The Way Ahead: Introduction and Part 1

The Way Ahead: Introduction

Contributors to catholica cover a wide spectrum of beliefs. Some do not believe in a God of any kind. Others see the god idea as something far vaguer than the traditional idea of god but still in some sense as something “spiritual”. Some centre their idea of the spiritual on Yeshua, agreeing with St Paul that when we look at Jesus the Christ we in some way are seeing God, “Full of grace and truth”.

Brian Coyne has made the point that the focus on agreement on sets of words may have been necessary in the past, but that, over time, it has led to a proliferation of different theologies. I think this is a crucial point. We have become aware that words do not carry meaning inside themselves, however useful they are to bring about agreement among people, they cannot do so in a monologue. It needs a conversation:

“I invite your [Cathy’s] readers to think of the essence of the Jesus’ message not so much as some simple slogan, such as “love one another”, but in another sense it is both simpler than that but also more complicated: Jesus offers us a “Way” of thinking about life and choosing the correct way through all the dogmas, rules, social mores, superstitions and “pet theologies” of the Joseph Smiths and all the other people who believe they have the “one, true set of rules and dogmas of how to follow Jesus”.

What I am arguing is:
• i) that we do need some central, unifying vision of what Jesus offers; but
• ii) it is not some set of dogmas, nor some simplistic slogan. Instead it is simply a “Way” of threading or navigating one’s way through all the dogma and rules that we come across in life to actually make intelligent choices. The objective of each small community, or even a large institution, is not to be trying to teach everybody some long list of rules. It is to be teaching them how to apply any set of rules, or dogmas.

But what this approach to faith and practice requires is not a catechism but a methodology. Not so much a fixed, to-be-parroted set of words, but a process. Not a syllabus but a “way”.

It is not where we have been that we need to know about. That is merely looking in the rear-view mirror. We need a way of discovering where we are going. We need to learn how to learn — not learn something old, and fallible, by rote.

Part 1 of Ari’s essay, titled “Where do we go from here?” will be published later this evening, Sydney time.

Let me end with a further reflection question you might hold in your minds as you navigate through Ari’s reflections:

In Catholic seminaries today: do they teach the future leaders of the faithful how to think; or do they endeavour to fill their heads with a long list of pre-digested, infallible truths and dogmas that they are expected to pass on to the faithful? Do seminarians, priests and bishops primarily see their role as one of teaching their people how to think — how to navigate the joys and vicissitudes of life — or do they see their prime role as teaching people what to think? Is this part of the problem why so many of the faithful have exited out the door?

The “Way” Ahead: Part 1: Where do we go from here?
by Brian Coyne , LINDEN, NSW, Tuesday, July 11, 2017, 22:48 (19 days ago) @ Brian Coyne

Where do we go from here?
by “Ari”*

As I wrote in the introduction above, the important question to those dismayed by the Church’s turn away from the modern world, and its failure to serve rather than rule is, “Where do we go from here?” not “How did we get it so wrong?”, although we do need to look back on the church’s historical journey and to see how its navigation was sometimes faulty,

otherwise we will never improve our navigation skills.
Criticisms of the Catholic Church are abundant and the present conduct of the church as well as new understandings of its history provide sufficient evidence for the validity of much of the criticism, not only of its management and practices, but of many of its less central doctrines.

Reflecting on our past…

With the advantage of hindsight, we are able to see the inadequacy of the church’s reasoning about its own nature, about moral questions, and even about the meaning of Yeshua’s life and death.

It is easy to forget that the philosophy of Plato and the Neo-Platonists was once regarded as being of semi-divine origin. Plato himself was regarded as a saint. There was even a movement devoted to canonizing him.

As the Church emerged from the apostolic era it was not exactly wrong in making use of the best available thought at the time in talking about its beliefs and practices. Where it was wrong was in regarding these beliefs, expressed in Platonic terms, as being final and objectively true, in crediting Plato and the Neo-Platonists with too much, and in regarding the ‘science’ of the day as effectively “infallible”. With the 12th Century rediscovery of Aristotle, some of the limitations of the then ruling Platonism were recognised. Thomas of Aquino masterfully revised the theology of the time using Aristotle’s ideas. Then the church made the same mistake all over again.
As recently as the papacy of Benedict the 16th, the Bishop of Rome has endorsed the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas. Certainly, Thomas stands as a towering figure, whose achievements are intellectually astonishing. However, throughout his work he relies heavily on the Cosmology, Physics, Anthropology, and Psychology of Plato and his student, Aristotle, and accordingly his intellect is led astray wherever it relies on that ancient but now largely discredited philosophy and science.

