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Commonplaces

Piquant excerpts lifted from Touchstone editors' own reading & listening.

Topic: Christianity



Men often willfully isolate and emphasize one side of a double truth, because for various reasons they are determined to see one side only; and by so doing they miss the meaning, and fail to realize the full consequences, of the truth with which they are concerned. In these days we do not like to talk about orthodoxy and heresy; or if we do, we are apt to assume that orthodoxy is only another name for the bigotry of ignorance, and that heresy is synonymous with fearless devotion to truth. We ought, however, to look at the right meaning of the words, and behind the words to the things they represent, and to recognize that the things they represent have vital and eternal issues. . . . The heretical temper may show itself in defense of the articles of the Creed; and the spirit of orthodoxy may co-exist with ignorance. All depends on line of development, and not on degree of progress. . . .

The history of the church affords many examples of heretical tendencies in ultra-orthodox circles. Most famous heretics were not assailants of Christian truth as a whole, men who had assumed an utterly un-Christian standpoint, but zealous Christians whose orthodoxy was narrow and one-sided, who out of devotion to one truth, or to one side of truth, resolutely refused to look at any other. . . . The attitude of mind which invariably leads to error and inefficiency pounces on a pet principle, isolates and exaggerates it, and is hysterically blind to every other.

Frederick Joseph Kinsman
Catholic and Protestant (1913)


Christianity Commonplaces #9 May/June 2020


A theological statement—especially when made by a churchman to a mass audience—should be clearly orthodox on a natural reading, not merely arguably orthodox on some creative reading.

Edward Feser
LifeSite News (May 8, 2019)


Christianity Commonplaces #14 March/April 2020


It is the common experience of all, that humanity moves between these two poles of simplicity and complexity. People who have the sort of mind that sees only one side of every question tend toward vigorous action. They succeed in everything they do because they do not stop to split hairs and have abounding confidence in their own abilities. Your successful journalist, for instance, is inclined to simplify every problem and condense it into an arresting phrase. On the other hand, those with subtle and cultivated minds tend to get lost in a maze of fine distinctions. They always see how complicated things really are, so their powers of persuasion are nil. That is why the world is led by those who are least suited to raising its cultural and moral standards. It is only very few who manage to combine both tendencies, and in my view a lively Christian faith is the best precondition for the accomplishment of this miracle, because it gives both profound understanding and simplicity of heart.

Paul Tournier
The Person Reborn (1966)


Christianity Commonplaces #16 March/April 2020


When we [as a church body] "study" a question to which we already know the answer it does not help the church but wounds her. I am not saying we should not restate our position over against new challenges, but a study implies that we just might come to a different conclusion, that the question is a real question without a certain answer, and that there might be hope for those who disagree with tradition. This is not merely foolish but dangerous. It is a threat to the doctrinal unity and integrity of the church and, indeed, of the faith itself, to proceed with study after study as if there were no real answer or no abiding answer to the question. It is a deception designed to placate those who want change, but it will only alienate them and make it harder to convince them of the one and always answer. Sometimes "no" is the kinder word than "let's see"—children already know that, so why don't the adults who are in charge of the structures of the church? Finally, studies hang onto exceptions as evidence against the rule and [as] presumption for changing the rule when everyone already knows that exceptions make terrible rules. Exceptions are not analogies of how we might proceed, but real exceptions. We have had tons of them in Christian history and every time we presume to use those exceptions . . . we have ended up with chaos that had to be cleaned up by the next generation (hopefully it did not last any longer).

Larry A. Peters
Pastoral Meanderings blog post (June 1, 2019)


Christianity Commonplaces #21 Jan/Feb 2020


Post-Christian man is not the same as pre-Christian man. He is as far removed as a virgin from a widow . . . there is a great difference between a spouse-to-come and a spouse sent away.

