

      • Could you give the quote, or at least a paraphrase of what C.S. Lewis said? I don’t have the book in question.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I have the 1973 paperback to hand, which photo-reproduces the text and index, while leaving out the Bibliography. In Book III, chapter ii, “Prose in the ‘Golden’ Age” (of the 16th century), Lewis devotes pages 441-63 to “the work of Hooker [in] its proper setting”, and this whole ‘swatch’ is well worth reading. But I was thinking especially of this passage, for example (p. 454): “Hooker had never heard of a religion called Anglicanism. He would never heave dreamt of trying to ‘convert’ any foreigner to the Church of England. It was to him obvious that a German or Italian would not belong to the Church of England, just as an Ephesian or Galatian would not have belonged to the Church of Corinth. […] But if [“by ‘the Church'” ] you mean the visible Church, then we all know her. She is a ‘sensibly known company’ of all those throughout the world who profess one Lord, one Faith, and one Baptism (III. i. 3). None of those who make that profession is excluded from her. Heretics, idolators, and notoriously wicked persons may be excluded from the ‘sound’ part of her or from salvation, but they are still members of the visible Church (III. i. 7, 13). That is why baptism by heretics is valid (III. i. 9) and if a heretic is killed ‘only for Christian professions sake’ we cannot deny him ‘the honour of martyrdom’ (III. i. 11). In this Church we have always been and still are. We have not left her by reforming ourselves, nor have the Papists left her by their corrupt ‘indisposition’ to do likewise (III. i. 10). […] he is discussing the kind and degree of liberty proper to national churches within the universal, visible Church.”

      • This is a remarkably forward view of ecclesiology from an age when most theologians hurled anathemas against each other. In a Neo-Platonist view, the Church would be the Universal Idea with its absolute reality, and local and national Churches would simply be manifestations of the Universal Church. That Universal Church would be defined by its sacramental manifestation.

        I am not surprised that Hooker would never have heard of Anglicanism any more than Bach would have been conscious of composing baroque music. It is only in our own time that we have presumed to become the lords and masters of history!

  2. William Tighe says:

    “I am not surprised that Hooker would never have heard of Anglicanism.”

    This is not incompatible, however, with the claim, associated with historians such as Peter Lake (especially), Diarmaid MacCulloch, Anthony Milton and others, and taken up by such as the late Conrad Russell and Nicholas Tyacke, that Hooker invented Anglicanism as an -ism, giving it a kind of integrity or coherence that in the hands of previous Elizabethan apologists (such as John Jewel) who were either (loosely, at least) admirers of the Zurich of Zwingli’s successors or of Calvin’s Geneva, and who privately regretted the Church of England’s retention of clerical vestments, a liturgical calendar, and a pattern of worship reminiscent in some respects of “popery,” it lacked (except in the opinion of Anglican Calvinists and other Evangelicals, of course).

    With Hooker one has to couple, of course, his friend Lancelot Andrewes; perhaps in their time Andrewes was the more important of the two. Not that they were in entire agreement: Hooker’s thought to a large extent operated in a Reformed theological universe (e.g., note his criticisms of Lutheran as well as Catholic ideas on the nature and mode of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and how he tended to vacillate on whether episcopacy was necessary de iure divino to the being of a Church) and tended in the longer run as much to support a “Broad Church” via media view of the Church of England as a High Church one, while Andrewes seems never to have been Reformed in any meaningful way (except, perhaps, for his strict sabbatarianism) and after some “flirtation” with Lutheran ideas in the 1590s he became oriented almost exclusively towards the Church Fathers, more those of the East than of the West; and his final views on episcopacy (although attempting a half-hearted defense of the Huguenots’ having to do without it through “necessity,” as no French Catholic bishops joined them [in fact, some 6 or 7 Catholic bishops joined them between c. 1561 and 1575]) were much more “prescriptive” than Hooker’s. Moreover, while Hooker made a positive defence of the Prayer Book liturgy both in general and in regard to those of its features which “Puritans” (and many other “conforming Calvinists”) tended to oppose (the use of the Sign of the Cross in Baptism, of a ring in marriage, and of vestments, among others) rather than following previous justifications along the lines of “the Queen wants them, Parliament has prescribed them, and however undesirable they may be in themselves, they are not so positively unacceptable that we cannot obey;” and in general appears to have regarded it as wholly laudable, Andrewes seems to have regarded it as barely adequate and in need of “enrichment,” both ceremonial (his use of incense and arrangement of his private chapel, as a bishop, according to a very “traditional” pattern; not to mention the way he rearranged/rebuilt the sanctuary of St. Giles, Cripplegate, in the 1590s to undo the thoroughly “Puritan” reconstruction it had undergone some 25 years earlier) and textual (in private celebrations he moved the Lord’s Prayer and the ensuing Prayer of Oblation to make them come immediately after the Prayer of Consecration and before the reception of communion, and he may also have moved, at least on occasion, the Prayer of Humble Access from its appointed position after the Preface and Sanctus and before the Prayer of Consecration to between the Prayer of Oblation and the reception of communion.

