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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The Power of Grace

In years gone by, anarchists held strong sway in the political tradition. They held that no law was just, no law should be imposed. There are few who still hold to this. Or, rather, there are few who hold to it in an obvious way. But anarchism is alive and well, and in a most surprising place.

Luther, the man who started the Reformation, famously denied that reason was anything except the whore of the devil. Not only is faith alone all we need to deal with the world, everything else is a positive enemy to faith. Unfortunately, in order to reach this conclusion, Luther had to twist Scripture. He could not do it within the apostolic tradition, so he had to leave that tradition behind and declare it also an enemy to faith. Thus was born the doctrine of "sola scriptura" - Scripture is all we need.

As even Protestants themselves admit, Protestant insistence on "sola scriptura" makes everyone their own Pope. What they fail to realize is this: sola scriptura also renders moral relativism an absolute necessity. After all, Scripture defines moral existence, moral reality. What better definition of relativism could be devised than saying that everyone creates their own "spirit-led" interpretation of reality? As history has shown, "sola scriptura" is nothing but a series of practical experiments in relativism. It could not last long unchallenged.

Sinful man, in the form of those who denied God's existence, soon began defining their own reality within the confines of Protestant dialogue. The atheists responded by embracing the Protestant ethic of moral relativism, but they were thereby forced to argue that the Protestants got part of the argument backwards. Faith is the opiate of the masses - reason alone is the thing.

If we accept the moral relativism of sola scriptura, the atheists' conclusion is hard to avoid. Atheism's insistence on reason alone is simply an attempt to systematize the experiments in relativism according to the only measure that sola scriptura allows: the human mind. But here is the irony. This sole standard of measurement is, as we saw above, also denied by Protestants - reason is the whore of the devil, remember?

Here's the remarkable conclusion. Oddly enough, the atheist version of moral relativism is a wild attempt to retain and return to at least some absolute standard. Secular atheists recognize that you can't throw away Scripture and rationality simultaneously or all you have left is anarchy. Put another way, if you embrace both Protestant positions, you must necessarily enter into Luther's wars of the Reformation. Luther and the other reformers were too stupid to realize that.

It's hard to believe, but there it is. Secular atheism is actually a kind of conservative movement, in one sense at least - it attempts to conserve some absolute, some last court of appeal. The evangelicals who oppose them do so not out of logical consistency (the hobgoblin of little minds, according to them), but out of a wild chaos, a howling wilderness in which nothing is absolute except the culture their fathers came from.

The evangelical/fundamentalist/Protestant ethos is not based in logic, for it specifically denies logic. It is not based in moral absolutes, because anyone can interpret Scripture as they wish, and who can deny the correctness of a sola scriptura interpretation? Rather, their ethos is based in the remnants of Catholic culture they have managed to maintain and hand down from generation to generation, a dwindling store of cultural imperatives which cannot be justified in Scripture and which they refuse to acknowledge as Tradition.

Thus, we have the trinity of positions we see today. Those of the Protestant tradition essentially claim culture as their absolute standard, the gold standard against which everything is measured. Those of the secular atheist tradition claim faulty human reason as their absolute. Those of the Catholic tradition claim the fullness of divine revelation, both spoken and written, as the only True Absolute.

If you want to understand the power of grace, think on this. You might assume that reason alone is better than anarchy under any conditions. You would be wrong. Today's secular atheists show us exactly the kind of depths unaided human reason attains. Homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, the drug culture - it's not a pretty sight. Protestantism shows us what grace-fueled anarchy looks like, and it's a darned sight better, though still not perfect. They embrace contraception but condemn its daughter, abortion. They embrace divorce but condemn its daughter, euthanasia, the deliberate killing of the lonely and despondent. They embrace the Ten Commandments but make no mention of the Sermon on the Mount.

So, we are in a fight between the anarchists and the rationalists. As a Catholic, I am in the distinctly odd position of backing the anarchists. But, as a Catholic I have no choice. I have to support the Spirit, wherever grace is poured out.

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