C. S. Lewis
in a 1953 letter to Don Giovanni Calabria (as translated from Lewis's original Latin by Martin Moynihan)


Christianity Commonplaces #23 Jan/Feb 2020


Beware lest your religion be one of feeling merely, not of practice. Men may speak in a high imaginative way of the ancient Saints and the Holy Apostolic Church, without making the fervour or refinement of their devotion bear upon their conduct. Many a man likes to be religious in graceful language; he loves religious tales and hymns, yet is never the better Christian for all this . . . and he who does one deed of obedience for Christ's sake, let him have no imagination and no fine feeling, is a better man, and returns to his home justified rather than the most eloquent speaker, and the most sensitive hearer, of the glory of the Gospel, if such men do not practise up their knowledge.

John Henry Newman
from Parochial and Plain Sermons, Sermon XX


Christianity Commonplaces #25 Jan/Feb 2020


Of both God and the world it must be said that they have their being in relation. . . . Redemption thus means the redirection of the particular to its own end and not a re-creation. The distinctive feature of created persons is their mediating function in the achievement of perfection by the rest of creation. They are called to the forms of action, in science, ethics and art—in a word, to culture—which enable to take place the sacrifice of praise, which is the free offering of all things, perfected, to their Creator. . . . The created world becomes truly itself—moves toward its completion—when through Christ and the Spirit, it is presented perfect before the throne of the Father. The sacrifice of praise, which is the due human response to both creation and redemption, takes the form of that culture which enables both personal and non-personal worlds to realize their true being.

Collin E. Gunton
The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (1993)


Christianity Commonplaces #26 Nov/Dec 2019


My son once wrote to a friend saying something to this effect: that we are God's witnesses necessarily, because the world will not read the Bible, but they will read our lives. Their belief in the divine nature of the faith we possess will be influenced by our lives. We must present to the investigation of the critical minds of our age the realities of lives transformed by the mighty power of God. . . .

The standard of practical, holy living has been so low among Christians that the least degree of real devotedness of the higher Christian walk is looked upon with surprise and often even with disapproval by a large portion of the church. For the most part, the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ are satisfied with a life so conformed to the world in almost every respect that, to a casual observer, no difference is discernible.

Hannah Whitall Smith
The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life (1875)


Christianity Commonplaces #28 Nov/Dec 2019


The theological virtue of faith enables one not only to know the truth of what God has revealed but also to savor it, and thus to come to a deeper understanding of the relationship of the mysteries to one another and to their singular origin, the Blessed Trinity. This means, in addition, an ongoing adaptation of the mind to the mysteries as expressed in the traditional dogmatic formulas. Note well: it is not the mysteries that need to be adapted to the human mind (as the Modernists would have it), but rather the human mind that must conform itself to the mysteries, submitting to their demands, humbly bearing their yoke. This is the narrow path trodden by the saints in their pilgrimage to the beatific vision.

Peter Kwasniewski
www.lifesitenews.com (April 2, 2019)


Christianity Commonplaces #29 Nov/Dec 2019


Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

G. K. Chesterton
The Ballad of the White Horse (1911)


Christianity Commonplaces #30 Nov/Dec 2019


Sometimes the most dangerous thing you can be as a pastor (or priest) is to be a faithful example of what your church believes, teaches, and practices. We live in a world in which it is considered good to press even further the progressive edge of your church body but not so good to hold to what your church body has believed, taught, and confessed. This is true whether you are a Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Roman Catholic.

Rev. Larry A. Peters
http://pastoralmeanderings.blogspot.com (March 25, 2019)


Christianity Commonplaces #32 Nov/Dec 2019


Then shall Religion to America flee:
They have their times of Gospel even as we.
My God, thou dost prepare for them a way
By carrying first their gold from them away:
For gold and grace did never yet agree:
Religion always sides with poverty.

George Herbert
"The Church Militant," from The Temple (c. 1633)


Christianity Commonplaces #34 Sept/Oct 2019


Dostoevsky famously said: "If there's no God, then everything is permitted." It's a view the west might consider more often. Dostoevsky's not saying that if there's no God then no one's watching us and we can do what we like. He's really asking: what's the rationale for living this way and not otherwise? If there's no God, then there's no shape to our lives. Our behaviour needs to be in tune with something. If there's no divine tune, how do you know where to go, what to do? To believe in God is not a business of rewards, but an ability to make sense of things.

