Ignorance Is Not Bliss

‘Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise’— I think not. Anyone with a desire for truth will know that powerful feeling that makes one want truth at any cost. I remember tearing up several chapters of my Ph.D. thesis when I realised that the publication of a book I hadn’t known was in the offing made part of my own work redundant and some of it, to my mind, just plain wrong. I could have persisted in arguing my case, but I was no longer convinced of its truth.

We are nearing the end of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity and I have been reflecting on the way in which the desire for truth leads some people to embrace Christianity for the first time, and others to move from one expression of it to another. Quite a lot has been written about the psychology of conversion. I don’t want to get into arguments about whether converts to Catholicism are made to feel inferior, as some claim, or are better informed than ‘cradle Catholics’, as others claim. We probably all have a store of anecdotes to prove or disprove both views! What interests me is the role knowledge plays in the conversion process and in the mutual understanding and respect that I believe to be an important element in seeking unity within one’s own Church and the Christian body as a whole.

I have ceased to be shocked by the ignorance some Catholics display of their own Church’s teaching. All newcomers to the monastery are now given a foundation course in Christian doctrine, and we are not alone in that. One can no longer take for granted familiarity with the scriptures or the ancient formulations of faith, let alone the historical and theological insights of more recent centuries. How much less can one assume any deep knowledge of the teaching and practice of other Churches to which one has never belonged. For instance, even though I would say my own knowledege of Anglicanism is sketchy and theoretical, despite my having read a lot of Anglican theology over the years and having many good Anglican friends, I wince when I hear some of my peers pronounce on what Anglicans do and do not believe. When it comes to some of the numerically smaller Churches, I admit defeat. I only get similarly worked up when I hear people pronouncing on what Catholics believe and getting it wrong!

All of which brings me to my point. I think we often approach the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity with a certain degree of minimalism. Our expectations are low, and although we dutifully pray and join together in meetings and colloquia which usually conclude with an act of joint worship, our desire to know and understand the other’s faith and practice is often perfunctory. We do not want to put the hard work in; or we are a little insecure and do not want our own sometimes wobbly faith to be challenged in a way we feel we can’t handle; or the cares and worries of this life get in the way and we simply never get around to it. I think that if we are genuinely praying for unity, that won’t do. We have to make some effort to understand, and the only way to do that is to inform ourselves.

The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity provides a useful focus but is really meant as a spring-board for a much larger and longer enterprise. Whether we are talking about the Church to which we belong or the wider Christian body, unity isn’t an optional extra, as though we could somehow decide for ourselves whether to seek it or not. Nor is it attained by pretence or ignoring differences, as though our version of charity somehow scuppered truth. On the contrary, truth is a very important form of real charity. As we come towards the end of this year’s Octave of Prayer, therefore, perhaps we could all search our own hearts and see if we oughtn’t to make more of an effort to inform ourselves about our own faith and the faith of others. To encourage us we have the prayer of our High Priest, Jesus Christ, that we may be one, as he and the Father are one. With him praying for us, can the task be so very arduous?

PostScript
I forgot to say that reflecting on the life and work of St Francis de Sales, whose feast is today, is very apt for the topic of this post: see the Wikipedia summary if you don’t know him http://bit.ly/1CzJYAS

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12 thoughts on “Ignorance Is Not Bliss”

  1. Last night the following Tweet appeared, ‘Justin Welby says Artificial Intelligence and gene therapy could hand the super-rich ever more power ……’ I have no doubt whatsoever the Archbishop of Canterbury is God’s man and this ball is in his court.

    No sister, I am not going off on a tangent to your blog, this is the point when all Church’s (East and West) irrespective of their theology, must work together for the common good; the Lord has work for them all to do together. They must also draw in the leaders of other faiths, and older scientists, etc. those who can see the writing on the wall too: we need wise men (and women), but not at this stage connected to to UN.

    This is not about left/right politics, its beyond that, its about the continuance of the human race, and although we need the corporations (and we do), we also need firm boundaries for them to operate within.

    Non of those capable of carrying this cross can do so alone, it is why all people of good will need to help them carry it,; we must all stand together in a disciplined manner.

    I am backing our Government’s economic plans because I have no desire to see Britain or Europe starve. Prospersity always makes war less likely, but we do need to be thoughtful. All this should be done without confrontation, which would be one of the worse things that could happen.

    It is my belief God has sent us an opportunity, not to discuss theology, but to serve his creachers together.
    I believe God is working his purpose out.

    • I see your point, but I’d say I don’t think we can evade the questions that unity poses by working for the common good (though I am entirely with you on its importance) or any other good work.I’m glad that the last hundred years or so of Catholic Social Teaching is beginning to be known more widely, but how we understand the Church, what we believe about her, our understanding of her sacraments, does matter because it is from that understanding of the Church and how she reveals God to us that all our prayer and activity flows.

      • I am sorry, when I used the words ‘common good’ I was not referring to Catholic social teaching. I meant trying to ensure the future for the whole world through developing and leading a process in which all those with genuine concerns could have a say and bring their unique knowledge to the table; both religious and those in the sciences who are becoming deeply concerned. I do understand where you are coming from, and it is I who is lacking, even in my own church. My faith is inclined to be simple, childlike ‘sometimes’, when beyond doubt I know that it is love alone that counts; that’s on the good days of course!