    Should one be willing to seek out one good scholarly historical article on each of these two important figures I would recommend, on Hooker, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “Richard Hooker’s Reputation,” The English Historical Review, vol. 117, no. 473 (September 2002), pp. 773-812:

    while on Andrewes Nicholas Tyacke’s “Lancelot Andrewes and the Myth of Anglicanism,” published in Conformity and Orthodoxy in the English Church, c.1560 – c.1660 (Woodbridge, 2000: Boydell), pp. 5-33 (some of which it may be possible to read here):

    (not to mention the long-awaited biography of Andrewes from Peter McCullough of Lincoln College, Oxford).

    • Timothy Graham says:

      I was surprised when I first picked up the Laws, having been primed to expect a forerunner of the Oxford Movement, to discover that the task that Hooker set himself was to justify the worship and customs of the Church of England as a legitimate outworking of the principles of reform that were implemented differently at Geneva. Obviously the Laws has a much more profound and vast scope & Hooker wasn’t limited by his self-declared purpose, but I am not sure that this way of framing things in the Preface was solely a controversial point. It seems to have been where Hooker saw himself situated.

      • There is also a vast difference of culture between Hooker and the Oxford Movement. The Renaissance had not yet run its course and become classicism and the aftermath of the French Revolution. Hooker was working in the aftermath of the Reformation. That’s how I see it.

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thank you indeed for this! I was quietly hoping you might shed some scholarly light, here! I think I first encountered (as a schoolboy?) what I call “‘Anglican’ ecclesiology” above in something, somewhere, from William Warburton (1698-1779), and perhaps next in John Donne’s letter ‘To my very true and very good friend Sir Henry Goodyere” (as republished by Charles Coffin from the 1651 ed. of Letters: Coffin dates “April 1615?”) where he writes of “that sound true opinion, that in all Christian professions there is way to salvation (which I think you think)” and says “many souls [are] well fed with such formes, and dressings of Religion, as would distemper and misbecome us” and with reference to “the Roman profession” and the “Reformed”, “The channels of Gods mercies run through both fields; and they are sister teats of his graces, yet both diseased and infected”, and includes what we would probably call the ‘psychological’ observation that “in a dark sadnesse, indifferent things seem abominable, or necessary, being neither”.

      I recently got a copy of A History of the Ecumenical Movement 1517-1948 ed. Ruth Rose and Stephen Neill (1954) in which the contributions will no doubt be compact, but I hope will tell me more (among other things) about what you called the “Erasmian Catholic” in a comment to the previous post here.

    • Dale says:

      Dr Tighe, thank you for this entry on Blessed Lancelot Andrewes. My dissertation adviser was Nicholas Lossky, son of Vladimir Lossky, who was an expert on Andrewes and it was from Lossky that I learnt “Anglican” Eucharist theology of the Real Presence and the Sacrifice of the Mass. There is also a wonderful quote of Andrewes in which he declares that the Church of England is simply the Catholic Church of the English Nation, no more and no less. Although one may criticise this as a form of Branch Theory, the more I see of the nastiness and squabble amongst affectionados of the True Church Theory, the more I have come to appreciate Andrewes’s wisdom and liberality.

      NIcholas Losky died not too long ago and an English born Russian priest took it upon himself to write a very nasty obituary attacking Lossky for his pro-Anglican and Anglophile views; personally, I viewed such an opinion piece from this individual as a recommendation. It is almost comical when a pretend Russian Englishman attacks the real thing for not being Russian enough.

      • Ryan says:

        Ah yes, Fr Andrew Phillips. You can practically hear his feet tapping over Lossky’s grave as you read that screed. What a loathsome way to represent Orthodoxy.

  3. Mark Haverland says:

    Timothy Graham writes: ‘I was surprised when I first picked up the Laws, having been primed to expect a forerunner of the Oxford Movement, to discover that the task that Hooker set himself was to justify the worship and customs of the Church of England as a legitimate outworking of the principles of reform that were implemented differently at Geneva.’ But surely what Hooker does is to develop set of principles for determining controverted religious issues that is radically different from that of Geneva and its English disciples? What is perhaps most significant about Hooker is his theological method which really does come to characterize much that is best in Anglicanism.

    On N. Lossky, I asked him once if he thought some day the Orthodox might look at a thoroughly Anglo-Catholic Church and say, ‘Truly thou art bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.’ His one word answer: Yes.

    • Thank you, Your Grace. Attempts at creating something viably western or Anglican under Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions have generally proven extremely difficult. I am very heartened to see this notion of Orthodox and Patristic ecclesiology and theology being an analogy of the soul of Anglican Catholicism as opposed to being a kind of Roman Catholicism without the Pope and the post-Tridentine and post-Jansenist kind of ideology. Whilst there was good in the Reformation, especially the Bible and the liturgy in the vernacular, it would be good to revive a pre-Reformation “culture” with the best of Orthodox mystical theology. As I sought for a western mystical tradition, I saw this clearly in parts of the German Idealist and Romantic movement. This is another element we need to form and revive our northern Catholic tradition for posterity. Much of what came out of Romanticism devolved into “post-modernism” and its present-day caricatures, so we need to go to the Frühromantik sources of the 1790’s as they repudiated the materialist foundationalism of the Enlightenment – and looked back to a pre-modern norm. For us Anglicans, we can look to Orthodox theology as an inspiration, but also to the way we are as westerners and northern Europeans.

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