Sunday, June 5, 2011

Descent of the Dove - III

This book is a journey through the history of the Church, focusing on how the Holy Spirit acts in her. In chapter three, Williams displays a fine understanding of both the importance of orthodoxy as well as its radical component, the surprising lengths to which it goes and the demands it makes of us.

"If some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness," G. K. Chesterton observed, and Hilaire Belloc affirmed this: "There is no greater error in the whole range of bad history than imagining that doctrinal differences, because they are abstract and apparently remote from the practical things of life, are not therefore of intense social consequence."

Here Williams deals with Arianism, Manicheanism and Pelagianism.

When Constantine urged his subjects to drop the dispute over Arianism, by saying, more or less, "Why can't we all just get along?" "Constantine's protest was natural; it was his misfortune that the point at issue should be one of the few more important and not one of the many less important. That is clear now; it was not everywhere equally clear then." For the issue of Arianism was the nature of Christ, was He both God and man or merely a man? Elsewhere Belloc notes, had Arianism won the battle of doctrine, "all our history would have been other than what it has been from that day to this. Deny, as the Arians did, the incarnation, and human dignity is lessened, the authority of Our Lord is weakened, He appears more and more as a man, perhaps a myth, the substance of Christian life is diluted, it wanes."

And yet, by the actions of the Holy Spirit, orthodoxy carried the day.

Likewise, the Manichean tendency was quite strong during this period, encouraged even by the popularity of the Desert Hermits. But Williams, with Chestertonian insight, points out that the Church makes it clear that Renunciation is only a value because the things renounced are good, and Affirmation only a value because of the detachment sacrifice brings; in fact "rejection was to be rejection but not denial, as reception was to be reception but not subservience. Both methods, the Affirmative Way [feast days, celebrating the goodness of life] and the Negative Way [fasting, renouncing the goodness of life], were to co-exist; one might almost say, to co-inhere, since each was to be the key of the other."

Williams concludes this chapter with a brilliant comparison and contrast of Pelagius and Augustine. The Pelagian heresy taught, in effect, that man could pull himself up by his own bootstraps, that our effort was central to salvation, God's grace but an aid to our efforts. St. Augustine, on the other hand, with a profound understanding of sin, asserts the "co-inherence" of man with Adam's sinful nature. Pelagius, Williams say, "was almost declaring that man was his own principle, that he did his own good deeds. But all Christendom, and especially Augustine, knew that only Christ could act Christ."

And this brings us back to two subjects debated hotly this year, both of which, a friend of mine points out are related to a kind of neo-Pelagianism. The Super-Disciples issue, which seems to assume that salvation is all about our efforts, emphasizing far more what we do and fail to do than what God's grace works in us; and, yes, the Lying for Jesus issue, which has this same presumption: if we don't do SOMETHING, the culture of death will win. We must be active, even if we must compromise morality in our activity; for it's all up to us. Thus activism doth make heretics of us all, and thus the native hue of sanctification is flush with the bold cast of Us and What We Do, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

It's become clear that Williams has a real sensitivity to the Church and the Spirit and the rest of the book, each of whose chapters fill a day of the Great Novena, will be quite rewarding.


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