ND   JMC : Modernism and Modern Thought / by J.M. Bampton, S.J.

Lecture IV

Modernism and Dogma

I. Symbolism

No doubt it surprised and perhaps shocked many of those who followed the last lecture to see how Modernism deals with the Sacred Person of Jesus Christ, our Lord, in distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith; the Jesus of history a man and nothing more, the Christ of faith God only in the sense that faith so regards Him. We had always thought that the Jesus of history was God not to faith only, but in fact, Very God of Very God, proved so to be by historical evidence of the strictest kind, by the historical predictions of prophets fulfilled in Him, by the historical testimony of His contemporaries, some of them reluctant witnesses, by His own claim to divinity, a claim substantiated ly His acknowledged character for veracity, and by His miracles, to which He Himself pointed in proof of the justice of His claim. "You say to me, thou blasphemest, because I have said I am the Son of God." And by "Son of God" He meant God the Son, else why should the Jews accuse Him of blasphemy in claiming the title? And He continues, If I do not the works of My Father, believe Me not. But, if I do them and ye will not believe Me, believe the works themselves, that ye may know and believe that the Father is in Me and I in the Father" (St John x. 36). To us, all this evidence of prophecies fulfilled, of eyewitnesses convinced, of Christ's own claim corroborated, is historical evidence, and proves that the Jesus of history was God. How do Modernists dispose of it?

They would begin by saying that what we call historical evidence is not historical evidence at all. Faithful to their Kantian principles, they would say: history is concerned only with facts of experience. What you call history deals not with facts of experience, but with the divine, the supernatural. That is not matter of experience, and, therefore, all so-called evidence of it must be ruled out of court as unhistorical, and therefore inadmissible. This line of argument may be convincing for those who accept Kant's theory of knowledge. Those who do not will say "Whether you call the evidence for the divinity of Christ historical or not, there it is; it has satisfied countless multitudes of Christian believers. Even if you do not accept it, it is a fact that needs some explanation. How do you explain it?" Of course, one simple way is to explain it away altogether, to put it down as so much invention; and the extreme advocates of this method not only treat Christ's claims and miracles as legendary, but question His existence altogether and talk of the Christ myth. Archbishop Whately, in a pamphlet entitled "Historic Doubts respecting Napoleon Bonaparte," once made fun of this controversial method by undertaking to prove that Napoleon never existed. He brought such an array of arguments in support of his thesis and manipulated the facts of history so cleverly, that he seemed almost to make out his case, and, at least, to render it extremely doubtful whether Napoleon himself was not a mythical personage. There are methods by the employment of which you can disprove the existence of Christ, or of anybody or of anything else you please.

Modernists, of course, do not go to such lengths as this. Their method is more ingenious. They accept all the narratives of the Evangelists; with some reservations perhaps as to St John's gospel, and they accept them as true. But true in what sense? True in the ordinary sense, true to fact, true historicallv? No, but true in quite another sense; true as a sign or symbol of truth,{1} true as signifying or symbolising what is true, true, not as possessing a fact-value, but as possessing a moral or spiritual value. This being so, it does not matter whether an alleged fact really happened or not, precisely as recorded; whether an alleged word was ever uttered or not, as reported. The historical truth matters little, it is the spiritual truth symbolised that matters. The historical statement is only the husk, the outer, the protective husk,{2} but the spiritual truth it signifies -- that is the important thing! That is the kernel which the husk enshrines. Whatever may be said of the historical statement, that spiritual truth -is undeniable, and the historical statement is only convenient symbol of that truth, convenient means of expressing and preserving it. This is certainly a far-reaching method of historical criticism. It may be applied with startling results to all history, sacred and profane. It is applied by Modernists to the whole field of dogmatic belief.

Now I propose to test the worth of this Modernist doctrine of Symbolism. And I propose to do so by applying it in one particular instance, the instance of Christ's resurrection, an instance the more appropriate to our present subject because it is the chief of the miracles wrought by Christ in proof of His divinity. Let us apply this method of symbolism, then, to Christ's resurrection, and see how it works out there.

The ordinary Christian believer holds Christ's resurrection to be an historical fact, a fact attested by those who saw Christ die and saw Him after death in His risen body, a fact attested not only by those predisposed to believe, but by those indisposed, like the doubting Thomas, a fact attested by the ocular testimony of the more than five hundred who, St Paul tells us, saw Him at one and the same time (1 Cor. xv. 6), a fact confirmed by the anxiety of the priests who bribed the guards at the tomb to hush it up (Matt. xxviii. 12), and by the action of the Council of the Sanhedrim in imposing silence on Peter and John when they preached it (Acts iv. 2, 16), a fact, before the event, foretold by our Lord on more than one occasion as a proof of His divine mission (Matt. xvi. 4, John ii. 19), and, after the event, appealed to by St Paul as the one fact by which the whole of Christianity was to stand or fall -- "If Christ be not risen, your faith is vain" (1 Cor. xv. 17). Here, surely, we are dealing with something which is either fact or fiction, either historical truth or pure fabrication. Call it one or the other. The Modernist seems to call it something between the two.

