into a Rut
Francis Gardom on the upside of a down
When people or institutions are said to be ‘in a rut’ it means that they appear to have become so set in their ways that they are reluctant or unable to change. The phrase is a criticism both of them and their attitude.
Such a criticism assumes, however, that ruts are always bad things and that, by implication change is a Good Things in itself. A moment’s reflection will show that ‘it ain’t necessarily so’.
Take the example of a malignant tumour. That’s a change taking place in the human body’s cellular reproduction – and as its name implies, it’s not a beneficial one. Or consider a business whose finances are going deeper and deeper into the red. That’s also experiencing change – another change for the worse. A third example would be a nation descending into political or civil anarchy from a state of law-and-order. It’s changing: but few, apart from looters and carpet-baggers, would regard it as a change for the better.
So stability – which is one way of being ‘in a rut’ – may have something to be said for it, for the paradoxical reason that all beneficial progress requires a degree of stability to make it possible. Though some churchgoers may over-value their particular rut at St Grizelda’s, and impede progress by ensuring that things carry on ‘just like they’ve always done’, other ruts, like those mentioned earlier, those which provide the necessary stability for moving forward, are virtuous (or strength-giving). Without stability, change for the better becomes difficult if not impossible.
The destination of man
Such stabilizing ruts resemble tram-lines. Trams are indeed ‘stuck in a rut’ but that’s how trams work – without them they would never reach their destination!
A fundamental disagreement about the destination (or ‘Chief End’) of Man, lies at the heart of the two agenda, liberal and traditional. Their respective goals are summed up in two familiar quotations which answer the question ‘Why did God create mankind?’ Was it:
1 ‘To make the world a better place
And life a worthier thing’
Bishop W.W. How, 1823–97
or 2 ‘To glorify God and to enjoy Him
for ever’ The Shorter Catechism
Bishop How, to be fair, would have been dismayed to find his lines being used as an apologia for the present liberal agenda – but taken out of context his words state succinctly what most people today, churchgoing or not, believe man’s ultimate destiny to be.
Laid side by side, the fault-line between the two agenda becomes painfully obvious: the first centres on the Here-and-Now, the latter on Eternity. Since there can logically only be one chief end, it follows that, should one agenda turn out to be the more right in the eyes of God, then the other one must be more or less wrong. Sooner or later their respective supporters will find themselves going in opposite directions.
There will be, of course, an occasional area of agreement between them. God loves the world – so Christians, as his creatures, must show practical concern for its well-being. Archbishop Temple said that Christianity is the most materialistic of all religions, and the incarnation of God the Son indelibly stamps the divine approval upon Matter. We shall be judged, says St James, not only by what we believe, but also by the extent to which we put those beliefs into practice.
Tradionalists will gladly concede that this is so, but insist at the same time that it must make a world of difference (literally!) whether our objectives focus upon the Here-and-Now, or upon Heaven and the Life Everlasting. Christians will frequently find themselves obliged to reject and resist political proposals whose wrongness when viewed in the light of Eternity, outweighs any apparent benefit in the Here-and-Now.
Abortion is a simple example of this: A woman’s right to choose and Every child a wanted child are the two often-quoted demands of Natural Justice in a world-centred agenda. But if as Christians believe, every human life is precious in the eyes of God, then deliberately to destroy a child in order to spare an adult inconvenience is to elevate the importance of the temporal above the eternal.
How did we get here?
To understand why the liberal mind has taken such a hold on ordinary people, consider the popular assumption that the only knowledge worth acquiring is that derived from rational scientific processes of thought.
Now, although reason and science are useful tools in helping us understand God’s ways and purposes for us, in fact the most important things about God and ourselves can only be discovered because God has chosen to reveal them to us.
So whilst it’s possible to surmise from creation’s evident orderliness that it probably owes its origin to an intelligent Being rather than to chance, no amount of Nature-gazing or rational thought would indicate that such a Creator is benevolently disposed towards his creation and ourselves in particular. If anything, without God’s deliberate self-revelation, people would draw a very different conclusion from their experiences of Nature!
Or take Morality. Experience suggests that treating our neighbour decently and doing him the occasional good turn is the best way of keeping the peace, and (perhaps!) disposing him to do something for us in return. But that’s not morality – merely enlightened self-interest. It’s impossible from two premises in the indicative to draw a conclusion in the imperative. There is a quantum gap between a statement which begins ‘I’d be well/ill-advised to….’ and ‘I ought/I shouldn’t/must/must not… do this or that’.
