On Questions

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November 14, 2013 by lucieromarin

I’ve just come from Mass, during which I mangled part of a Gradual verse, listened to a homily about indulgences, and spent a portion of Compline wondering if it would be better to be a hideous gnome with the world’s most beautiful voice, or ravishingly beautiful, with the world’s worst voice.

The interesting part was the sermon – not because I’d never heard a sermon about praying for the Holy Souls before (hollow laugh) but because, during the explanation about the difference between ‘partial’ and ‘plenary’ I was struck by the thought that an awful lot depends on how you see a thing. Religion is sometimes characterised as the end of thought, but this sermon about indulgences was only possible because of the centuries of thinking from which it emerged.

Really, to get anywhere near indulgences, you have to ask an awful lot of questions. First, you have to think about the nature of Christ. Then you have to think about what Calvary actually was. You have to think about what grace is, what it does, how it relates to the Passion and Resurrection, how it is to be obtained and whether or not it can be lost. You have to ask about the afterlife, about what Purgatory is, and about what the saints are. You have to ask about what the Church is, how She relates to Calvary, grace, the saints, the afterlife. You have to ask about who the Bishop of Rome is and about what he can open with his keys. In other words, you could walk into a chapel, hear a ten-minute talk about indulgences, think, “What a lot of legalistic, unscriptural, oppressive mumbo-jumbo,” because, taken on its own, it can sound exactly thus. But that’s the thing; the right context for these ideas is not the ten minutes during which they were expounded, but the centuries of thinking, praying, debating, (and, occasionally, fighting) that preceded them.

This means that learning to think in centuries changes your experience of the present moment. It’s important to realise that a conservative sort of faith is not about not asking questions – it’s about not asking the same question over and over again. It’s about getting to indulgences, because the issue of the nature of Christ has been settled, so you’re free to move to the next question. Other doctrines might have a purer, simpler look from the outside (‘Jesus Saved Me. The End), but try asking anyone who believes in irresistible grace what they make of backsliders, and you’ll have this kind of conversation:

You: So, what if someone who’s lived a really good Christian life suddenly apostasises a month before his death?

He: Then he was never really saved.

You: You mean that all that time he was going to Church praising God for saving him, he wasn’t really saved?

He: That’s right.

You: Then how do you know that that won’t happen to you?

He: It won’t happen to me, because I’m saved, which means that the strength of Jesus will ensure that I don’t fall, not my own strength.

You: But that’s what that guy thought.

He: Yes, but he wasn’t really saved.

You: But how can you tell the difference between thinking you’re really saved and actually being saved?

He: If you want to be saved, you’re saved.

The ‘he’ of this dialogue isn’t stupid; it’s just that he’s inherited the answers to fewer questions than I have (and he’s probably more faithful to his inheritance than I am to mine!). So, my first suggestion is that we learn to see the inheritance for what it is. The Catechism is thicker than the Didache for the same reason that the Periodic Table of the Elements is bigger than it was in Ancient Egypt. We’ve learned more.

However, it’s also important to acknowledge unanswerable questions when you see them, and to be able to move on. I remember a philosophy class in which the teacher- after talking about Christ as the Mental Word of the Father –  asked, “So, doesn’t Christ have an idea of Himself?” Aaaaaaargh! What was St Thomas doing, revealing the limits of his own explanations to people like me, who, left to myself, would never, ever have spotted them?

Will we ever know the Third Secret of Fatima? Are married women meant to wear gold mantillas? Do the spoons discovered at Sutton Hoo say ‘Saulus’ and ‘Paulus’ or ‘Saulus, Saulus?’ Gah! Stop asking your first-year history students for an opinion, because they will never, ever know!

If you hit a brick wall, just step back, turn around, and walk away.

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