The task ahead of us…

The task ahead of us now is not simply the deconstruction of the elaborate apparatus of theology, moral thought, canon law and philosophy that has been built up, century by century, dispute by dispute, and expedient by expedient but the construction of something new. And we cannot wait for 1000 years to do it. With Cardinal Newman, we might well believe that the new construction should make deep connection with the old. As Brian Doyle wrote in US Catholic in 1996:

“Recently a friend asked me why I was Catholic. I mumbled the first few reasons that entered my head—the faith of my family, the enticing power of the story, and increasing belief as I age that divinity indeed infuses all things, and that Christ, dead in the dust at age 33, was indeed distilled divinity.”
Many posters on catholica have echoed these sentiments. They have expressed in poetic terms the deep spiritual meaning for them of Catholic rite and identity. If we assert that there is much that is wrong, we should, to be fair recognise that there is much that is right and good.

That is why the beauty, psychological attractiveness, and comprehensiveness of much of the old thought and practice must somehow characterise the new. There is no reason why we should no longer relish the smell of incense, the glory of Gregorian harmony and plainsong, or find comfort in spiritual fellowship. There is no reason why there should not be a doctrinal and moral centre, whether in Rome or elsewhere, around which debate and spiritual exploration might turn. There is no reason why, with recent poster John Menadue, we should not agree with the great English convert John Henry Newman that, however much it has been abused, there needs to be a centre, an authoritative, if not a dogmatic, voice [LINK]. A place where a summing up of our dialogue can occur.

But there is much reason why that centre should no longer be the centre of an imperial realm. There’s no place in the future for an arrogant empire of clerics, for a centre that dogmatically asserts that particular ways of speaking about our spiritual experience must be so strictly adhered to, word by word, that an abomination like the recently imposed English mass text could be created. For a pilgrim society, there needs to be a direction in which to travel. But we do not want to be like cattle, herded into a meaningless form of outward obedience, the boundaries of which are ceaselessly patrolled by the cowboy police of exclusion.

The new church will be founded on the same fundamental pattern as is found in the new knowledge — an openness to learning. We will have to find again that openness and hope that seems to have characterised apostolic communities. However, this time it will be clear from the beginning that the knowledge we draw upon is in constant movement and development. A pilgrim church requires new directions – navigational skills, not just a blind and stubborn stumbling ahead. The knowledge of the cosmos, of ourselves, and of the nature of relationships that we draw upon will from the beginning be regarded as fallible, and revisable. We will understand that everything is in process, knowledge, relationships, and ourselves. Of course, another word for process is evolution.

A second characteristic of the best contemporary thinking is that it is holistic and dynamic. Wherever we look, at life on our planet, at our galaxy, or within, at our thinking, feeling, or between us, at, our relationships, we see interconnected systems in movement.

In addition, to properly understand our location in our world we must acknowledge that the only reality in it is change, and that we’re connected by a myriad of processes to everything around us and everyone, and those processes are ever moving, whether we are thinking of geology, history, culture, or relationships.

Finally, we must transcend all dualisms. Everything that exists is an expression of information. It has both a presence (or in classical physics a ‘state’) and a direction, none of this equates to the static platonic sense, of an existent, abstract form, and a concrete, imperfect, perishable realisation of this, resulting in a ‘thing’, but as quite concrete spatiotemporal, yet moving expressions, which are not things, but processes, just as utterances are. To speak, for instance, of ‘electrons’, is to adopt a way of speaking as if electrons were objects, rather than hypothetical regions in space time which, as an ‘object’ of our attention, are a series of events in space/time.

Moving fire in the human brain…

All expressions of information are concrete space/time material events and all material events are expressions of information. This is now basic physics. There are no ‘things’ only ‘info-happenings’. Every ‘thing’ is in movement and the movement is as much the ‘thing’ as the thing is the movement. As the poet Gerard Manley-Hopkins put it: “Nature is a Heraclitean fire”. This is indeed a ‘hard saying’. To understand it deeply we will have to make a detour into quantum mechanics, but we can get an inkling if we take a walk on the wilder side of the psychology of meaning and thinking, because language and meaning work the same way, as a kind of moving fire in the human brain.

So, in our nature, our relationship, our lives, and our understanding of all of these we have three fundamental patterns

• (i) constant process and evolution, in ourselves our world and our understanding of our world;
• (ii) evolution as the non-linear movement of whole systems, of which we are but a part; and
• (iii) in all this, the phenomenon of emergence —the ever-present emergence of new properties, new realities, new understandings and new selves.

A pilgrim church is a people in movement. Each of us individually is in a ‘biographical’ journey, but together we are in an historical journey. The methods, the skills, the art and the poetry and the lore of such journeying is what we need to discuss, because unlike the ancients, we know that meaning and movement, learning and history cannot be contained in verbal formulas, however useful such lists might be to jog our memory from time to time. We are not beings of the Logos anymore, we are beings of the dance and the song. Like those who heard Yeshua speak, we are a people of the story, and stories always by their nature move. They never rest until they end.

*Ari (short for Aristotle) has been a regular contributor to the conversation on catholica for 3 years. His background is that he is a convert, former religious, lay missionary in PNG. Former university teacher. Author of a number of articles and papers and several books on philosophical topics, linguistic analysis and education. Member and fellow of various academic organisations.

Parts 2 and 3 plus commentary can be found at

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