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When Less can Mean More

 Further Reflections on the Faith and Historical Scholarship

by Philip Trower






          The present article is a sequel to the one published a few weeks ago entitled By Word of Mouth or Pen and Paper.  While celebrating the achievements of western historical scholarship it at the same time pointed out what I believe to be two specific  occupational hazards.  One could compare them to the danger of cutting one’s finger when using a sharp knife or chopping off one’s foot if not careful when using an axe. 


          The first of these occupational hazards has been the tendency to play down oral tradition or the possibility of its accuracy over any extended period of time.  The second has been the lack of attention given to the fact that with traditions passed on from the very old to the very young a period of something like 250 years can be covered by a mere three people.  I was chiefly concerned with biblical scholarship and the effect of these tendencies on Christian belief.


            Here I am concerned with an occupational hazard of a different kind and its possible influence on our understanding of history in general and Church history in particular. This is the tendency for more important facts, whether  moral or metaphysical or simply as causes of a general kind, to get hidden by the immense mass of now well established historical detail.


           It is not so much a question of ‘not being able to see the wood for the trees’ as of ‘not being able to see the trees for the wood’; or rather which are the rarer and therefore more precious trees. When it is a matter of trying to determine the cause or meaning of  historical events obviously not all historical facts are of the same value and a mass of detail can make the more important less visible.


          I was set on this line of thinking a number of years ago when I came across the French phrase ---‘haute vulgarisation’ which roughly means ‘popularisation for the well-educated.’  A good example would be the late Sir Kenneth Clarke’s television series Civilisation, ultimately published in book form.  The well-educated are intellectually capable of understanding a scholarly account of some aspect of history.  But by the end of the day most professional people don’t have the time or energy for it.  They would like to know about the subject but in a less detailed form.         However as far as most of the scholarly world is concerned any degree of simplification will be seen as of necessity involving some decree of falsification. 


Here they would seem to have Alexander Pope on their side.  “A little learning is a dangerous thing”.   But experience has suggested to me that with regard to history, simplification  at times leads to deeper understanding. Who, for instance, could say that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice does no give us insights into her period and human nature in general, which the most detailed historical and psychological studies would be incapable of conveying?


         I am not trying to discredit historical scholarship in any way.  As I have already said, it is among the greatest achievements of western civilisation.  It has succeeded in mapping  with amazing accuracy the majority of things the human race has done said and thought since it first appeared on our planet and has also gone a long way to explaining why they have done said and thought it.  It is also important that students of the subject should be taught to respect historical accuracy, and avoid making statements without adequate supporting evidence.


        But while exploring the details of past history can be fascinating and rewarding in itself, like visiting remote foreign countries full of strange animals and birds or  marvellous museums packed with beautiful or ingenious artefacts, it does not of itself always result in greater intelligibility.  This is why I am maintaining that there times when less can lead to more; to greater understanding or intelligibility. 


         May I illustrate my point by taking an example from the history of  Christian-Moslem relations.  Down the ages both sides have written whole libraries of books on the subject sometimes to discredit the other side, at others to reach greater understanding.  St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles would be an example of the latter.  At the same time there have been western scholars who have enjoyed using the temporary cultural superiority of the Moslem world in the 11th and 12th centuries to discredit Christianity. But in all this I have never come across any writer high-lighting the radical difference between the first three centuries of the two religions and the way they spread, which possibly says more about them than any other fact or set of facts.


        Christianity spread because the Christians were prepared to be thrown to the lions for their beliefs and the pagans, in the words of Tertullian, were impressed by the way they loved one another.  Islam spread mainly by military conquest.  Within a hundred years it had mastered the whole of North Africa, a large part of Spain and penetrated into France.


        I am not suggesting that  Christian rulers have not subsequently used force in illegitimate ways but these have ultimately been recognised as illegitimate.  Meanwhile the striking contrast between the ways in which the two religions expanded in the first three centuries of their lives, tends to get hidden from view by the mass of less important historical detail.






         At this point I should like to mention a different point about historical scholarship which every Christian scholar or student ought to keep in mind.


        Historical scholarship, as an internationally recognised intellectual discipline, is concerned with the natural order.  The supernatural order and its influence on the natural lie outside its scope.  At the deepest level, therefore, the causes of historical events remain unknown to it.  It does not recognize or deal with their existence.


