Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On Relativism, Then and Now

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, now that the weather has cooled off and I find myself indoors with fewer chores to do. One of the latest books I’ve read was originally published in 1929 but was recently re-published by Ignatius Press in 2008. Entitled One Lord, One Faith, the author, Vernon Johnson, tells of his personal struggles (both spiritual and intellectual) as an Anglican priest converting to Catholicism. I was particularly struck by some passages that could easily apply to our own time even though they were written generations ago. Consider this description of cultural challenges faced by the author in his priestly ministry:

“Another thing that began to perplex me in dealing with souls was the need of something to counteract that slavery to the prevailing fashion of the moment which fetters so many who wish to make the pace with their own special circle. Life today is so very much a series of passing crazes. The latest stunt or fashion victimizes everyone. People must be original. Their lives become a perpetual pose, and in their pursuit of the latest thing they are never themselves. Such a life is all one rush. There is no time for thought, but just a superficial movement which is taken for progress. Real personal life is being lost. This is clearly seen in the break-up of the English home.” [Emphasis added]

The author describes here what he calls the “slavery to the prevailing fashion.” The whims of society are constantly shifting and each person must adapt or be left behind - “Their lives become a perpetual pose, and in their pursuit of the latest thing they are never themselves.”family. As the culture transforms, values change and moral norms shift, with each passing phase we are caught up in this destructive cycle. Institutions that were once anchors of stability in people’s lives crumble. The author specifically points out the damage done to

This “slavery to the prevailing fashion” sounds rather like what Pope Benedict describes as the “dictatorship of relativism.”  The constantly shifting whims of society, the rejection of absolute Truth, the lack of moral certainty, are even more a sickness of our culture today as they were then. Vernon Johnson applies this malaise to his former church as well:

“All this is reflected in the Anglican Church. She is very much the victim of the age at any given moment. In her anxiety to meet the difficulties of the modern mind she is too ready to embrace and give voice to the ideas and theories prevailing at the moment, and to give them an importance which is not really justified. The latest scheme for social betterment, the latest theories in psychology, the latest results of biblical criticism, are preached upon in pulpits, written about in magazines, and discussed at meetings in a way which obscures the great fundamental truths of the Christian religion.

“The result is that the Anglican Church presents the character of a debating society discussing open questions rather than of a teacher of eternal truths divinely revealed for the guidance of the spiritual and moral life of the world.” [Emphasis added]

In this way Anglicanism (and Protestantism in general) is unable to put forth a solid defense against Relativism, which is the greatest threat to Christianity in our time. Instead of certaintyTruth, Protestant Christians are mixed up in a confusion of debated opinion and pet theories with no way to decipher true doctrine. The great fundamental truths of the Christian religion are indeed obscured. and

“I became more and more conscious of the deadly effect of that vague uncertainty with which the Anglican Church surrounds her children, till I became finally convinced that it was entirely contrary to the revealed will of Our Blessed Lord. It does not lead to truth but to a terrible uncertainty and to a real paralysis of faith. Poor human nature needs above everything else a guide which can lift it above the vagaries of the human mind and above the flood of momentary passion. And the Catholic Church alone can do this.”

As Pope Benedict warns us, Relativism is attacking the culture at large, and Christianity is not immune to this assault. As far back as the 1920’s Protestant Churches began to succumb to its lure. At that time the Catholic Church was recognized as a bulwark against the changing whims of society. Vernon Johnson was drawn to Catholicism in part because she is a lone voice standing up for Truth in a shifting culture. How much more today can it be said that the Catholic Church is the surest defense against the attack of relativistic thought.

With the issuing of “Anglicanorum Coetibus” in October of 2009, and the creation of the Anglican Ordinariate we are sure to see more good priests and other Christian souls (like the Vernon Johnsons of our time) fleeing the sinking ship of Anglicanism for the safety of Rome.

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