Historical vs. Historically Revealed Religion

Bonifatius_Donareiche - edit

St. Boniface Chopping Down Thor’s Oak, by Bernhard Rode (1781)

I have been thinking a great deal about what it means to believe in eternity, but exist in time.  (No, I don’t have a girlfriend.) I am especially thinking of the ongoing controversy over whether or not communion should be offered to divorced and remarried couples within the Catholic Church.  And this leads me to this blog, which is about a distinction between different types of religion (in a sociological sense; theologically, I am a convinced Catholic).  And that distinction is between what I call “historical” and “historically revealed” religion.

Historically revealed religions are ones that claim to have received, in time, a definitive revelation from an eternal, unchanging God.  This means the three monotheistic religions, in other words. And by definitive, I mean that such revelation is both historically specific (the Law was only given to the Jews; Jesus was the only Son of God; the Qur’an, the final revelation of Allah, was only revealed in Arabic), and that it does not and cannot be fundamentally altered.  Hence, the supremacy of the Torah in Judaism, Jesus as the “Alpha and Omega” in Christianity, and Muhammad as the “seal of the Prophets” in Islam.

What I am calling a “historical” religion is something different.  Religion prior to Christianity was customary; it was not a matter of precisely defined dogmas.  But it was nonetheless thought to embody unchanging beliefs handed down from the golden age, even if modern history believes it to have altered over time. But its adherents did not believe this. They merely thought customs reshuffled the deck, so to speak, of a perennial wisdom.  By contrast, “historical” religion is how modern scholars, and modern people generally, view belief in and worship of the divine:  something that changes over time, but is never definitive.  This modern conception is like ancient Greco-Roman religion in not being “definitive” in the sense of being precisely defined as the monotheistic religions are, but like them in being historical in nature.

This belief in what I am calling “historical religion” has been influenced by historical theories that emphasized linear development (such as those of Condorcet, Hegel, Marx) but also evolutionary theory after Darwin.  In fact, one could say that modern religious scholarship has been dedicated to proving that claims to definitive revelation are false and their ideas are merely historical, since its inception.  This was the purpose, as I see it, of the great philological tradition that emerged in Germany in the 19th century.

I believe it is this conception which ultimately lies behind the move to open communion to divorced and remarried couples, at least as articulated by Cardinal Kasper.  If the Christian doctrine which emerged from antiquity was not a definitive revelation, but merely a historically conditioned development from Judaism mixed up with Greek philosophy, then its injunctions against divorce, homosexual behavior, and much else, can be abandoned in favor a new “development,” ostensibly guided by the Holy Spirit. (For the influence of this line of thinking on Cardinal Kasper, see this very long and dense essay on his thought.)

In saying all this, one of things that should be clear is that when I say a divinely revealed religion is “definitive” I mean something akin to John Henry Newman’s marks of development, in particular the principle of non-contradiction and the preservation of type.  Divinely revealed religions can and do change, but for those changes to be legitimate they must A) not contradict the original revelation and B) preserve the original “type,” meaning those genuine developments must logically correspond with that revelation, even if they admit of considerable variation.

What this means in practice, since it is an eternal, unchanging Deity that elects, as it were, some aspect of historical, human existence to be the vehicle of what is revealed, that certain cultural elements have to be considered permanent.  Hence, the Law came from the Jews, and much of Christian theology is inextricably bound up with the Greek language of metaphysics.  This creates problems, since many people find it hard to relate to something that is both culturally alien and vastly removed in time from their present experience.  Hence the calls for the “de-Hellenization” of Christianity by (mostly) liberal Protestants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The problem of course, is that once you do this, you fundamentally alter the nature of the religion in question.  Once admit something that contradicts the primary “deposit of the faith” and you no longer have an historically revealed religion, but a merely historical one–one which changes with the times, but does not really develop in accordance with the larger principle of the original revelation.

This difference between these types of religion is profound.  On the one hand, you have a religion which is binding, and make binding commitments, upon its believers.  On the other, you have a religion in which every doctrine, every practice, is not only mutable, but for which it is possible (and likely probable) that it will at some point lapse into changes of belief and/or practice which are contradictory and incoherent.  Thus, what has been taken to be one of the marks of divine revelation (its unchanging nature) would be lost.

Most people arguing for a change in the Church’s teaching on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics say that they are not changing the doctrine but merely the practice.  Or else they simply contend that there is no fundamental difference between the absolute prohibition the Church has for centuries proclaimed and a general prohibition that admits of exceptions.  But either way, it amounts to the same thing: whether its doctrine or practice, it undermines the definitive nature of revelation. Naturally, those who are advocating for this change don’t propose to apply the same standards to the Church’s teaching about care of the poor, for example.  But a selective, surgical skepticism is difficult to maintain when it comes to things like sacred Tradition. (This article, concerning Vatican II, is helpful in explaining why.) Use the argument once, it becomes impossible to restrict such is its force and limit it to one’s original designs. This seems to me to why the stakes are so high in this debate: the very nature of the Christian faith is at stake, and whether or not anything can truly held to be revealed by God for us or not.


~ by Alypius on July 14, 2017.

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