Project Canterbury

Tomorrow's Faith
By the Rev. John Rathbone Oliver

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1932.


MANY YEARS AGO, during the days of my early priesthood and my first curacy, one question was frequently presented to me by puzzled friends of my family. It was usually stated thus:

"You being you, by heredity, birth, environment, and education, why are you what you are? Why are you where you are? Why are you doing the things that at present seem to monopolize your interests and to narrow your life?"

In other words, these people were asking, How was it conceivable that a man with New England traditions, a man educated in the atmosphere of a great university and who had given some signs of mental ability, could possibly debase his own intellect and give the lie to all his training by believing the Nicene Creed, practising the Catholic religion, and by being, at the same time, an "ordained minister of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America." The only possible answer to this question was suggested by a gesture of the questioner himself--a movement of the index finger to the questioner's forehead, with the implied supposition, that, as everyone knew, there was always at least one "mental case" in each generation of a distinguished family.

In the old days, when this question was asked, I never tried to answer it. For if I did try, I only succeeded in making my questioners believe that I was a "mental case" indeed. And after thirty odd years, I still find only one answer possible. Nowadays, when the same question is asked--when people demand why I am what I am, and why I want to keep on being it--I am forced to answer, "Because I cannot help myself." And this means that there is, in my life, something that forces me along a certain line of action and belief; a something that is more powerful than heredity, more important than birth, more dominating than education or training. To deny its existence has meant intellectual sterility; to fight against it, as I once tried to do, spells unhappiness and sometimes disaster. To accept it, to follow it, gives me the only real freedom that is worth having. And' a contented happiness, beyond belief. Cui servire, regnare est.

Nevertheless there are times when one is obsessed by a desire to analyze a little, and to explain what is capable of logical explanation: not from the standpoint of the young curate of thirty years ago, but from the standpoint of the dabbler in mental reactions, of the student of historical development. To attempt an answer, not as a Catholic priest or a believer in revealed religion, but as a psychologist and an historian.

I am tempted to do this, not only for myself, but also for others who come to me, in these days, greatly disturbed in mind about what they call "the state of the Church." By this they usually mean either the General Convention and what it may possibly do, or the new Canon on Divorce, or the reaction to The American Missal of certain minds imperfectly instructed in matters liturgical. If these are the things that threaten the peace of Jerusalem, then I for one can still walk round about her and glory in her bulwarks without a moment's anxiety. For I remember how the great Richard Baxter, the author of The Saint's Everlasting Rest, one of the greatest of Anglican devotional books, tormented himself about the Tightness or wrongness of the use of the sign of the Cross in Baptism, and how at the famous Savoy Conference he spent two weeks writing out a Book of Common Prayer of his own, that was to do away with all the things in the Deposited Book that he did not like. The Church of England kept on her somewhat wobbly way. She soon forgot Baxter's scruples and his Prayer Book. But she kept on treasuring his Saint's Everlasting Rest.

But most people do not think in terms of history. I meet groups of my clerical colleagues who sit gloomily in little corners discussing the hopeless state of the Church, trying to decide whether they will make their submission to Holy Roman Church in an effort to settle their own intellectual difficulties or to calm their emotional panics, trying to settle questions that can never be settled by talking or thinking, but only by doing one's own immediate job and saying one's prayers; or whether they will simply wash their hands of the whole mess and retire into lay life. When I listen to such disheartening discussions, I am, sometimes, impelled to take the floor myself and to tell these friends of mine how little real cause they have for discouragement, and to point out why they ought to be at peace, if not absolutely at ease, in Zion.

But that would take too long. And they are all busy men. However, if I write down here all that I should like to say, some of them perhaps may read it. And those among them, who are bored with the whole subject, will not be forced to listen to me against their will. There are, thank Heaven, still plenty of murder stories in the lending libraries, and also a sufficient store of crossword puzzles. There are even some theological works of note still in print.

My "survey," if one cares to call it so, falls naturally into three divisions. And each division will, I hope, have some appeal to one or another of three classes or divisions of our English-speaking Church, our Ecclesia Anglicana.

My first chapter looks Romeward; it tries to speak to those among us to whom Rome is a more or less perpetual obsession. I call it Expressio Bonae Voluntatis. The second chapter faces in the other direction; towards Protestantism. Its message goes to those Pan-Protestant Unitarians, who are seeking to undo the work of the Reformation and to unite the elements that Calvin and Luther and their successors separated by progressive processes of disintegration. I call it Confessio Fidei. The last chapter is entitled Professio Spei. It is a stay-at-home chapter. And in writing it, I have had in mind the faithful Anglican, who is somewhat disturbed by Rome-ward tendencies, or upset by inviting gestures towards a divided Protestantism.

In another way, each chapter belongs to one of the three cardinal virtues. Expressio Bonae Voluntatis is of Charity; Confessio Fidei is of Faith; Professio Spei is of Hope.

One word of caution, however. I am not writing as a theologian. I know little or no theology. Whatever I once knew, I fear that I have forgotten. I should not dare to intrude into such a specialized field. Neither do I pretend to pose as a professional historian, nor as an academic psychologist. What little I have to offer is given by one whose chief interest during many years has lain in the study of human personalities of living men and women, or of men and women long since dead, and in the historical development of one of our so-called modern sciences.

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