        For Christians and other believers it will, of course, be different.

        In the first place in every period there will be  the influence of countless holy people, the majority probably unknown, drawing down blessings on their fellow men and women in a way that can only be accounted for in a few cases, while at the same time there will be those who are facilitating the activity of evil spirits


        Then there is the action of grace on the individual human soul and its acceptance or rejection.  I try to demonstrate this in my historical novel A Danger to the State, which, among other things, is about the attempts of Europe’s 18th century Catholic kings to force the Pope of the time to suppress the Jesuits.


        In the centre of the book I have a scene where the King of Spain Charles III is sitting in the garden of his palace at Aranjuez trying to make up his mind whether or not to join them.  His thoughts go back and forth drawn first by a voice that says Yes, then by the voice that says No.  Eventually he comes down on the side of the Yes voice with crucial consequences for hundred’s of thousands, if not millions of souls.


         How much in human history must have depended on similar battles of conscience.  We can guess that they may have taken place and the motives which are likely to have swayed the individual one way or another. Henry VIII’s break with the Pope would be another example.  But they are not open to historical analysis and determination in the strict sense.  We cannot know how much or if any grace was given.





         Coming back to my thesis that less detail can result in deeper understanding, or too much detail render essentials harder to see, what should make it of special interest to Catholics is it’s having in the last fifty years been taken up by the Magisterium.


        I am referring to a distinction which it first began to make at the time of Vatican II and which Popes Benedict and Francis have recently brought to the fore again.  I mean the distinction between the kerygma and the didache, or between the initial ‘proclamation’ of the Good News and its subsequent development over the centuries in the form of Catholic doctrine and theology.  It is not a question of either/or, but of ensuring that exclusive or too great emphasis on one or the other  does not distort the overall truth of the faith or render essential elements less visible.


        Luther’s sola Scriptura can be seen as an example of over-emphasising the kerygma.  It ignores the fact that by itself  Holy Scripture or the kerygma, is not self-explanatory.  That is why the didache is necessary. The didache is the sum total of the Church’s attempts to answer all the questions put to it over the centuries by inquirers about the meaning of this or that statement or passage in the kerygma.  For instance, when Our Lord tells the apostles to baptise people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, does that mean there are three Gods?  Since the answer is No, we can see the question as the starting point of all the volumes that have been written over the centuries about the doctrine of the Trinity.         .


        A story in the Fioretti of St Francis of Assisi illustrates the point I am trying to make.  (I quote from memory).  An old woman once asked St Francis why theology was necessary.  Surely she could save her soul without having to learn a whole lot of dogma and theology?  True, replied St Francis. You don’t need to know it all but the Church has to.


        If  Luther’s sola Scriptura represents the kerygma over-shadowing the didache, we find the alternative situation, the didache overshadowing the kerygma, in the situation at the end of the middle ages which gave rise to the movement known as the devotio moderna of which the author of The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis, is the best known member. He bewails a situation where, as he sees it, scholarly in-fighting over theological niceties was obscuring the most rudimentary Gospel principles; particularly those about loving our neighbour or having the spirit of little children.


         This is why today we find our Pope emeritus Benedict, before his retirement, concerned that the need to defend fundamental moral principles should not leave the impression that that is what Christianity is mainly or only about; a collection of negatives.  He did not say the principles in question do not have to be defended.  As we all know, he is himself a famous scholar and theologian.   However their defence must be balanced by an equal insistence on kerygmatic fundamentals; for example, the truly Pauline principle that Christianity is first and foremost an ‘encounter’ or living with and in Christ. 


        St Paul was equally anxious not to leave the impression on his hearers that the faith was some kind of ideology or system of ideas rather than a supernatural mystery, and this was in spite of the fact that some of the Church’s most intricate doctrines have their origin in  his letters.


       With much the same object in mind, Pope Francis has been directing our attention to the role of the poor and disadvantaged.  There can be no true encounter with Christ or following of Our Lord which neglects or overlooks them.


       As I said, it is not a matter or either/or.  As so often with the faith, it is a matter of keeping complementary opposites in balance while seeing that first things really do come first and that less is not obscured by more.  

Copyright © Philip Trower 2016

Version: 9th December 2016

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