Rowan Williams
Prospect Magazine (May 2007)


Christianity Commonplaces #35 Sept/Oct 2019


The expressions commonly used [to describe “religious freedom”], such as “freedom of conscience” or “freedom of profession of faith” should be rejected as inexact; conscience is always free and no one can prevent a martyr from confessing his faith.

Vladimir Solovyev
Russia and the Universal Church (trans. Herbert Rees; 1948), VI, note 2


Christianity Commonplaces #46 July/Aug 2019


Conversions to other religions may also in their own ways be describable as "forgiveness" or "liberation" and so on. To such possibilities the gospel's messengers can only say: "We are not here to entice you into our religion by benefits allegedly found in it. We are here to introduce you to the true God, for whatever he can do with you—which may well be suffering and oppression."

Robert W. Jenson
Systematic Theology, vol. I, part 3 (2001), iv


Christianity Commonplaces #47 May/June 2019


Nowhere else is truth regarded with such horror as in the domain of our Church administration; nowhere else is there greater servility than in our spiritual hierarchy; nowhere is the "salutary falsehood" practiced on a larger scale than in the place where all falsehood should be held in detestation. Nowhere else are there admitted on the grounds of policy so many compromises which lower the dignity of the Church and rob her of her authority. The root cause of it all is the lack of a sufficient faith in the power of truth. And the most serious part of it is that though we are aware of all these evils in our Church we have come to terms with them and are content to live at peace. But such a shameful peace, such dishonorable compromise, can never promote the true peace of the Church; in the cause of truth it signifies defeat if not betrayal.

I. S. Aksakov
Complete Works IV (ca. 1870), 43


Christianity Commonplaces #49 May/June 2019


The greatest obstacle in the way of acceptance [of one's lot in life] is the appearance of acceptance. The greatest obstacle to virtue is the appearance of virtue. The greatest obstacle to humility is the appearance of humility. The greatest obstacle to faith is the appearance of faith. The greatest obstacle to love is the appearance of love. What I say here in regard to celibacy is true of every kind of trial, of infirmity, and of frustration. Whatever our life and its burdens—there is no life that does not have to carry some burden—we never find fulfillment except in living it with conviction. And to live one's life with conviction is to live it in a spirit of adventure, as an adventure.

Paul Tournier
The Adventure of Living (1965)


Christianity Commonplaces #55 Sept/Oct 2020


"You can't just twist Scripture as if it were a rubber nose!"

Carl E. Braaten
(recalled from a conversation with S. M. Hutchens, ca. 1985)


Christianity Commonplaces #56 Sept/Oct 2020


Those who by insincerity and falsehood close their deeper eyes, shall not be capable of using in the matter the more superficial eyes of their understanding. . . .

A man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood. . . . Doubt must precede every deeper assurance, for uncertainties are what we first see when we look into a region hitherto unknown, unexplored, unannexed.

George MacDonald
from "The Last Farthing" and "The Voice of Job," Unspoken Sermons, second series (1885)


Christianity Commonplaces #57 Sept/Oct 2020


Our intellects stammer and boggle when they try to reach the truth about Divine things, not because the other world is a reflection of ours, but because ours is a reflection, and how pale a reflection, of the other. That was what our Lord wanted us to see when he turned our metaphors, even, inside out for us, as you may read in St. John. The water in Jacob's well isn't real water; the real water is the living fountain of grace which he will unseal for the woman of Samaria, if she will only stop to listen. The vine that grows on yonder wall is not a real vine; the only real Vine is his own mystical body. The things we see and touch are only the shadows cast by eternal truth. What marvel if we, to whom shadow is substance, cannot raise our minds to contemplate the substance by which the shadow is cast?

