piety & skepticism

Jul 19, 2010

learning with food and drink

Almost every class here gives rise to much conversation and discussion. It is rare that the meal table and ‘holy hours’ (note these hours are still plural!) are not filled with talk of the reading or the lecturer’s morning presentation. This is a great way to learn – while the seeds of the learning are sown in class, the process of real education happens when these seeds are tossed around over food and drink.

pious skepticism

This morning I heard the term ‘pious skepticism’ used. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. It it a good thing or not? While most of us have a common idea of what it is to be skeptical of a thing a thought or a person, I suspect we might have a greater range of views on what it is to be ‘pious’. There is even a broad range of definition in different dictionaries.

The best definition I have heard defines piety as an openness to inherited wisdom; a readiness to learn from the experience of others across the centuries; a willingness to take the wisdom of the ages seriously. A skeptic will reject much of (even all of) what came before.

These sabbatical weeks have been for me a time of learning much more of the Beauty and Truth of the Catholic Tradition. My use of capitals is intentional – these are capital words that point us to the answer to life’s deepest desires.

A pious skeptic therefore will receive gladly the treasures of the past (from family, culture and faith) and examine these afresh in the light of a new era. As people of faith we lean towards a presumption (at very least) that what nourished the faith of our Catholic ancestors, will also provide the food that we need today.

I suspect that like me (when I began to think about this thismorning) you will now be trying to work out if you are pious or skeptical! It might be helpful to consider the extremes of each position.

danger of both extremes

The person who takes piety to the extreme is one who is attached to anything that is old, simply because the mists of antiquity provide a fog to enshroud their present struggles. This person might long for the Tridentine Mass as the norm in every parish simply because it is old. They remember the silence and incense. These people may be more nostalgic than faith-filled.

The one who lives in extreme skepticism rejects the wisdom and learning of the past. For them Tradition (capital intented … ie the unchangeable wisdom and practice handed through the generations), and the traditions (note small ‘t’ meaning all the important and helpful but not absolutely essential wisdom of the past), belong in a museum under lock and key. The skeptic might visit this museum to look and leave saying – thank God (actually a real skeptic would not thank God since God belongs in the past for the skeptic), we are past needing those relics.

the beauty of Tradition

I find it interesting that in an age when traditions in families and traditions are being revived, many people do not have the same openness to the treasures of two thousand years of Catholic faith. It is significant that some Catholic parishes and schools are enthusiastic about celebrating a Jewish seder meal (on Holy Thursday) from the third century AD, they might not have the same desire to rediscover the formality and dignity of the third century Catholic Mass.

If your six year old nephew were learn a Celtic folk song at school, and stand and sing it at a family party because he knew it was his Irish Great-Grandmothers favourite song, we would be moved to tears. But if the same boy came home from school having learnt the Pater Noster (Our Father in Latin), we might well call the school with a concern (or complaint?) that the teacher was trying to resuccitate a dead language, or promote outdated forms of faith.

Such a skeptical position is irrational since it is usually held by people who have benefitted from the wisdom of the past in many ways particularly in a classical education. These skeptics have managed to compartmentalise their religion. In matters of faith they see skepticism as the ideal. Whereas in other areas of life they enjoy the fruits of their ancestors’ labour and wisdom.


Such irrationality does not belong in an otherwise intelligent Catholic adult. I recall one intelligent person involved in education complaining to me that we were wrong to sing the Kyrie (not Latin but Greek) at OLV, and proof of this was that people had decided to leave the parish in protest at this move. When we began to sing the Our Father (in English) to the ancient Gregorian tone a couple of years ago, another person thought I was treating people as children because the melody “only had three notes”.

into the future, with the benefit of our Catholic past

This weekend at all Masses in New Zealand a letter from the Catholic Bishops is to be read. This letter reminds NZ Catholics that later in the year we will welcome the Revised form of the Mass. This is a wonderful opportunity for us all to receive anew the liturgical treasures of our past, in a way that carries us into the future, that is into our eternal heavenly future.


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