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?

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