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Andrew Sullivan: Theologian

September 27, 2011

imageAndrew Sullivan has become a significant writer about orthodox Christianity, specifically his Roman Catholic faith. This is not because he writes very much about it. And it not because his very famous blog’s readership is expecting much from him about it. It is because he is good at it.

In his blog, The Dish over at The Daily Beast, he responds to a posting by Norm Geras (it merits a quick read):

. . . What he ignores, in my view, is doubt. Does every random Catholic believe at all times that the Blessed Virgin was literally transported into the sky rather than dying – as required by a binding, infallible papal edict? Of course not. There will be times in every believer’s life when faith seems dead, or distant, when divine truth eludes us or seems beyond us. This is natural and healthy. If you have never fully doubted, you have never fully believed. And what keeps faith alive at those moments is indeed practice, ritual, discipline, and the small but vital ways in which a Christian reaffirms her faith in day-to-day interactions with other human beings.

And this is the core of Christianity: practice. Jesus insisted that blind adherence to certain absolute truths was never enough, and even dangerous if it led you away from the doing what following Jesus requires. He was always piercing through literal belief to test actual faith. He was impatient with the rule of law in religion and adamant on the rule of love. Similarly, Paul’s great letter on caritas/agape insists that even faith that can move mountains is nothing without the practice of caritas/agape.

The interaction between dogma and practice is what religion is. But Christianity really does insist on practice as the core definition (which is why Oakeshott put religion into the "practical" category of human life, not the philosophical). The transformation of what were long deemed myths – Genesis, the Christmas stories, for example – into literal truths is a modern, neurotic development that, as time goes by, requires faith in obvious untruths (like creationism). And in the end, faith must be compatible with truth, or it is a coping mechanism, not a living, coherent belief.

So, yes, revelation matters. But not in every tiny literalist detail. And for faith to live, it must be practised. Fundamentalism, in this sense, is rationalism in religion, to purloin an Oakeshottian phrase. It has to be defeated before the real life of faith can recover and reach more people.

I think this is something that we need to take to heart when we contemplate the Shroud of Turin. I think we are far too concerned with trying to prove its authenticity so that we can prove something else about that which we may from time-to-time have doubts, like the Resurrection. We can, when not careful, go so far a creating new myth. 

I think the best that we really can do is argue that the shroud is probably authentic and that it proves nothing. But we can infer and have faith.

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