This one ancient truth can help make sense of the Faith in modern times

2 mins read
St. Basil the Great
Byzantine icon of St. Basil the Great. Wikimedia Commons

“Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of [your] faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9).

On Trinity Sunday, a friend posted on Facebook a request for prayers for a friend of his who, he said, was grappling with “challenges to his faith.” When we hear of such challenges, our minds most likely go to the pressures of secular culture, which is actively hostile to Christianity today, and even more so to those who dare to confess Christian belief.

In this case, however, the challenges his friend has encountered have come from within the Church. In particular, he is concerned that the hierarchy of the Church is undertaking “an endless revision of doctrine I thought we held to be the unchanging Word of God.” In short, his friend said, “It’s like I don’t know what Catholicism is anymore.”

St. Basil’s distinction

In trying to respond to such concerns, it is all too easy to be glib, to point out that, whatever infelicities of language or of presentation one may encounter, doctrine has not and cannot depart from the truth, because Christ promised that he would send his Holy Spirit as an advocate for the Church, and that he himself would be with us until the end of the age. But that has not been how this man has experienced the Church in recent years. And faith, and the joy that flows from faith, is, as Peter makes clear, tied to our experience of Christ, which is mediated through the Church.

But Basil, like all the Fathers of the Church and unlike so many of us today, understood that doctrine flows from the experience of Christ that the Church mediates.

But what is that experience of Christ that the Church is meant to mediate? As God (rather than luck) would have it, I happened to be reading, on this same Trinity Sunday, a section of St. Basil the Great’s treatise on the Holy Spirit, in which he discusses Sacred Tradition. St. Basil makes a distinction — later lost to the Church — between the kerygma, the public pronunciation of the Good News of Jesus that all the world should hear and which, God willing, should lead each of us to seek the gift of faith through baptism, and dogma, which to Basil is not (as we may assume) the abstract distillation of what the Church teaches but the mysteries, handed down through tradition, to which only Christians (that is, the baptized) may be admitted once they are ready to take part in and comprehend them.

Experience before doctrine

What doesn’t St. Basil mention in this distinction? Doctrine, in the sense that my friend’s friend used it: a set of beliefs that form the core of Catholicism. That’s obviously not because Basil was unaware of the dangers of heterodoxy or heresy: This entire section of his treatise on the Holy Spirit is a defense of the Church’s teaching on the Spirit derived from tradition — that is, in his terms, the dogma or sacred mysteries rather than Sacred Scripture — against the Arians, Sabellians, and other heretics who denied either the divinity or the divine personhood of the Holy Spirit.

But Basil, like all the Fathers of the Church and unlike so many of us today, understood that doctrine flows from the experience of Christ that the Church mediates. In other words, the experience — both the kerygma and the dogma or mysteries — comes first, and doctrine is the rational (in the broadest sense of the word) attempt to help us understand our experience and to extend it to our intellectual and moral life.

My prayer for (and advice to) those who, like my friend’s friend, find themselves confused, upset, or even angered by the pronouncements of any member of the hierarchy (no matter his rank) is not to give up hope (which, my friend rightly pointed out, is the greater challenge that his friend faces) but to immerse oneself in the Mass and the sacraments, that one may love Christ and believe in him in the way that he intended — not through press releases and news reports of clerical pronouncements but through the encounter with Christ that is the beating heart of the mysteries of our faith.

Scott P. Richert

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.