“Ultrasupernaturalism,” he would have called the book, if he thought his readers would let him get away with it. That’s the subject of Ronald Knox’s classic book, Enthusiasm. He explains the recurring problem of “a clique, an élite” who try to live a purer life in closer relation to the Holy Spirit than other Christians. They want a heart-religion, the kind of faith they believe primitive Christians had, with a direct, unmediated connection with God, unencumbered by forms like liturgies and doctrines. Naturally enough, they eventually break away.
I hadn’t read Enthusiasm for years, but someone asked about Knox the other day and I pulled it off the shelf. It’s the great convert’s study of purist movements from the Montanists and Donatists to the Wesleyans. He thinks well of many of them, especially Wesley. Some were willfully heterodox or just crazy, but most just over-emphasized one aspect of the faith, to disastrous effect.
It’s a very helpful book. I appreciated it partly the story he tells makes an implicit case for normal Catholicism: patient, relaxed, forgiving, hoping for small improvements over time. It does not demand or expect sudden, permanent transformations, and is not unduly vexed by failure. It is also careful to keep the less committed as close as possible. The contrast with enthusiasm illustrates Catholicism’s way of being serious about sin and holiness without being unsparingly grim.
In our ultrasupernaturalist-inflected age, all that can look a lot like slacking off. Many of us, and I include myself, can feel we’re failing when we take advantage of confession and don’t quickly become spiritual heroes. It’s the inner enthusiast speaking.
Some [of Msgr. Ronald Knox’s subjects] were willfully heterodox or just crazy, but most just over-emphasized one aspect of the faith, to disastrous effect.
The ultrasupernaturalist, Knox writes, “expects more evident results from the grace of God than we others. He sees what effects religion can have, does sometimes have, in transforming a man’s whole life and outlook; these exceptional cases (so we are content to think them) are for him the average standard of religious achievement.”
This man “will have no ‘almost-Christians,’ no weaker brethren who plod and stumble, who (if the truth must be told) would like to have a foot in either world, whose ambition is to qualify, not to excel. He has before his eyes a picture of the early Church, visibly penetrated with supernatural influences; and nothing less will serve him for a model. Extenuate, accommodate, interpret, and he will part company with you.”
Much of serious religion seems to be enthusiast, or at least tinged with enthusiasm. It’s all about “the personal relationship.” The enthusiast has the direct line, the light, the inner voice. The rest of us don’t.
Knox goes on to describe how enthusiasm works. The enthusiast, quoting a lot of Bible verses, “insists that the members of his society, saved members of a perishing world, should live a life of angelic purity, of apostolic simplicity. … Hitherto this [religion] has been a matter of outward forms and ordinances, now it is an affair of the heart. Sacraments are not necessarily dispensed with; but the emphasis lies on a direct personal access to the Author of our salvation with little of intellectual background or of liturgical expression.”
We see enthusiasm in many of our Evangelical friends, and in Evangelically-influenced Catholics, in Jansenists of various sorts, and in moralistic preachers and peevish heresy hunters, and in those whose idea of helping people avoid sin is scaring them into not doing anything. We see it also in its secular versions, especially the passions for ideological perfection called political correctness and cancel culture, in both their leftwing and rightwing versions.
We get it in the Evangelical line — even friends launched it at me after I entered the Church — that Catholics don’t take sin seriously. We wink at sin, they said. We buy our way out with mechanical confession. They’re not exactly wrong about Catholic practice, but they’re quite wrong about Catholic understanding. The Church takes sin seriously. So seriously that we recognize how deep the corruption goes and how long the reform and renewal will take, and how often most people will fail, and that indeed most of us will still need a lot of work even after we die.
The enthusiast thinks he has been lifted to the top of the mountain. The Catholic knows he climbs the lower slopes.
The Catholic insight is found in St. Paul, whom the enthusiasts misread as if he were one of them. It’s there when he says (in Knox’s translation), “I do not what I wish to do, but something which I hate.” If the great Apostle himself threw up his hands at his continual failure, the rest of us may do that also. As long as we also “press on, in hope of winning the mastery,” as he tells the Philippians, and “forgetting what we have left behind, intent on what lies before us, press on with the goal in view, eager for the prize, God’s heavenly summons in Christ Jesus” (also Knox’s translation, with the pronouns pluralized).
The Church expects realism, but also movement. She knows her children don’t come close to perfection and that we don’t always try very hard to get better. The enthusiast thinks he has been lifted to the top of the mountain. The Catholic knows he climbs the lower slopes, that the Church helps him but that he must take the steps himself, that he can always slide back down. But if he does, the Church will not be surprised and will be there to help him start climbing again. All very dull to the enthusiast, but a great comfort to us sinners.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
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