Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.

The Acceptive Attitude and the Inductive Method

Professor of Ecclesiastical History, General Theological Seminary

"For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him. Amen, unto the glory of God by us."

THE CREED begins and ends with an act of ratification and assent: "I believe--Amen: So be it." It is with some of the implications of these two words and of the facts that they symbolize that we are now to concern ourselves. It is a matter both of principle and practice. What affects our original point of view affects our method of procedure. The Catholic approach is by the way of affirmation. The Catholic conclusion is a matter of vigorous assent. The creeds begin and end--as they are governed throughout--positively.

How far is faith an adventure and quest, and how far is it acceptance and ratification? In the difficult job of thinking out our religious convictions we are again and again tempted to work them out ourselves without due reference to more than their individual quality. There is a sound point here: the intimate Creed of the West phrases its convictions in the first person singular, not in the first person plural. But we must ask ourselves just what is implied in saying I believe. It is, for example, very easy for me to make my own knowledge the measure of my own faith. In the act I constitute myself and the formation of my own horizon the chief authority for my beliefs. It is as if the adventure of faith were all to be conducted within the narrow room of my own soul. To the call to pick up and leave these limiting confines for a larger world, I must needs say no.

This is not the Catholic approach. In no sense does the Catholic deny the right of the individual mind and heart, but he goes beyond their own boundaries to stake out a larger territory in the name of their own rights. He is not content with their limitations. He finds all too much in their natural disposition that hampers their natural growth. In the name of the freedom of the soul he affirms a larger loyalty than that to its limitations.

Life has so largely become a matter of specialization and deference to experts that for most of us there is little first-hand acquaintance with many matters with which we must deal. None of us could survive alone and supply our necessities. In matters of exploration, as well as of the building up of the fabric of a permanent life, we are dependent. We are dependent on what has been done before and what has happened before, and must needs train ourselves to go to school to facts.

There are two chief attitudes which the self may adopt. They are expressed most simply in the monosyllables Yes and No. We can either accept or reject. The instinct of the natural self is in the direction of a rejection, for it is fear-ridden and ill at ease in the unknown chaos of the universe. The known certainties of experience and thought, and the hard lessons learned from both, shape the mind of man who tends to preserve himself by the method of rejection of the new and different. Nature is all on the side of the timorous. By bitter experience our own ancestors learned the dangers of too much experimentation and the canny soul is predisposed to sit as securely as it may within the four walls of its self-built habitation. To be taught is a painful process. To go to school and learn means, in some measure, to acknowledge inadequacy. Our fears may ever paralyze us from making the great adventure of setting out on the sea of life from the safe harbor of the self.

The Catholic has a much more defiant and dangerous discipline: as over against the authority of himself alone he puts the authority both of God and the Beloved Fellowship. Some element of retained selfhood must surrender in that adventure and quest which is the Catholic life. Experiment and experience, life and action, are in no sense abrogated. The life as a whole develops an amazing richness by reason of the larger scope of its activities. To pull out from the safe harbor means to find a larger world. We cannot stay at home and see the universe, save by books and radio, by hearsay and second-hand sight. The quality of achievement passes outside the capacity of the stay-at-home soul. Upon reasonable security the soul of man is urged to launch out into the deep: man is called to yield the high freedom of his own self-formed and self-found knowledge to the higher authority of a God-governed revelation. Only thus can his true independence be secured in seeking the genuine dependence upon the eternal.

Many things block our capacity to be affirmative. Most of them have to do with our fears. Once fear has been cleared out of the way the liberated soul would go forth from its house of bondage craving for the eternal. It is fear which cancels the love of the eternal God just as it is love only which can surmount the fear. We must deal tenderly with those who cannot believe, with the number of those who can say "I would believe--but it is impossible I" The subtle act by which that freedom from self and its fears is achieved is, according to the Catholic, the gift of faith from God. It evokes and empowers new capacities of the self. It challenges the conservative, tidy, safety-first tactics of the natural man. It wages war against the subserviences of the immortal spirit of humanity to the binding limitations of its past and present. It shows the way to a new freedom, to a liberty to be gained and held only at the cost of affirmative surrender. It has little patience with negativism in any guise, save where this attitude has to do with sin. At all points in its discipline it utilizes the technique of mortification, but it puts to death only to quicken; it slays only to secure a larger life.

The act whereby one ratifies and affirms is conditioned by his previous experience and thinking. Catholicism makes its appeal no less to the head than to the heart. It can never be contented till the whole man is evangelized. In the papers to follow some aspects of this appeal are to be considered. We are giving our attention here and now to the fundamental attitudes that are involved throughout. This perennial problem of the individual soul in its quest for reality will confront us at every turn. If we can but see something of the dimensions it possesses, something of the significance its various developments involve, we shall be in a better position to consider subsequent ramifications. How, for example, am I led to say, "I believe--Amen"?

