Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Ascension of the Lord


O men of Galilee, why gaze ye in astonishment at the sky? Alleluia. Just as ye have seen him ascend into heaven, so, in like manner, shall he return, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Ps. All nations, clap your hands; shout unto God with a voice of joy.


Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, that we, who believe Thine Only Begotten Son our Redeemer, to have ascended on this day into heaven, may ourselves also dwell in mind amongst heavenly things. Through the same Our Lord.

In the words of the Apostles’ Creed, He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

Meditating on the mystery of our Lord’s Ascension reminds Melancholicus of a little paperback he once bought in a second-hand bookshop when he was in the first flush of his reversion to the Christian religion in 1997. This book was called A New Look at the Apostles’ Creed, and was edited by one Gerhard Rein. It was a translation of a work published originally in German, and featured contributions by such allegedly great theologians as Hans Conzelmann, Jurgen Moltmann, Gunther Bornkamm, Gerhard Ebeling and Karl Rahner. At the time, Melancholicus was young and very green, knew almost nothing of his catechism, was aware of this grave deficiency and was consequently reading everything that he could lay hands on pertaining to the Christian religion. He had as yet no idea of the controversies convulsing the Church as a result of modernism, rationalism and the fallout from Vatican II but, as the reader may have guessed, he was soon to find out.

This book first appeared in — yes, you’ve guessed it — the 1960s. Its very title is sufficient to alert the discerning reader to the kinds of heresies he may expect to find between its covers. Now while the youthful Melancholicus had no philosophical training and did not know anything about heresy, rationalism, naturalism etc., he at least had a brain and was able to spot principles and conclusions which were incompatible with the mysteries of faith. For in returning to the religion of his boyhood, Melancholicus was not looking for some pious myth or metaphor for mere intellectual consideration. No, he was seeking God, and he believed that God is transcendent and omnipotent, existing independently of the created order and, most importantly, existing independently of the mind of man. He also believed that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Most Holy Trinity, and that consequently there is nothing inherently incredible about such things as the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension, or His real presence in the eucharist.

Hence, in reading the discourse of these erudite theological giants on the doctrines enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed, he was first of all struck by how boring their writing was. He was also struck by the fact that these learned gentlemen seemed actually to be embarrassed by the supernatural content of religion, and that they sought to explain it away so as not to ‘offend’ the mentality of the great twentieth-century man who had at long last finally come of age, shaking off the shackles of obscurantism and superstition. Melancholicus was perplexed (and, if the truth be told, mildly outraged) by this attitude, but most of all he was amused at the spectacle of these purportedly great theologians fretting over the mysteries of faith and twisting themselves into knots in order not to have to affirm as supernatural any article of the Apostles’ Creed.

Was the earnest and simple faith of the young Melancholicus shaken in any way by this discovery? Not a bit of it. On the contrary, he quickly concluded that these theological giants were in reality theological pygmies, that their alleged scholarship and intellectual prowess was profoundly overrated, that their theories violated Christian doctrine and were not substantiated by anything more than their own prejudices and presuppositions, that as a consequence nothing they had to say was ever worth listening to, and not least that their writings were deeply, deeply boring — and so he laid the book aside and has never since returned to it except last year to consign it to a bag of paper and cardboard waste destined for recycling.

The problem with rationalising the mysteries of faith is, however, so glaring and so obvious that it doesn’t require specialised theological training or a turgid German brain to recognize it for what it is. It is so clear a child can spot it, much like the little boy who pointed out, correctly, that the Emperor had no clothes. Did these supposedly profound thinkers really believe — in their heart of hearts and brain of brains — that emptying the Christian religion of its credal content would make it either ‘relevant’ or ‘appealing’ to the thoroughly secularised modern mentality, instead of having precisely the opposite effect? Or does their approach not betray a certain obtusity, even stupidity, on their part? Were these learned gentlemen so intellectually advanced that they had no idea how the rest of us common folk think?

These great theologians are — or I should say were, since they’re nearly all dead; now they know whether there be a God or no — clearly upset that the Christian religion contains dogmas, for they would like it to teach only ethics. It is a fact, however, that the ethics of the Christian religion proceed from its dogmas as the consequence from the principle. These learned and scholarly heavyweights have failed to grasp this simple truth, but millions of ordinary people who were once Christians have understood it all too well. As a result, they are no longer Christians. Our erudite theological superiors are always banging on about the importance of “human experience”, whatever that means. Well, have they learned any lessons at all from the experience of the last forty years?

Take the dogmatic and credal content out of Christianity, and one is left with a hollow shell, a kind of pious agnosticism or Christian buddhism. But Christianity is not buddhism, nor was it ever meant to be, so the miserable leavings after the great theologians have done their work can satisfy no one, neither the Christian nor the buddhist, for the rationalised ‘religion’ invented by the scholars is neither one thing nor the other. As a result, no one is interested in this castle in the clouds at all, except maybe for the handful of towering intellectuals whose brainchild it is. But, like the seed in our Lord’s parable, having no roots it withers away.

The baffled incredulity of Anton Vogtle in his chapter on the Lord’s Ascension, in which he earnestly tries to convince his readers that the Ascension cannot be believed by ‘modern man’, deserves no more than our contempt, and its author deserves no more than to be utterly forgotten.

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