There is a memorable scene described in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited in which Rex Mottram, who is converting to the Catholic Faith so as to marry one of the story’s main characters, is being questioned by a priest as to how many natures there are in the person of Christ.
Mottram, responds: “Well, how many you would like Father is fine with me.” His answer is meant to demonstrate his indifference to one of the most important beliefs of the Catholic Faith- that God in Christ takes for himself a human nature and, in doing so, unites to his divine person both a divine and human nature. This dramatic revelation discloses that God in Christ enters into the fullness of human experience, but not only this, opens up for humanity the possibility of sharing his own divine life
We live in an age that would find many to be in agreement or sympathetic with Rex Mottram’s indifference. Doctrinal formulations and dogmatic certitudes are seen as a hindrance to genuine spirituality and betray a preference for “religion” rather than individual spiritual seeking. Many think of the Church’s doctrinal or dogmatic formulations as obscuring, rather than revealing the truth
I imagine that from his place in heaven, St. Nicholas is surveying this cultural development with chagrin. He felt deeply about the significance of doctrine and dogma, particularly those that are intended to illuminate for the faithful the mystery of Christ.
In fact, the tale is told that at the Council of Nicea, from which the classical, orthodox formulations of the relationship of the divine and human natures in the one divine person of Christ emerge, that Nicholas was so upset with Arius for proposing a theory about Christ that was contrary to the Apostolic Faith that he socked him in the jaw.
Nicholas’ zeal was too much, but it makes the point that he believed that who the Lord Jesus really and truly is is not a matter of indifference or something that we can just make up for ourselves. Nor do the words of the Church’s doctrines or dogmas obscure; rather, they tell us the truth.
The Rex Mottram approach might make the Church more palatable to modern spiritual tastes, but it really is about giving assent to lies. It also represents a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to take seriously that which God was so serious about that he went into death so as to show us what taking for himself a human nature would mean not only for him, but for us as well.
So on this day in which the Church honors St. Nicholas, we might remember what we believe and why, and that we can never be indifferent to what the Church professes. Doctrines matter. Dogmas tell the truth. It is our role to resist a culture that tells us otherwise.