Sunday, August 10, 2014

How to respond to Islam: a reply to Geoffrey Sales

Ladies wearing mantillas at the St Catherine's Trust Summer School in Wales
Over on 'All Along the Watchtower' the blogger Geoffrey Sales has done me the honour of responding, mostly positively, to my short series of posts about Islam. My argument concluded with the suggestion that, if we want try to make the point that we aren't part of the decadent West, which revivalist Muslims (not just the really crazy ones), and the rising Hindus, Buddhists, and Pentecostalists, quite rightly reject, then we could try restoring the use of head coverings by Catholic women in church.

This would signal a rejection of both decadent sexual mores and of the attack on the difference between the sexes.

Contemplate the likelihood of this happening any time soon, and you will glimpse the depth of the problem.

Geoffrey Sales, though, is having none of it. He remarks:

Best of luck with that one – bound to work, make ourselves look more like the Taliban rather than challenging Islam with the Gospel Truth.

One the one hand, as I indicated there is going to be huge resistance to the restoration of head coverings precisely because it is instinctively understood as a move away from sexual liberation and the like. But to resist it as because it is in some kind of tension with 'Gospel truth': this just seems bizarre. Sales is a Baptist. He knows as well as I do - surely - that women covering their heads in church is sternly commanded by St Paul (1 Cor 11:5). Was St Paul steering his congregation away from 'Gospel truth'? Those who founded the Baptist tradition insisted on head coverings for women in church: were they against 'Gospel truth'? Was everyone in the Christian tradition against 'Gospel truth' up until the 20th century?

What I can't help wondering is that, despite engaging with my general argument that the Christians of the West have made a great mistake in throwing their lot in with a set of Western values which, on any mainstream religious view, are grossly decadent, Mr Sales remains attracted by the idea that by becoming decadent, by leaving behind the Gospel message as our ancestors of all times until less than a century ago understood it (fifty years ago for Catholics), we've become more faithful to the 'real Jesus' or some tripe like that. That, in short, a bit of decadence is actually a good thing.

But let's examine what Mr Sales balks at: doing something which gives us something in common with the Taliban (and every practicing Muslim on the planet); in this, he says, we would be making a mistake, because we should be confronting them with the 'Gospel truth'. Where, in fact, the divergence of our customs with theirs has created an obstacle to mutual understanding, we should refuse to reconsider our customs. And this even when this rebellion against this formerly shared custom was in truth a rebellion against a shared understanding, a shared understanding to which we continue to pay lip service. We claim to reject sexual decadence; the Muslims look at our lifestyle, and even the clothing in which we worship God, and draw the perfectly correct conclusion that we may talk the talk but we don't walk the walk.

For we preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ our Lord: so says St Paul (2 Cor 4:5). This is a saying sometimes seized on by the enemies of Tradition. In this case, the boot is on the other foot. The decadent customs of the West are so important to liberal Christians that they don't want to give them up, whatever the cost for evangelisation. These personal preferences have become more precious than the Gospel message.

Ah but no, Mr Sales might say: what we want to evangelise is a Protestant notion of a completely unincarnated Christian message, a message with no social manifestation, the unvarnished, spiritual, Jesus:

If the Spirit moves you, then you don’t need a head-covering to show it – though, of course, it might lead that way.

Do you think they look like the Taliban? Neither do I. Receiving the 'first blessing' of
Fr Richard Bailey Cong Orat following Mass, at the Summer School.
As well as the sheer inconvenience and embarrassment of doing something which everyone can see flies in the face of the decadent Western lifestyle, there is always this kind of argument to fall back on. We don't want to do anything to show we love and honour God because what's important is that we love and honour God in our hearts - our Faith is purely spiritual. This argument needs only to be stated clearly to show its absurdity.

What strikes me is how often the Church has put herself in this situation.

We have a lot in common with the Orthodox, including the fundamental principles of our liturgical tradition. We don't formally deny those principles, but our worship - outside the places where the Traditional liturgy is celebrated - now looks utterly alien to them, because we have become embarrassed about those principles: the notion of the Mass as a sacrifice, the idea that it is offered to God and not to the congregation, the continuity of the liturgy with all times and places. Most Catholics, most bishops indeed, can't bear any more to worship in a way which actually shows we believe these things; we just write them down in a book and keep that book safely on a shelf, unopened.

