Novak (novak) wrote,

  • Location:
  • Mood:
  • Music:

Theological Notebook: When Being Progressive Means Turning Back; Flushing Part of the Dissertation

One piece of wisdom that I have come to appreciate more and more through the years has been a point C.S. Lewis made toward the end of the first book of his Mere Christianity. In this passage, he was dealing with one of the major hurdles to Christian belief in the 20th century. This was the generally held idea by a number of people that Christianity had been "tried out" in history, and had been found wanting, or even had been disproved. The power of this idea was that it functioned as an assumption, rather than as an argument that required proof itself. In fact, its chief attraction is that it even excuses one from having to work through any history, data, argument or proofs.

The idea was then re-enforced through the power of being fashionable. For those embracing this increasingly-secular vision of reality, the rejection of "religion," in terms influenced by Marx or Freud, was seen as progress. For those who understood themselves as "Progressives," and want to understand themselves this way, to question anything that had been defined as progress is particularly difficult.

Realizing that the power of the intellectual cultural assumption against Christianity lay not in data and argument, but in the more psychological and sociological attraction of being "progressive" for people, Lewis centered this particular argument on that notion itself.
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
This insight is applicable far beyond the question Lewis was dealing with, regarding whether there is actually grounds to believe in the truth of Christianity. In my case, in the last week, it has been to come to the realization that the work I was doing in my current section of the dissertation has really taken me into a tangent, and a tangent ending in a quagmire, at that.

I was intending to use some of Sullivan's work on the controversial question of the meaning of the words "subsistit in" in Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church as an illustration for my chapter on the concept of corporate charisms. In the Dogmatic Constitution, there is a section where a new terminology is introduced, describing the Church of Christ as "subsisting in" the Roman Catholic Church. The import of these words has been debated and developed for over forty years now, with Sullivan being one of the key proponents of a particular take on the matter. It is simply just too much of a disputed question in current ecclesiology, and I cannot keep this material from growing to an unwieldy size for my chapter. It might be something I could revisit as a stand-alone article later, but I've just had to admit that it's too big and too much in a state of flux to use in the dissertation.

And so Lewis's point of wisdom on progress sometimes requiring one to turn back came to mind, and I finally summoned up the will or humility to simply flush the entire section. I hate to "lose" a month or six week's worth of work, but it had begun to grow into a tumor on the side of the chapter. Progress, I finally realized, meant turning back and taking another route.
Tags: books, dissertation, ecclesiology, francis a. sullivan s.j., lewis, quotations, second vatican council, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.