Assurance and Development, Part I
The basic doctrines that distinguish Christianity from all other religions have, at their root, assumptions that also differentiate Catholicism from all other forms of Christianity. I have spent some time illustrating this phenomenon in the case of several dogmas—the Incarnation, the authority of Christ, the exclusive claim to grace, and the baptismal nature of the Gospel. However, if you are just joining me now, don’t be daunted. Each essay is independent in its argument, since each one examines a different facet of Christian dogma.
Within the Christian, (primarily) evangelical and (primarily) homeschooled community in which I grew up, many of my friends are currently seeking what can be referred to as doctrinal certitude. I use this term to refer to a state of mind that trusts that there are good answers to every question that faces Christianity—the faith that knows, when new doubts or arguments or evidence or questions arise, that our confusion is a result of a lack of understanding, not a lack of truth on the part of Christianity. When we were younger, we adopted this mindset reflexively, without need for intellectual justification. As is appropriate to their ages, my peers no longer find this intuitive acceptance satisfying.
Some of my friends do not realize that they are seeking doctrinal certitude. More than a few are only immediately concerned with a single topic—say, homosexuality (although there are others). But what they are bound to eventually realize is that their area of focus is but one of a nearly infinite series of very good questions about Christianity—a series that began far before anyone was much concerned with the most recent hot-button topic, and a series that will continue long after that topic becomes antique. The real question, then, is not whether the Christian religion has a compelling answer to the recent questions raised by the culture regarding homosexuality. It is whether the Christian religion can be trusted to provide truthful answers to every question asked of it, whether those questions were raised in the past, are being raised now, will be in the future, or never will be (despite being good questions).
Obviously, it’s impossible for any intellect to verify that Christianity does, in fact, have good answers to all these questions. Therefore, reflective Christians can easily fall into a state of intellectual bewilderment, constantly unsettled by new discoveries and arguments, inwardly fearing (generally in a vague and undefined way) that the next revelation will force them to rethink their religious opinions. If the Christian is intellectually honest enough to change her opinions whenever she feels she has been proven wrong, she will soon find that her religion is constantly shifting under her feet. The religious instinct seeks stability; the human person can only feel secure in her relationship with God if she does not need to constantly alter her perception of the Divine and His decrees.
Therefore, Christians who lose their childlike doctrinal certitude often find themselves in an extremely unstable religious state. As a result, they generally adopt one of several attitudes.
On one extreme, some adopt one particular criticism of Christianity (or maybe a few) wholesale. By doing so, they imagine that they have freed themselves of the Christian dilemma. Of course, they have merely replaced it with an even broader array of questions regarding religion, ethics, metaphysics, and the like. In some cases, the criticism that they have adopted essentially requires that they approach such questions tabula rasa. While emotionally satisfying, this route (at least by itself) does not offer a solution to the problem we are discussing. It instead simply leads to more questions.
Another extreme option is to emotionally adopt some variant of Christianity as the truth without having intellectually solved the dilemma. These people think and act similarly to those whose childlike trust has never been breached, with one major difference: they will sometimes have a much more visceral reaction towards questions regarding the faith. The childlike will be apathetic, curious, or else feel the sense of shattered naivety. The ‘reverts,’ as one could dub them, will occasionally become inexplicably angry when such questions are raised. In my experience, this class of people is by far the most likely to form conspiracy theories, attempt to isolate their community from the surrounding culture, and react to opposing viewpoints with venom.
Others adopt a more moderate, although similarly insufficient, approach. They will choose certain questions and investigate them with rigor, and upon reaching a conclusion, they adopt an emotional satisfaction with their religion that makes any new questions or argument unattractive to them. For whatever reason, they often determine that only their questions are the truly pressing ones, and that everything else is merely a distraction. I have seen this happen to people concerned with even pet topics like Calvinist predestinarianism or spiritual gifts. They sometimes think that they have already proven the religion to themselves—when all they have actually done is take a sip from the endless well of arguments.
Finally, some adopt an attitude of indifference and apathy, overwhelmed by the task set before their intellect. They often adopt a soft agnosticism, an intellectual sigh of resignation. Some, though, use the near-infinite supply of religious disputes throughout history to construct a positive argument against organized (read: doctrinal) religion. A few even revel in the dilemma, suggesting that the questions (or “doubts”) are more important than the answers—as if questions are not purposed for answers.
Each approach—adopting a particular criticism of Christianity, closing one’s mind to criticism for non-intellectual reasons, rejecting all criticism because one has intellectually rejected other kinds of criticism, or giving in to the confusion—seeks to stabilize a restless mind. None of these routes, I hope it is clear, really succeed in doing so. In every case, the mind is left without a truly good reason to trust that Christianity has the correct answer to whole set of questions that could possibly asked of it.
With this central problem now laid out, I can finally establish why I believe that Catholicism (particularly the doctrine of development advanced by John Henry Newman) answers this dilemma uniquely well, and that Christianity itself assumes this doctrine. This argument will be pursued in my next essay.
Photo by Adrian Scottow. Original found here.