Old and New

In a text quoted in an earlier post, Fr. Brian Harrison complains about new mysteries:

And that is precisely the point. What makes the “invisible water” laughable in the syllogism is the fact that it comes at the end, and not at the beginning. One expects religions to have mysteries, but normally they are traditional mysteries, handed down from what are (or at least, what believers understand to be) the authoritative, foundational sources of the religion itself. (This of course is the case with Catholic belief in the Eucharistic Presence.) But in our parable of the moon-water, its invisibility is a brand-new “mystery,” which no believer (or unbeliever) has ever heard of before! It pops up out of nowhere at the end of a syllogism. And it springs, moreover, not from some kind of organic or logical development based on the religion’s own doctrinal and spiritual patrimony; rather, it is forced abruptly upon the believers by a minor premise coming from an outside source which is coldly indifferent – even irreverent – toward these sacred sources: the merciless glare of empirical observation. The real incongruity in the situation, of course, is that the learned theologians are engaging in sophistry in accepting this new “development,” while the “stupid” fundamentalists (like the faithless bulk of their ordinary fellow-citizens) have enough common-sense to see that the whole thing is completely “phoney,” even if they might not be able to explain in an abstract way where the fallacy lies. As in the old fable, it takes the simplicity of a child to see that the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

The charitable interpretation of Fr. Harrison’s complaint is that religious mysteries should derive directly from the founder of the religion. Understood in this way, his complaint would have problems, such as the fact that logical implication remains valid even when applied to religious mysteries, as we pointed out in that post.

But someone more familiar with Fr. Harrison’s writing would be inclined to think that a less charitable reading is probably more accurate. The real issue for him is not whether or not the founder taught something. Otherwise he should complain that Christ did not teach that Mary would be assumed into heaven. The real issue for him is that religious mysteries should be traditional, handed down from the distant past. Of course, it is unlikely that he would actually make such a claim explicitly. He might not even notice that it is what matters to him. But it is in fact what matters to him. This is why he proceeds to say that “it is not in fact as easy as one might think to give an abstract exposition of this common-sense insight,” and then proceeds to formulate a false “principle” to exclude such a claim.

It is hard for him to explain precisely because his real reason is the feeling that religious mysteries cannot be true, unless they are handed down from the distant past. And if this feeling is taken as a claim about the world, it implies that religious mysteries can never be true. Every religious claim, as for example that Mary was assumed into heaven, must have once been made for the first time. It was once a new mystery, and at least in this case it is very unlikely that it was Christ who first made the claim.

Christ may have made the claim that bread becomes his body in an invisible way, or at least may have implied this by his statements at the Last Supper. But at the time the claim was new nonetheless, and one who really held the principle about new mysteries would have rejected the claim, like those in the Gospel of John who “turned back and no longer went about with him.”

The traditionalists of the time, one might say, would never have accepted Christ. And in fact they did not:

They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

Religious teachings, like all other kinds of teaching, have a beginning in time. And if they are true, they are true the very first time they are stated. Thus one who is to judge rightly about reality must be like the “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven” who “brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

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