We have a lot in common with evangelical Protestants, notably the very high honour Catholic theology gives to Scripture: the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, with a true Divine author, speaking to us today. But though the official documents still say that, we - as a whole, which is to say Catholics of the mainstream - can't actually bring ourselves to live like that, to talk like that, or to do our Biblical scholarship as if that were true. And so what we actually have in common with evangelicals, we hide, we pretend we don't believe.

Our embarrassment about the Tradition has cut us off from so much shared by non-Catholic Christians, and so much that is shared by non-Christian religions. Our modern customs, which appear so indispensable to so many Catholics today, obscure these opportunities for genuine dialogue and witness to the Gospel.

Fifty years ago it may have seemed more important to make ourselves less unacceptable to liberal Protestants  and the secular media, than to maintain some degree of mutual understanding and respect with non-Christians, with the Orthodox, and with 'biblical' Protestants. Now that calculation appears decidedly dated.
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  1. Although I read the Watchtower blog and yours regularly, I had not read the piece by Geoffrey Sales until you drew attention to it, and he is entirely positive about your series of posts on Islam. It seems to me that you are making too much of a throw away remark Geoffrey makes about mantillas, and to be honest - as a Catholic - I also can see his point. I do not think that the Islamic butchers of Iraq would be very impressed by a more traditional Catholicity. The very Christian women now subject to their genocide also wear head coverings in church. Geoffrey's point is a fair one, and he makes it as a friend of Catholics. A minor point, not intended to reduce in any way the excellence of your series of posts on Islam.

    1. Since I address these points directly in the post it seems pointless to reply.

      But I will say that bloggers like it when their posts are discussed. I am doing Mr Sales a favour by talking about him and linking to his post. I don't agree with him entirely - etc..

    2. Oh good GRIEF man --- the Christian values ARE the Western values, and as I tend to be even rooder and nortier than the Rabit, may I say that whilst your historical similes are not without value, your "analytics" appear to be completely barking confused.

      Condemn the atheist and the pagan values of the modern culture all you like, but to directly compare such people who put their faith in such things as tea cosies, after-dinner sherry, and the Assembly of the tepid majority opinion with a barbaric cult of genocidal hatemongers is quite simply LUDICROUS.

      One also gets the feeling that your main purpose with these posts is to provoke Geoffrey, which you can of course do if you want, but you really should not expect to be taken seriously when the provocations are taken to this sort of degree of sheer offensiveness.

  2. The trouble with mantillas is you can still see the woman's hair...

  3. It's a bleak picture you paint of our immediate future. I see further decline for the Church in the West and I have observed, at close quarters, what total collapse looks like in France. Astonishingly, the process of decline in France is presented as a virtue and I recall meeting an ageing Belgian lady at Mass in a French ski resort speaking in glowing terms about the collapse of the Church in her country too. This dialogue stopping approach runs contrary to all that is actually good about the secular West where quarterly and annual performance reviews are a way of life to most of us in the workplace. The aim of which is to eliminate or improve the bad and celebrate the good.

  4. I agree with you 110% Joseph Shaw :)

    You said:"We don't want to do anything to show we love and honour God because what's important is that we love and honour God in our hearts - our Faith is purely spiritual. This argument needs only to be stated clearly to show its absurdity."

    I would be very grateful if you would show us how take this argument apart in a future post. I have had this said to me so many times and while I do try to put together a response, I am not sure if it is anywhere close to a good refutation. So I for one will appreciate if you can post something on that to help folks like me and I think there might be others who would appreciate it too.

  5. " . . . we could try restoring the use of head coverings by Catholic women in church."

    That would only mean something if we also restored the use of head coverings by men in public. Men used to take their hats *off* when entering church as a sign of respect to God. That also has been lost.

    1. It's a pity isn't it? As a man, I do often wish that there was something I could always to do show special respect for God in church, as a woman can (although I do sometimes wear a hat, and doff it appropriately). I suppose I could try to wear a hat more, but there seems to be something a bit artificial about wearing something just so that one can take it off!

  6. More than ever, I’m beginning to suspect that the crisis in the Church will sort itself out as the number of Vat II bishops and priests just dwindle away, and the traditional orders, and those other priests offering a sound version of the Novus Ordo as well as the Vetus Ordo, steadily increase.

    15/20 years!

    But in the meantime, we really must watch Islam.

    1. I am not sure if it will be 15/20 years. While vocations are down in the non-traditional seminaries, they aren't yet zero. They are still producing a few priests formed by those who are pro-modernity and in favor of rejecting or ignoring tradition.

