Saturday 1 March 2014

Not Christianity, but superstition

When I heard a report of this case on BBC Radio news yesterday, the couple involved were described as being a "Christian couple". The website report more precisely identifies the couple as being Seventh Day Adventists, though it appears that their actions derived more from their own, more individual, religious stance than from that of the Seventh Day Adventists as a religious body. The situation, however, appears to have essentially been one where, on the grounds of a religious belief expressed in a particular manner of practising a "covenant", the ordinary care of the medical profession was disregarded.

This is not a religious belief on the part of the couple involved, and it certainly is not Christian belief. It is superstition. Whilst I do not wish to condemn at the level of the individuals involved, at the level of the general engagement between religious belief and our contemporary culture, it is important to say this clearly.

It is certainly not Christian belief for two essential reasons.

1. Christian faith, seen as a content that is believed (or as a Person who is followed), does not contradict the work of human reason. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (n.159):
Faith and science: "Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth." "Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. the humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are." 
Christian faith, understood as a human act on the part of the one who believes, likewise does not expect that one over-rides that other human act, the act of reason. This was the point underlying Pope Benedict XVI's address at Regensburg in 2006, the most controversial section of which the former Holy Father summarised thus:
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature.
It will never be a genuine act of faith (or of hope) on the part of a Christian to refuse medical attention in favour of an expected divine intervention. The case just reported indicates the danger represented by individuals who will, however, see such a denial of medical attention as an act of faith in God.

2. One of the themes to which Pope Francis returns is that of the ecclesial nature of Christian faith. It is not possible, he says, to claim to follow Christ without the Church. And therein lies the second reason for suggesting that the action of the couple who have just received prison sentences should not be described as a result of their Christian belief. While they do seem to have some level of ecclesial affiliation - to the Seventh Day Adventists - the situation of church groups that have no formal ecclesial affiliations beyond their own community lends itself to the kind of individual perception of faith that rejects medical treatment. When I have time, I will try and link to some of the reports of instances of pastors encouraging their adherents not to seek treatment and rely instead on God, reports associated with what one might call "non-ecclesial" Christian belief.

It is an ecclesial adherence that represents the assurance of that synthesis of faith with reason that I refer to in point 1 above. This, again, is a point that Pope Benedict XVI referred to in a controversial address, that which he was unable to give at La Sapienza University:
 Rawls perceives a criterion of this reasonableness among other things in the fact that such doctrines derive from a responsible and well thought-out tradition in which, over lengthy periods, satisfactory arguments have been developed in support of the doctrines concerned. The important thing in this assertion, it seems to me, is the acknowledgment that down through the centuries, experience and demonstration – the historical source of human wisdom – are also a sign of its reasonableness and enduring significance. Faced with an a-historical form of reason that seeks to establish itself exclusively in terms of a-historical rationality, humanity’s wisdom – the wisdom of the great religious traditions – should be valued as a heritage that cannot be cast with impunity into the dustbin of the history of ideas.
Without these two criteria, it appears to me that something that calls itself a Christian belief is in reality nothing more than superstition.

That the law of the land intervenes and sentences a couple to prison in these circumstances seems entirely right. It is not a question relating to religious belief and practice; it is a question relating to ordinary human reason expressed in the duty of care that parents have for their children.

It would be unfortunate if those who represent a hostility towards Christianity in the culture of our times were to see in this case ammunition to attack Christianity as such. As I argue above, these events do not represent Christian belief in practice; they represent superstition.