Avoiding False Compromises

I believe in compromise. It is necessary to get along in politics and ordinary life. However in the most fundamental matters there are some that just will not work. I'd like to briefly mention three.

First when confronted with the ultimate question, "Does God exist?" some seek refuge in the compromise of pantheism. "Yes, I believe in God. The life force, the energy of the world, that is God." If you mean the "Life Force" or "Energy" which preceded the material universe and brought it into being, then you are a theist. However, most people who talk about such forces are referring to some power which, mysterious though it may be, does not exist apart from the physical world. C.S. Lewis noted that pantheism always appears as "new" and "bold", but is, on examination, worn-out and timid. It is a way of thinking we can fall into almost effortlessly. It recurs in the history of philosophy - for example, Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, and Hegel. The last two express themselves ambiguously enough that some of their followers concluded they were talking about God in the true sense. But what excited most of their disciples was that they offered a "God language" which supplies some of the good feelings of religion without any of the troubling moral demands of a personal God. Pantheism is powerfully seductive, but it will not hold up in the long run, as the history of Hegelian philosophy demonstrates.

If the compromise of pantheism will not work, there is a second line of defense for those fascinated by religion, but repelled by its demands: Jesus is a great teacher, but he was not God. The difficulty with this compromise is, as I show in a separate article, Jesus Himself claimed to be God. Either he was history's greatest charlatan or was terribly disillusioned. Faced with such a dilemna, some will try to backshift this compromise by saying it was not Jesus, but his followers who gave him divine status. That of course is even less likely, especially in a Jewish environment where blasphemy was the greatest offense. Charles Colson, who knows first hand, talks about how difficult it is to effectively contain a conspiracy. If the Resurrection were a lie, it would have involved a massive cover-up. Two full centuries of biblical criticism have not exposed such a cover-up. Fr. John Meier, surely one of the greatest scripture scholars brings together the fruits of those studies in his master work "A Marginal Jew." He shows that the question still remains: "Who do you say that I am?" There is no compromise answer: "Aut Deus aut Homo Malus." Either He is God or an Evil Man.

The third compromise centers on how Jesus continues his presence. For almost all Christians the Nicene Creed defines our central belief: Jesus is "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, Begotten not Made, One in Being (homoousion) with the Father." The question is: Can you believe Jesus is God, but that he did not found the Catholic Church? Beginning with Martin Luther, Protestants have said the Bible is enough (Sola Scriptura). But where did the Bible itself come from and who determined which books should be part of it and which not? Mark Shea, an evangelical who converted to Catholicism, wrote a book which asks the basic question, By What Authority? If Jesus did not found the Catholic Church and give her the guidance of the Holy Spirit to teach in his name, the Bible itself loses its authority. And its interpretation is up for grabs. The irony today is that while many thoughtful Evangelicals are grappling with that dilemna, within the Catholic Church, dissent is seriously undermining the principle of authority. Perhaps the Evangelical Protestants who are coming into the Catholic Church will show us that this is a principle which cannot be compromised.

Footnote: One "compromise" which particularly pervades our culture is agnosticism: the view that "I don't know if God exists and neither does anyone else." This viewpoint is behind what we call secular humanism. Best to avoid the ultimate question and just concentrate on what we can do to make things better right here. We are almost obliged to assume that perspective in public. For example a newpaper reporter may be a convinced Christian, but he needs to keep his own view of the world in the background if he is to be considered "objective." This may be the only way we can get along, but also can powerfully shape the minds of those who receive most of their information via secular media. The compromise of agnosticism (and why it is ultimately untenable) deserves a separate treatment which I hope to eventually provide. Meanwhile for the person who seriously wants to reflect on this issue, I cannot do better that encourage you to read C.S. Lewis.