      These new non-traditional priests also enjoy a much more influential position inside the Church than their traditional counterparts (naturally, since the current administration will support their experiment rather than those who are sticking to a traditional way of life). Meanwhile, let us not forget the Latin American, African and Asian countries who are trying to adopt these modernist principles in to their own seminaries and worship.

      So not to sound negative, but I think the natural end is still very far away. Barring a miracle where a very traditional minded cardinal with a firm attitude becoming Pope and his subordinates being receptive of him, this is probably not going to end too soon.

    2. You may well be right!

    3. Anonymous1:10 am

      Evil will not go away unless we fight it.

  7. I think the issue raised in this article is rather common today.

    There are many Catholics I have met who feel that the pre-Vatican II Church was corrupted and had become puritanical, Jansenist, rigorist and out of touch with the times. The 'true gospel' proposed is therefore more accepting of flirting with sin. Of course, naturally, those who flirt with sin end up in sin but such talk is no longer acceptable because it sounds rigorist/puritanical/jansenist or backward.

    So thus we have decadence.

    I am sure no Catholic parent sends their students to a Catholic high-school saying "go and sleep with a guy before you graduate". They just assume that given the sexually charged culture and lack of any customary advise on how to avoid occasions of sin, it is natural for ones child to accomplish such sins before graduation. The parents themselves don't want to take advise on how to maintain a pure society because they consider the advise puritanical/jansenist/backward or rigorist.

    1. The parents themselves don't want to take advise on how to maintain a pure society because they consider the advise puritanical/jansenist/backward or rigorist."

      Not least because, in many cases, the parents fell into such sins themselves during their youth, and harbor a largely unarticulated guilt about it, to say nothing of fear of accusations of hypocrisy.

  8. On the head covering, I think it would be more beneficial if Catholics can get Catholic women to dress with some modesty to begin with, inside and outside the Church. The traditional parishes are doing alright in that regard but the Novus Ordo parishes aren't even close.

    Any Muslim only need look at how our average women dress. Even a liberal Muslim could be scandalized. Their women in general have no problem wearing the most unattractive outfit as respect for their religion. Now that is commitment to ones faith even though it is a big a lie.

    Our Catholic women would have to think about fashion, convenience, their freedom, and all sorts of other things before they even arrive at the point of considering whether their clothes are modest.

    I sometimes wonder if the problem with our Catholic society is that it has simply become indulgent. Without the lack of penances or any serious financial troubles (relatively speaking), and myriad of options to pleasure oneself, God has become a somewhat of an afterthought.

    Sorry for the rant but just wanted to get all of that off my chest.

  9. Anonymous1:07 am

    The virtues are not proclaimed. Vices are not denounced.

  10. Dr. Shaw:

    "Sales is a Baptist. He knows as well as I do - surely - that women covering their heads in church is sternly commanded by St Paul (1 Cor 11:5)."

    Almost as striking is another incongruity: Even the Baptist tradition itself, until about four or five generations ago, would have taken such injunctions essentially at face value, and observed them as a matter of course. Dig up some old photos of Baptists at worship back, say, before the Great War (and even in some instances considerably after), and you will see, on women's heads, a sea of bonnets, hats, and other head coverings.

    Yet this experience is now beyond living memory, unlike head coverings among Catholics, which is merely *almost* beyond living memory, and now encountered with some notable infrequency again, at least in certain regions and communities. As such, the notion is now a very alien one to Mr. Sales and his colleagues, associated with religious interests very much alien themselves in different ways to evangelicals: traditional Catholics, Orthodox Jews, primitivist Christian sects (Amish, Mennonites, etc.), and, of course, Muslims, especially those of the most rigorist and fanatical sort.

    It is this required great leap in imagination and praxis that, paired with this anti-incarnational strain in Baptist theology today that makes it such a difficult sell to folks like Mr. Sales. And unlike his forebears of a century ago, he doesn't have the support of a morally conservative secular society around him for sustenance. It's not surprising to me to see this resistance. But at some point, Baptists like him will have to confront it.

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  12. At the end of my Novus Ordo Mass on Sunday, after a very protestant hymn (admittedly with a good tune), the congregation descended immediately into chaos. Chatter, scurrying, raucous laughter which was at times deafening, I kid you not. Perhaps 2/3 people in any way addressed the central tabernacle.

    The priest at the back of the church witnessed this. He has not, nor has any other priest ever commented on this.

    One is left wondering whether our priests now believe in the Real Presence?

    As for head coverings well you can forget that!