  2. If we are one body, it has to be a unified otherwise its life-force can’t run through its veins. It’s not static though, it goes where The Spirit calls it to go for the purposes of Christ.

    We can strive, pray and hope for unity. There’s always hope. it’s a great thing. 🙂

  3. You are quite right about our lack of knowledge of our own denomination, let alone knowledge of other Christian denominations, or even the world faiths in general.

    I was brought up Catholic, and was taught by Nuns and Christian Brothers, so I felt that I knew a bit about the Catholic Church, but that knowledge was founded on my education in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and my experience as a Catholic until I left the Church in the mid-1980’s. My Children were baptized Catholic, although my Son on marriage, converted to being a Mormon. He has now relinquished that and returned to being a Catholic.

    I became an Anglican in 2008. I won’t bore you with the story of the journey, suffice it to say, that I felt God called me to me in the place and the parish that I joined. The Priest who received me, wisely said to me that the first thing that I needed to do was to engage with Anglican Doctrine and History, but not to forget the Catholic Heritage, which was something of value as I developed as an Anglican. Initially I was a sceptic, but latterly I’m able to see how right that he was. As an Anglican, I would describe me as Anglo-Catholic, leaning towards Affirming Catholicism in the Anglican church.

    I don’t regret the conversion experience, I needed to be closer to God, and sincerely believe that he was and is calling me to the place that I now serve, as I train to be licensed as a Lay Minister. Our Parish is dedicated to All Saints’ and somehow I’m able to see the people of the parish and community as ‘Saints’ a gift freely given by God and that I thank him for every day. I have learned much more about what it means to be an Anglican, but also to value other denominations, and that Catholic heritage – that I no longer belong to, but feel part off through the Universal Church.

    If I’m honest, I spent a great deal of my time as a Catholic, looking down on what we described as ‘Non Catholics’ in quite a derogatory way. I also know that I suffered the same sort of conceit as an Anglican, where I lashed out too often at other denominations, in some sort of defensive mode about the decision to become an Anglican. Thankfully, I’ve learned and grown much more in the past few years, to see past those situations and to appreciate that we all have our strengths and weaknesses and that unity should be one of our first goals – we celebrate what we share, and respect what makes each denomination different.

    My prayer is that one day, we will all be reunited under an umbrella of mutual respect and understanding, much as the various churches around the world, operate under the Umbrella of the Catholic Church. I’m not sure that I will ever see that in my own lifetime, but hope springs eternal.

  4. This is a subject close to my heart. As someone who ‘converted’ to Christianity (I renewed my Anglican practice that had been in abeyance since my early teens) and then became a Catholic in my mid 20s, I feel neither inferior or better informed than other Catholics. I feel one with my Catholic sisters and brothers. And I feel one with Christians of other denominations. We are of one faith (Christianity), but in our Father’s house there are many rooms.

  5. So true, Sister. I think fear often blocks the path to unity – fear that our own faith may be challenged or that we might have to let go of let go of things we hold dear. As you say ignoring the call to unity cannot be an option – to semi-quote – people should know we are Christians because of the way we love one another. May it be so!
    Pam

  6. Very thought proving blog today. I was not made to feel inferior when I presented myself to the parish priest and annouced I wanted to be a Catholic – he just didn’t know what to do with me! A 10 year-old girl who had encountered the Real Presence for the first time when taken to Mass by a family friend and now wanted what all those people at that Mass had; “how nice, well…just keep coming to Mass and we’ll see”. Five years of Mass attendance later the priest gave in and received me into the Church (Feast of Christ the King 1975) 🙂

  7. On the way home from Vigil Mass just now, my nine-year old son said, ‘Mummy, you know your old church: did it have any religion?’

    After we’d had a bit of a chuckle together, we worked out that he wanted to know what was the difference between my old (Episcopalian) faith and my current (Catholic) beliefs. So I did my best to explain, over my shoulder in the car, the strong foundations which the churches have in common, and the differences of opinion which drove them apart. He was very interested and asked a number of questions. I finished by adding that many people in the churches today would like to find a way to bring us all together again.

    I never really know how to pray effectively for Christian unity: too often it can feel like nothing more than a pious hope. After reading your article, it occurs to me that perhaps the best way a mother can promote Christian unity is by discussing such things with her children. Perhaps, in this case, true charity begins at home?

  8. How I would love access to the foundation course on Christian doctrine you give your newcomers – and I am a born Catholic. So little taught and learned over the years . Any suggestions or recommendations

  9. It’s also really hard to discuss belief with others even if you know them well because it’s something so close to the heart.One memorable class I taught became so comfortable with each other and me that they would branch off from time to time to ask each other the sort of questions adults would be too polite to mention. So a smattering of muslims, a liberal Anglican, an evangelical, a host of atheists, a Jehovah’s Witness and a Pagan would all happily swap notes on beliefs and festivals until I felt we really OUGHT to be studying for their GCSE again! I’ve never been in an adult environment quite like this.

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