Ronald A. Knox
The Hidden Stream, chapter 4, "Our Knowledge of God by Analogy" (1953)


Christianity Commonplaces #58 Sept/Oct 2020


With respect to the Church as a whole, all her aspects are centered on the presence of the Lord in her midst. This presence of God is the Church's core and center, the protected concentration of her being. This living center is made up of the Divine Mysteries: the confessed and unaltered Faith once given to the saints, the integrity of her sacraments, the canon of her Scriptures, the inviolable purity of the Tradition by which she is defined. The Church lives from that precious nucleus, which is to be safeguarded at all costs.

If that living and life-giving center does not "hold," we are no longer the people of God. It may appear, for a while, that we are more "successful" in some respects. If we abandon, for instance, certain components of our inherited worship in order to make the worship more accessible to our contemporaries, it is possible that our membership will initially grow, because we make better contact with the religious aspirations of the world around us.

This experience of success, however, is deceptive, and even dangerous. In due course we will learn that we have betrayed our identity in the Lord by permitting the world to change the Church, whereas it is the vocation of the Church to transform the world. It is impossible for the people of God to transform the world by giving up its own form. . . .

Some have remarked that apologetics is the most dangerous part of Christian thought, and the reason for this is simple. Apologetics is the discipline of making the Gospel accessible to the world's understanding. This discipline is a necessary and important aspect of evangelism. There remains the ongoing danger however, that our efforts to make the Gospel more accessible to unbelievers may, if only by inadvertence, alter some important and essential dimension of the Gospel. . . .

Virtually every major heresy condemned by the early Church took its rise in the effort to render the Gospel accessible to unbelievers. To return to the image of our metaphor, this activity directed to the world outside the Church runs the constant danger of putting the core of the Divine Mysteries in peril.

Patrick Henry Reardon
excursus on Numbers 3, from Out of Step with God (2019)


Christianity Commonplaces #60 Sept/Oct 2020


Defy the commandments of the natural law, and the race will perish in a few generations; co-operate with them, and the race will flourish for ages to come. That is the fact; whether we like it or not, the universe is made that way. This commandment is interesting because it specifically puts forward the moral law as the basis of the moral code: because God has made the world like this and will not alter it, therefore you must not worship your own fantasies, but pay allegiance to the truth.

Dorothy L, Sayers
The Mind of the Maker (1941)


Christianity Commonplaces #61 Nov/Dec 2020


Every evening at Vespers in these days Abbess Catherine . . . thought, as the antiphon to the Magnificat was sung, of the Visitation when the Virgin Mary, with the angel's announcement beating in her heart, had gone 'in haste' as St Luke says to visit her far older cousin. Why, wondered Abbess Catherine, did theologians always teach—and we take it for granted—that Mary went simply to succour Elizabeth? Probably she did do that, but could it not also have been that she needed the wisdom and strength of an older woman? How wonderfully reassuring Elizabeth's salutation must have been: 'Whence is this that the mother of my Lord should come to me?' A recognition without being told, and Mary, as if heartened, touched into bloom by the warmth and honour of that recognition, had flowered into the Magnificat.

Rumer Godden
In This House of Brede, ch. 7 (1969)


Christianity Commonplaces #64 Nov/Dec 2020


Being as it were compacted and fitly joined together in one body, we should love one another, with a love like that which one member bears to another in the same body. . . .

But in reality never was there less brotherly activity amongst men than at the present moment. Race hatred has reached its climax; peoples are more divided by jealousies than by frontiers; within one and the same nation, within the same city there rages the burning envy of class against class. . . .

When the twofold principle of cohesion of the whole body of society has been weakened, that is to say, the union of the members with one another by mutual charity and their union with their head by their dutiful recognition of authority, is it to be wondered at, Venerable Brethren, that human society should be seen to be divided as it were into two hostile armies bitterly and ceaselessly at strife? . . . It is not necessary to enumerate the many consequences, not less disastrous for the individual than for the community, which follow from this class hatred. We all see and deplore the frequency of strikes . . . we see hostile gatherings and tumultuous crowds, and it not unfrequently happens that weapons are used and human blood is spilled.

