The mystery of the thing
My last essay on this website was a complete dog, as I came to realize when one of my Commentariat trained my attention on a single flippant word, and rubbed my nose in it. That word was “sell,” in the colloquial sense of “advertise,” and I was using it to construct a defence of Pope Francis’s efforts to pitch the message of the Church in a world where what the Church is, and what the Church does, must be incomprehensible.
And what is more, the very idea of offering a defence repeated my core error: that the Truth can in any way be sold, or advertised, or let us say, argued. My brief attempt to explain myself made my position worse, for I tried to read our excruciatingly modern idea of publicity backwards into the history of the Church, and to her Founder. This required in its turn a false distinction between “the inside” and “the outside” of what was imagined as a cathedral.
The truth is rightly “proclaimed,” and not argued. The very Truth, and the subsidiary truths which the Church proclaims — about the nature of man and the world, the moral and spiritual order, history and futurity — are in their nature not “arguable,” on worldly terms. They are explained in Catholic apologetic, and organized theologically, exhibited in myriad acts of sanctity and holiness, exhorted indeed, but all of these essentially prior to “argument” as it is understood in the marketplace. They are received in faith, or not received: no empirical science can either establish or refute what is prior to sensory observation. On empirical principles, the plausibility of Scripture and Tradition may be established, but that is fussing with externals. They are what they are, Christ is what He Is — revealed. Such things can’t be analyzed in our modern, post-Cartesian, “scientific” way, in which we shuffle bundles of attributes like sticks or straws or counters or cards, assigning each as we pass some face value, and totalling at the end.
I am trying to say something that is very difficult to understand, in the world as it is today — at least, so difficult that I have slipped on it myself — so bear with me if you will.
We have come to believe in a material reality that is less than a house of cards. Truth to us is a series of self-evident propositions assembled in a logically coherent order. The cards, as it were, lend support to each other, and stand or fall depending how they are stacked. We carry a mental picture of the world corresponding to the assembled house of cards, with all its physical properties and the technique of its construction. Effect follows cause in a natural order that we assume to be rational, or self-consistent. (It “works,” pragmatically, because nature is in fact rational, or self-consistent, as it would be if created by the God Whom the Christians proclaim; however, that is just another argument.)
But what if it were not? The house of cards falls down. It has been built entirely on the premiss that it could be built — in other words, “on faith,” beginning with our postulate of solid ground. It vindicates that faith by standing. But it cannot begin to explain that faith, or “predict” what is prior to cause and effect. Nor even on its own premiss can our house of cards be built very high — can it be made, as it were, a stairway up to heaven.
Or consider it as the Tower of Babel of which we read in the Book of Genesis: a fascinating story for us because it describes exactly the motive on which our own, integrated, “globalized” world order is being constructed, to the glory of mankind. It totters, yet we continue building, because the withdrawal of our faith — in ourselves, founded on the solid ground of what seems a self-consistent material reality — is unthinkable. We have built it so high, and who is to tell us we cannot build it higher?
We have faith, of a kind, shaken sometimes even by minor earth tremors. We have faith vested essentially in a political order; in the belief that, where problems arise, they can be solved, and our “human spirit” (which is incidentally no material thing) will ultimately rise to the occasion. We are, in the voice of every political commander, “the people of this great nation,” and we are repeatedly assured that we will prevail.
Failing which, we fall into utter despair. For we have no other faith to fall back on, when the earth indeed trembles and our artificial tower comes tumbling down. And, whether or not it is in our strictest modern sense “historical,” the story of Babel in Genesis tells us what will be our fate.
“About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” This famous saying of Jeanne d’Arc will serve as a first dogmatic proclamation that is incomprehensible to us, and in its form, unsaleable. Given the faith we have placed instead in our Babel, we cannot possibly conceive of the Church, except as a humanly governed institution. It may even be impressive, as such; for we can accept that the works of humans can be quite impressive. A considerable propaganda affirms this within the political order, which by now has completely engulfed us.
The very possibility of a foundation in Christ, which Christ will not abandon, is inconceivable to our politicized “point of view.” Therefore, as humans, we imagine ourselves entitled to argue about the Church’s “message.” As a human institution, it could be better, it could rise higher, we could spread its foundation wider, this way or that. The officers of the Church should listen, weigh the arguments, decide on the best course. If “the old way is best,” fair enough, they should explain why they have decided to stick with it — make an argument, advertise, sell it to us. Or if they can’t, then it is back to the drawing board.
Christ, very God, and a “created” natural order, break all our rules. I have seen in the eyes of so many, that they are scandalized. On the charitable agnostic assumption that we, Christians, do actually believe what we are saying, they can only dismiss us as arrogant prospective tyrants, making undemonstrated “scientific” claims. There is no acceptable way for us to convince anybody.
And the truth is that we can’t — that no publicity campaign can do it. For the alternative faith, in God rather than man, does not come from man, cannot come from man, and therefore cannot come from us. It is Christ who converts, and we who merely get in His way, or get out of it. Of course, our modern instinct is to stand in His way: to say, “Listen to me.”
The Church herself cannot argue, can only be. She proclaims, “Take, eat, this is my body.” That is not a negotiable proposition. It cannot be “sold.” One may take, or one may not take, but what is being offered is not an argument. It is the thing itself.