Sagovsky on Tyrrell (Second and Final Part)

One of the criticisms Tyrrell made about other people is precisely what I would say about him: that he could “define a mystery” but so far as I can see, he had “never felt one” (74). But he was capable of understanding good ideas, e.g. he often said that we can achieve a unity of will with God, held by love, and in support quoted Augustine: Nihil aliud sumus quam voluntates, we are nothing else but wills (107). He could also be touched by beauty:

 As at Tenebrae one after another the lights are extinguished, till one alone – and that the highest of all – is left, so it is often with the soul and her guiding stars. In our early days there are many – parents, teachers, friends, books, authorities – but, as life goes on, one by one they fail and leave us in deepening darkness, with an increasing sense of the mystery and inexplicability of all things, till at last none but the figure of Christ stands out luminous against the prevailing light (110).

However, I am not sure this is quite right: it is more that all the different lights converge and together illuminate the one path to God. Further, his psychology was weak: he believed that feelings make our thoughts (145), whereas it is in fact the opposite: our thoughts, being more continuous than our feelings, and producing our expectations and attitudes, make our feelings (even if once a feeling is uppermost it has more energy than some thoughts). This prejudice that feeling has the primacy may help to explain why Tyrrell believed that he had to effect a “Copernican revolution” in the Church by “turning to the subject” and superseding the intellectual law. It is true that one can be overly intellectual, but that furnishes no licence to be irrational, as he started to become (146-147).

He wrote, for example, that Christianity did not rest upon historical truth, but a “higher truth” which would remain even if it were unhistorical (172-173). But if Christianity is merely an “enacted allegory” why should anyone accept that rather than another “allegory” of their own creation, or even reject all allegories altogether?

Likewise, he said that what always abided in the faith was not the deposit of truth conceived as knowledge, but a transcendent reality, revealed in experience (175). This raises the obvious question: on what basis can we assert continuity of experience without using words? That is, if the knowledge claimed to have been learnt through those experiences is various, or even different, how can we say that they refer to one and the same reality, transcendent or otherwise?

To defend his position he set up false dichotomies: whether God is reached through “inward religious experience” or “by argument,” by “deductive reasoning from natural and miraculous phenomena” (225). Why does it have to be one or the other? And how can he just write off deduction when the teaching preserved in the New Testament, even in the Gospels themselves, is full of it, and the apostolic witness of Acts and the Epistles is replete with reasoning and miracles?

Despite the fact that Tyrrell could write beautifully, and had a powerful mind, Sagovsky describes how he would like someone to publish as their own materials he had written, changing the text so that they could claim authorship “or at least enable me to repudiate authorship” (114). He even had a brochure he wrote under the name of “Dr Engels” published, and distanced himself from it (182-183). As Sagovsky says, Tyrrell proceeded recklessly although he might be caught, because he was only holding to the letter of obedience, since he felt he had a higher obedience to the truth, and that his ecclesiastical superiors had first broken faith with him (114). The sympathy he received upon his dismissal from the Society was vitiated by the fact that had his sympathisers known what he really thought, they would have been “horrified” (203). Right or wrong as to how his superiors had behaved, if his first duty was to the truth he still had no right to be underhand and duplicitous.

This came out again when he admitted to Petre that he was afraid to face the logic of his Christology lest “I should find myself houseless and homeless in the wilderness” (160-162). Tyrrell in fact saw Jesus as a man of his time who was fallible and made mistakes. This is so far distant from traditional Christianity and the Church he converted to, that I cannot see how Tyrrell was not dishonest in staying within it, and trying to change it to suit his own views.

Another aspect of this duplicity was that he advised an Anglican who had become Catholic to “break with your past life as little as possible” (215). On that logic, why convert at all? But just as fundamentally, how could he then launch a project to change the Church which others loved and cherished? Where was their right to hold as close to their past life as possible, when he wished to revolutionise their faith?

I think that Colley S.J. was probably correct to write of Tyrrell, that he (Tyrrell), was: “morbidly sensitive and self willed … (with) a touch of insanity in his great talent” (121). He did have great talent, although it often came out most clearly in his invective: “The bishops have mounted on metaphors, as witches on broomsticks, and have ridden to the Devil” (123). But it is, nonetheless, sad to reflect what a sad death he had, moaning that: “Life offers us a choice of evils; rarely a clear choice of good and evil” (202). This, I am afraid, is the world he made for himself; it is not the world which God created.

My conclusion is this: Sagovsky contrary to his own inclinations, presents the material which demonstrates that modernism is an untrue expression of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, and only leads to godlessness, no matter how inconsistently some modernists themselves may desire to hold on to the Church which they are undermining as they refuse to face the logic of their position.

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