I believe, on authority sustained by reason, vindicated and justified both by my inner needs and my actual experience. The facts of experience and knowledge are so important that the soul might well go almost to any length to secure them. If the method of Catholicism seems to be somewhat risky, to involve too great a surrender of the self to secure too small a yield of fruitage, it at all events has the temerity to claim well-authenticated instances for its authority. The old principle solvitur ambulando is of the essence of the Catholic approach. We can seldom learn whether or not a thing is true until we have given it a chance to prove itself. And it is almost impossible to give it a chance to prove itself for us until we have been rash enough to act as if it were true. Like all other scientific experiments, the experiment of faith has its laws. A kind of spiritual pragmatism--utterly unjustified as a philosophy but not to be despised as a method--has a legitimate place in matters of religion. No one can begin to learn who will make no effort to learn. Furthermore, the Catholic is never tired of asserting that, so soon as the process of learning begins, a new ally will invariably enter the transaction: God's grace. We cannot do it in our own strength nor does God force us along the path to find Him. It is a partnership task, this whole act of faith. Nay more, it is almost more than a partnership, for more is involved than the sole relationship between God and my soul; the verdict of all believers is actively registered when I summon their witness in the act of saying: "I believe."

Faith leads to freedom. It takes me out of myself into a larger world than that which I know of my own devising or through my own experience as a narrow unit. He who can say "I believe--Amen" is already a citizen of a roomier universe than the unhappy man condemned by doubt, fear, and difficulty to dwell within the confines of his own personally-secured dwelling-house. The saddest fact, in all reason, is the uneasy discontent of the cabined soul. Preposterous as it may sound, the Catholic knows that the heart of man can never be satisfied with less than God. All substitutes if not palliatives are then deludents. It isn't as if to say that the "happiness of mankind," in this narrower sense, were the proof of the truth of Christian dogma, but it is true to say that the indications of our own nature point to the existence of One who can satisfy its innermost yearnings.

We are social animals. There is little that we can do or be by ourselves. The forked two-legged homo sapiens is more than a little ridiculous. By himself he amounts to so little. He is a weak, puny specimen when he begins life; he is so pathetically dependent. He is so little content solely with the provision of his animal needs, and ironical comments on his weakness or his passion for infinity present what might be regarded either as the great cosmic joke or the sure indication of a blindingly preposterous truth. The Catholic is convinced that no claim for the dignity of mankind can ever be too lofty; at the same time he is fully aware how far men have fallen from the realization of that claim. That he is essentially a social animal is grounded not only in his nature but in that of God. For the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in part means that God is a Society of Persons; not only does "all Fatherhood in heaven and earth" take its name from God the Father, but all society on earth has its origin in a refraction among men of that which eternally exists in the Godhead.

One of the curious commentaries that we can make on our own history is that the individual only discovers himself in society. We begin to be aware of personality only with reference to society; our selfhood, no matter how individual and insistent it may be, is wrought out on the anvil of our social life. We are not each severally disconnected units accidentally bumping against each other in our different social groups. There is a kind of osmosis taking place at all times: we are saturated by a society and in turn inevitably contribute our modicum to society. The more we affirm our selfhood the more certainly we recognize society in which it lives and moves, to which it owes so much. Of all societies the preeminent one is the society known as the Body of Christ. The Catholic believes that it is more than the sum of its human parts. If one should count all the Catholic noses in Christendom and include all possible Christians there would still be more than that to Christ's Church. It is in a true sense more than the sum of its constituent members. For we do not constitute that of which we are members, since we are rather constituted by it. We become our truest selves only by being incorporated into Him. Our arrival at fullest selfhood comes by being grafted into the Body of Christ.

When the believer is caught up into that Body he is immediately brought into touch with the Holy Spirit--the Soul of the Body. Like himself, the individual perceives that the Church has both body and soul. Immediately and without intervention the Holy Spirit comes to inform the individual, to unite him in the mystical fellowship. By becoming a member he becomes a greater self, but in no sense abrogates his selfhood. Paradoxically enough he wins his larger self by persevering in membership with others in the mystical bond of the Incarnation: "I believe in the Holy Ghost." That which is contained in the third paragraph of the Creed epitomizes in reverse order the experience in time of the believer. He steps off first of all from life in time into life in eternity; his body as well as his soul is to have a future of indefinite extension; the blur and blot of sin is removed that this boundless growth may be realized; the whole self--body and soul--grows together in the fellowship of Holy Ones, living and departed, seen and unseen, by participation in Holy Things, through sharing the things of this world, for they may be transformed to become holy: the Fellowship of Holy Persons is the Catholic Church; the soul of the Church is the Spirit of God.

Ratification in advance is a means to experience, status, and fact, which would otherwise lie outside the compass of human achievement. Ratification in conclusion is as well the seal of the past as a pledge for the future. The Catholic begins as he ends his Creed with the challenging affirmation: "I believe--Amen."

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