So the Secular Mind (including the secular-conditioned mind of many Christians) has a completely different starting-point from the disciples of Jesus Christ. As St Paul said, ‘we have the mind of Christ’. This primary divergence lies between our respective agenda – a God-centred or a Man-centred starting point. It’s as fundamental as the cleavage between theism and atheism, and accounts for the ever-increasing misunderstandings between liberal- and traditional-minded Christians. Although our agenda will occasionally coincide – it would be remarkable if they never did so – these coincidences are, as that word is often understood, fortuitous.
Doctrines ‘keep us on the rails’
From this parting-of-the-ways comes mutual frustration and misunderstanding. The liberal mind sees his agenda to be so simply, so evidently ‘right’ as to be self-justifying. Whether it’s Peace, Justice, Equality or Tolerance that he’s pursuing, the ‘Answer’ – the liberal’s answer – appears to him neither to require justification nor to brook any criticism. The suggestion that what comprises justice in Man’s sight might appear quite different in God’s eyes earns the shocked response: ‘so don’t you believe in Justice then?’.
But the historic doctrines of the Christian faith can provide our thinking with the equivalent of what rails are to trams. Yes, trams are ‘stuck in a rut’, but that rut is essential to the fulfilment of the purpose for which they exist – conveying passengers to their desired destination. Christian doctrines are essential to learning about things eternal, and thence discovering how we can reach our desired destination.
Teaching Christian doctrine to ordinary people today faces two difficulties:
1 People today dislike having to think about complex matters, and prefer to look no further than what they can see – the Temporal – rather than consider the Unseen – the Eternal.
2 Secularists and liberal spokesmen can offer their audiences deceptively simple and easily remembered soundbytes; Christian truth doesn’t readily lend itself to over-simplification or soundbytes without being distorted in the process. For instance, God can only be described analogically using words like ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit’. But as we use them we immediately have to warn our hearers that our human understanding of things like Fatherhood and Sonship are, at best, only approximations when used of the Trinity.
Helping people think clearly for themselves must be our long-term objective. However, at the present moment, we don’t have a long term. Every day decisions are being taken upon which depends the future of the Body of Christ within which we are trying to work.
The new book Consecrated Women?, with its incisive, clearly presented, exposition of the doctrine of Holy Order is (literally) a Godsend for the theologically and rationally literate mind; but the joined-up thinking it demands is beyond many people today. What they need are a few simple tests to help discern what is consonant with God’s will.
A simple mnemonic
Here, then, is one easily-remembered procedure employing the letters R-U-T.
R-U-T stands for Righteousness, Unity and Truth. Every new idea, belief, or feeling should undergo three tests and if it fails any of them it should be treated with caution.
Falsehoods and half-truths generate error, however self-evident they seem to be. Here are some examples:
• All humans are equal
• The right to choose
• No discrimination!
None of these is totally false – but none is wholly true because:
• Humans differ significantly in stature, health and intelligence to name but three instances of inequality.
• We only have the right to choose what is right or morally indifferent.
• Every intelligent person exercises discrimination – in choosing their spouse, their career, or what company to keep for example. Distinguishing truth from falsehood necessitates discrimination.
Unity is important – but not all-important. The (American) bishop who said that heresy (falsehood) is preferable to schism (division) was wrong.
Swapping unity for truth is always a bad bargain. We can live with disunity but we can’t live without truth. Sooner or later falsehood destroys those who embrace it. Yes, it is certainly right to seek unity; but unity divorced from truth becomes a curse, not a blessing. So beware of attempts to keep us silent ‘because speaking-out would be divisive’.
Ask if it’s righteous
Jesus taught that we shall know men by their fruits. The right-ness of a belief can be judged by whether those professing it become more or less right-eous as a result.
Righteousness, however, is no more a one-and-only virtue than Unity. When Righteousness is extolled above everything else, two things happen:
1. The Church becomes an exclusive company – closed to those who do not ‘come up to the mark’.
2. Righteousness is first-cousin to Self-Righteousness. If there was any characteristic of which our Lord was relentlessly critical it was that displayed by those who ‘supposed themselves to be righteous and despised others’.
But dis-esteeming righteousness is no answer either. We are called to be perfect – and perfection in any discipline only comes with effort. The Church is a school for sinners, not a club for the righteous; but schools demand learning. Woe to him who supposes that moral faults really don’t matter. Complacency towards any evil, whether adultery, backbiting, arrogance or being economical with the truth, is not the same as forgiveness. Righteousness doesn’t consist in turning a blind eye, least of all towards our own misdeeds.
So – being in a Rut isn’t always a bad thing. It depends on the sort of rut it is – and where it is leading us …
Francis Gardom is Honorary Secretary of Cost of Conscience
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