Pope Benedict XV
Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (1914)


Christianity Commonplaces #65 Nov/Dec 2020


Young men, do not be deceived. Don't think you can, at will, serve lusts and pleasures in your beginning, and then go and serve God with ease at your latter end. Don't think that you can live with Esau, and then die with Jacob. It is a mockery to deal with God and your souls in such a fashion. It is an awful mockery to suppose you can give the flower of your strength to the world and the devil, and then put off the King of kings with the scraps and remains of your hearts, the wreck and remnant of your powers. It is an awful mockery, and you may find to your loss that the thing cannot be done.

J. C. Ryle
Thoughts for Young Men (1865)


Christianity Commonplaces #68 Jan/Feb 2021


The Christian faith holds that the creation has been damaged. Human existence is no longer what was produced at the hands of the Creator. It is burdened with another element that produces, besides the innate tendency toward God, the opposite tendency away from God. . . . This paradox points to a certain inner disturbance in man, so that he can no longer simply be the person he wants to be.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
God and the World (2002)


Christianity Commonplaces #83 May/June 2021


[Some,] deceived by the atheism they bear within them, imagined the universe deprived of a guide and order, at the mercy of chance. . . .

St. Basil the Great
(†379)


Christianity Commonplaces #84 May/June 2021


Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community—however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things—whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.

Pope Pius XI
Mit Brennender Sorge (1937)


Christianity Commonplaces #85 May/June 2021


To abandon Christian sexual orthodoxy is not simply to widen the canon of acceptable sexual practices. It is to revise key theological and anthropological elements of the Christian faith.

Carl R. Trueman
in an interview with Rod Dreher published November 15, 2020, in The American Conservative


Christianity Commonplaces #86 May/June 2021


When error is admitted into the Church, it will be found that the stages of its progress are always three. It begins with toleration. Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few, and weak; only let us alone; we shall not disturb the faith of others. The Church has her standards of doctrine; of course we shall never interfere with them; we only ask for ourselves to be spared interference with our private opinions. Indulged in this for a time, error goes on to assert equal rights. Truth and error are two balancing forces. The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between them; that would be partiality. It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth. We agree to differ, and favoring of the truth, because it is truth, is partisanship. What the friends of truth and error hold in common is fundamental. Anything on which they differ is ipso facto non-essential. Anybody who makes account of such a thing is a disturber of the peace of the Church. Truth and error are two co-ordinate powers, and the great secret of church-statesmanship is to preserve the balance between them.

From this point of view error soon goes on to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy. Truth started with tolerating; it comes to be merely tolerated, and that only for a time. Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points. It puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departures from the Church's faith but in consequence of it. Their recommendation is that they repudiate the faith, and position is given them to teach others to repudiate it, and making them skillful in combating it.

Charles Porterfield Krauth
The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology (1913)


Christianity Commonplaces #87 May/June 2021


The Ten Commandments . . . are the charter and guide of human liberty, for there can be no liberty without the law.

Cecil B. DeMille
at the New York opening of his film The Ten Commandments (1956)


Christianity Commonplaces #88 May/June 2021


Since Jesus was, and still is, true man as well as true God, discernment of the spiritual sense [of Scripture] requires that we see how earlier [i.e., Old Testament] realities, whatever their natural intelligibilities, gain their full import and significance only from the way they are related to the One whom the Lord has anointed. They are like shadows that gain their true significance only from the object which casts them, no matter what object one might have surmised to be casting them when looking at them alone. Jesus is that solid substance whose mere shadow constitutes all the glories of God's dealings with mankind before Jesus.

Paul M. Quay, S.J.
The Mystery Hidden for Ages in God, Part II, chapter 7 (Peter Lang Publishing, 1995)


Christianity Commonplaces #94 July/August 2021


A man who has never had that experience [of the Prodigal Son], be it only very briefly, who has never felt that he is exiled from God and from real life, will never understand what Christianity is about. And the one who is perfectly "at home" in this world and its life, who has never been wounded by the nostalgic desire for another Reality, will not understand what is repentance.

Alexander Schmemann
"The Sunday of the Prodigal Son," Great Lent (1974)


Christianity Commonplaces #97 Sept/Oct 2021

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