For he tells us the resurrection of Christ is not true as an historical fact, and yet it is not to be called entirely false; it is true as a symbol. A symbol of what? A symbol of the truth that the "divine personality of Jesus cannot die."{3} But, one is inclined to say, before it can be a symbol it must be shown to be a fact; what about the alleged fact? The Apostles declare that they and others saw Him dead and saw Him afterwards alive. What are we to say to that? The Modernist answers, "What they saw was a vision, the spontaneous self-embodiment of their faith in Christ's spiritual triumph and resurrection."{4} But, we reply, they did not call it a vision. On the contrary, their account expressly precludes any such explanation. "The Lord hath risen indeed," they say, "and hath appeared to Simon." Let us suppose for the sake of argument that the appearance to Simon was a vision; the actual resurrection is described as preceding it. The Apostles do not, like the Modernists, confound the resurrection with the vision. They are careful to distinguish between the two: first, the resurrection; then, the appearance to Simon. They describe the resurrection as a reality. "Certainly," is the Modernist's reply, "by all means a reality, but an inward reality. There was no outward reality. The vision was true to an inward reality, the spirit and faith of the beholder. It was determined, not from without, but from within."{5} The Modernists began by saying that the resurrection was not fact but vision. Now they seem to say: it is not even vision. For, after all, visions, if they deserve the name, suppose some outward reality; they are determined from without, not from within. But this vision of the resurrection, Modernists say, was true only to an inward reality, was determined, not from without, but from within. This reduces the vision to pure imagination. So it seems the resurrection is a symbol of truth founded upon imagination. If so, what is its worth as a symbol? It is worth just as much, or as little, as the imagination is worth on which it is founded. And what is the worth of St Paul's argument, "If Christ be not risen, your faith is vain"? We had always thought that to mean, the truth of your faith depends upon the truth of the fact of Christ's resurrection. But it would seem the resurrection is not a fact, but an imagination. So apparently what St Paul meant to say was, your faith depends upon -- imagination!

I know the desperate efforts made by Modernists to escape from this conclusion. They would protest they do not call the resurrection imagination. We may admit they do not in so many words. What they do call it is sometimes "prophetic imagery,"{6} sometimes "apocalyptic imagery."{7} This is playing with words. "Prophetic imagery" means, I suppose, imagery which forecasts the future, and "apocalyptic imagery" means imagery which reveals the unknown. But, whether you call it prophetic or apocalyptic, imagery is imagination in the end. We are justified, then, in saying that, if the resurrection of Christ is only a piece of prophetic or apocalyptic imagery, it is only imagination. In beginning to apply his methods of symbolism to the resurrection of Christ, the chief exponent of Modernism in this country says, "Here we are on difficult ground."{8} And to that extent we shall be disposed to agree with him.

But his difficulties are not over yet. He has disposed in his own way of the fact of Christ's resurrection. He has not yet succeeded in completely disposing of the narrative. That has still to be accounted for. If the Modernist's view is correct, the narrative of the resurrection given by the Evangelists is the narrative of visions beheld by the Apostles, the holy women, and the other witnesses. But there is no hint given in the narratives themselves that visions are being described. We should naturally expect some such hint. When St John is about to relate his vision in the Apocalypse, he prepares us for it: "I was in the spirit on the Lord's day" (Apoc. i. 10). When St Paul has to record the visions he beheld when he was rapt to the third heaven, he tells us so: "I will come to the visions and revelations of the Lord" (2 Cor. xii. 2). In the case of Christ's resurrection, there is no such suggestion. The narrative reads as plain, straightforward matter of fact. But, the Modernists tell us, it is not to be taken as true to fact, but as true only with symbolic truth. We know that kind of narrative. We call it allegory; that is to say, a truth conveyed picturesquely through the medium of a fictitious narrative. We have classical examples of it in our own literature, in Spenser's "Faery Queen," and Dean Swift's "Tale of a Tub," and John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." When Bunyan tells us about Mr Worldly Wiseman, and Giant Despair, and Vanity Fair, and Doubting Castle, and the Slough of Despond, and the rest, we understand perfectly that the persons and places so named are not true to fact, but only symbols of a truth, the truth, namely, of the pilgrim's progress, of Christian's journey to Heaven. And, if the narrative of the resurrection given by the Evangelists is true, not to fact, but only with symbolic truth, then that narrative is allegory too; but with this important difference between it and other allegories, that no hint is given that it is allegory.

