Even being a great evangelist, like the 18th century John Wesley, did not guarantee spiritual peace. Ronald Knox writes how some of Wesley’s converts possessed “an equilibrium of spirit which Wesley could not find in himself. Arvin Gradin, for instance, could boast of ‘a firm confidence in God, and persuasion of his favour; serene peace and steadfast tranquillity of mind, with a deliverance from every fleshly desire, and from every outward and inward sin’ [Wesley Diary 10 August 1738)]. Wesley was destined to come across this kind of thing again, but not to experience it. He was to be like Moses, viewing from Mount Phasga, a promised land he was fated never to enjoy”: (Knox, Enthusiasm, 1950, p.469).
Antinomianism is, in the words of that master wordsmith St Donald the Trump, ” not good”.
It is, strictly speaking, a heresy, a teaching that can be seen to absolve people from obeying the moral law, and thus, possibly, leading to licentiousness. Much was written about it and it had serious consequences, such as being condemned to a fiery death by the Inquisition. Those accused included Gnostics, Anabaptists, Cathars, Calvinists and American Puritans.
The theology gets complicated, but it seems connected to the “dualist” heresy that divides spirit and matter, the good spirit versus the sinful flesh, whereas Christianity holds that both are God-given. It is also seen as arising from the doctrine of grace and atonement of sins, which some distorted into “if God always forgives sins, why not sin?”
Ronald Knox writes a good deal about antinomianism (from the Greek “lawless) in his massive book about heresy Enthusiasm. Let me quote from his chapter on St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, widely known for their fornicating tendencies and “low life”:
“It seems clear that there were those at Corinth who adopted the antinomian attitude; who claimed that sexual purity was a Mosaic scruple which had disappeared with other Mosaic scruples. Christian life was a life of the spirit, not of the body; the Christian, therefore, should be above these materialistic taboos”. The apostles were forced to combat such heretical notions. They promulgated a decree that included the need to “abstain from fornication”. This precept was “to remain in vigour”. As Knox says: “The body, no less than the spirit, has to be dedicated to Christ.”
[Ronald Knox, Enthusiasm (Oxford, 1950),p.15.]
Knox – click here
In his book with the above title (1930) the Catholic theologian and popular writer Ronald Knox makes a scathingly satirical and clinically logical dissection of the misconceptions and errors of a number of literary figures and intellectuals of the 1920s. They had been contributing to a series of “symposia” on religion that appeared in the popular press of the time (Grub Street as it was nicknamed).
Here is a whimsical limerick by Ronald Knox:
There once was a man who said: “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad”.
Your astonishment’s odd
I am always about in the Quad;
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
The influential Catholic writer Ronald Knox saw that religion was dying out as early as 1931. He asked why. Here are some of his answers:
The facts, indeed, have been patent enough throughout this century. The ripples of that agnosticism which was fashionable among intellectual circles in the later Victorian period widened out slowly over the surface of the public mind…. Meanwhile, the growth of the Labour movement had neutralized the political appeal and sapped the political strength of Nonconformity. Increased facilities for worldly enjoyment had whetted the appetite for it, popular education had encouraged people to specialize over their hobbies; a general loss of simplicity began to tell upon the vitality of our insular religion, which had always depended upon a soil of unadventurous conservatism to fertilize its influence. The War [1914-18] at once intensified the action of these forces, and opened our eyes to the inroads they had already made on public feeling” (Caliban in Grub Street, 1931).
He went on to argue that people no longer believed in a literally true Bible (the result of new Biblical scholarly studies). This “bred in us an itch for private theologies.” The western world swarmed with amateur theologians, unauthorised prophets, mystics and charlatans. Other thinkers, such as G. K. Chesterton, Malcolm Muggeridge and T. S. Eliot, also detected this unsettling trend.
For Paul’s latest essay on Aldous Huxley see his website dpcrook.wordpress. com. Click on Aldous Huxley.
Aldous was an eminent novelist and commentator writing in the 1920s to 1960s on science, evolution, religion, art, literature, mysticism and the human condition generally. Much of what he wrote is relevant today. One question he asked was what do we put in the place of religion in a secular world? Are we facing a dangerous loss of ethical values in a world governed by technology, hedonism and self- centredness?
Aldous Huxley was appalled at the arrogance of many scientists, who made sweeping judgements on matters of value, aesthetics and meaning, when their natural sciences were basically quantitative. They also dodged responsibility for their research (which ultimately produced the atom bomb):
“They retire to their cloistered laboratories, and there amuse themselves by performing delightfully interesting researches. Science and art are only too often a superior kind of dope, possessing this advantage over booze and morphia: that they can be indulged in with a good conscience and with the conviction that, in the process of indulging, one id leading the ‘higher life’ ” [Ends and Means, 1937.]