As explained by the Modernists, then, the narrative of the Evangelist is to be classed with the "Pilgrim's Progress" and the "Quest of the Holy Grail," and the "Legends of the Nibelungen Ring" and the Icelandic Saga. The out-and-out unbeliever makes the Scriptures pure invention. The Modernist makes them a fairy-tale. There is not much to choose between the two.

But, just as the Modernists are sensitive to their "visions" being called imaginations, they are equally sensitive to the narratives of these visions being called allegories. "No prophet feels or would allow that his utterances are merely poetical or allegorical; he feels that they are not less but more truly representative of reality . . . than the prose language of historical narrative."{9} To which we reply, in treating of the narratives of the Evangelists, we are concerned not with prophets, but with historians. And, even if we were, the prophet is no more entitled than the historian to relate as fact what is not fact. We mentioned Archbishop Whately just now in another connection. He has some weighty words on this subject. "It is perfectly allowable to bring forward a parable or allegory avowedly as such . . . but to relate what is not true in the sense in which it is sure to be understood, is what we should call by a very different name from allegory. That such dishonesty should be attributed to our sacred writers by avowed anti-Christians is nothing strange or alarming. But when professed Christian teachers speak thus, they attack the very foundations both of religion and morality."{10} The Modernists object to the term allegory. They will hardly prefer the alternative suggested by Archbishop Whately.

Christ's resurrection, then, according to the Modernists, comes to this: Christ did not really rise again; the Apostles thought He did, and said so; but we need not quarrel with them on that account, for their statements are true, as being symbolical of a grand spiritual truth, that "the divine personality of Jesus cannot die." That truth is what the Modernist professes his belief in, when he says he believes in the resurrection. But what he really believes in is a symbol, which depends for its value upon a series of visions or apparitions, or imaginations, or hallucinations, our only evidence for which is an allegorical narrative. Such belief imposes too severe a strain upon our credulity. Most people will find it easier to believe in the Catholic doctrine of the resurrection at once. Most people will think that a symbol deduced from an event which never happened, but which is represented as if it had, is a symbol deduced from a lie; it is a lying symbol, and, if so, what is the value of the truth it is supposed to signify?

No one would wish to deny that symbolism has a force and value of its own. We are familiar with it in many a conventional form, and emblem, and device. The rose, the thistle, and the shamrock are symbols we all know and understand, or the anchor as the symbol of hope, the palm as the symbol of triumph or martyrdom. And symbolism has its place, an important place, in religion, both under the old law and under the new. The types and figures of the old law were symbols: the paschal lamb, the symbol of the Lamb of God; the brazen serpent, the symbol of His Crucifixion. And, under the new law, our very creeds are called symbols; they are signs, distinctive marks of those professing the same faith. The sacraments are symbols; they are outward signs of the inward grace they confer. The Church's ritual, its language, its ceremonies, are full of symbolism. But the Modernist symbolism -- a symbolism which first denies a fact and then uses it as a symbol -- this is symbolism gone mad. The Modernist tells us that the resurrection of Christ is not a fact, but a symbol. What we have sought to show in reply is that, if it is not a fact, it is not a symbol. The resurrection is one of those miracles by which the Jesus of history is proved to be God. We have seen how Modernists try to evade its force, not by denying it utterly but by explaining it symbolically. And that theory of symbolism they apply not only to the dogma of Christ's resurrection, but to all the Church's dogmatic teaching. You may accept the dogma and retain the very terms, in which it is expressed provided that you interpret them symbolically. We have tested the value of that theory in one instance. We can judge of its value in others. But, what is more, from this one example we can judge of the success of Modernism in its endeavour to interpret Christianity in terms of modern thought.

{1} "Quelques Lettres," Loisy, pp. 71, 73-4, 156.

{2} "Through Scylla and Charybdis," Tyrrell, p. 334.

{3} "Christianity at the Cross Roads," Tyrrell, p. 151.

{4} Ibid., p. 152.

{5} "Christianity at the Cross Roads," Tyrrell, pp. 145, 146.

{6} " Through Scylla and Charybdis," Tyrrell, p. 230, etc.

{7} "Christianity at the Cross Roads," Tyrrell, pp. 95, 144, etc.

{8} "Christianity at the Cross Roads," Tyrrell, p. 143.

{9} "Through Scylla and Charybdis," Tyrrell, p. 230.

{10} " Archbishop Whately's Miscellaneous Remains, Allegory," p. 193.

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