Personal Discernment

Bruce Charlton has a post observing the following about traditionalistic Catholics: On the one hand, they exercise “personal discernment” to decide which of the competing Roman Catholic authorities they will follow but on the other hand, they defer to said authority because that’s what Catholics are supposed to do rather than discern personally. Personal discernment seeming to be the opposite of deferal to authority, Bruce thinks he detects a contradiction and a weak point here.

I’m not Catholic, but this phenomenon is not a contradiction if understood correctly. It’s non-contradictory because there is a third element which Bruce failed (explicitly) to acknowledge: reality.  Charlton:

But at some point, in some respect; each individual – here-and-now – is compelled to make a choice that has no ultimate basis but his own personal judgment.

That “…no ultimate basis but his own personal judgment” sounds an awful lot like a purely subjective act.

But if the seat of authority (which I select as my authority by using personal discernment) really has authority, then I am not being contradictory. I am instead using my discernment to discern between rival claims about reality. Once I am satisfied that I understand reality well enough to select the true authority, I make that choice and then submit.

In form, if not in substance, a traditionalistic Protestant would make the same case, but with the Bible in place of Roman Catholic authorities. Catholics think their Church possess an authority that it received from the Lord Jesus Christ, through Saint Peter. If this claim is true in reality, then one ought to submit to Catholic authority. Protestants disagree, and place the highest earthly authority in the words of the Bible. Christ is the head of the church, but as He does not hold office hours, His words, in the Bible, must be paramount.

Different substances, same forms. You study the facts, draw a conclusion, then make a personal commitment.

At most times and in most places, human societies are stable. Only a tiny minority of troublemakers doubt that the traditional authorities have authority. Most people are team players, and the disputes are mundane, albeit sometimes destructive. In the modern western world the revolutionary spirit has taken over, and all authorities are doubted by many of people. This is partly because of the revolutionary spirit of doubt which infests a large segment of western mankind, and partly because the powers that be, in thrall to the revolutionary spirit, prove themselves untrustworthy.

That being so, people cannot just go with the flow. They must choose which controversial side they will join. They must discern personally.

Some people discern better than others. The better discerners try to make judgments about truth and reality based on information that they test. Their criteria are based on what seems to be the case about a really-existing world that is external to themselves. Others discern badly. They discern by their desires.

But even the emotional discerners are judging partly by external reality. Emotions are not anti-rational, they are more-than-rational. Every emotion is a physically-felt judgment about whether the reality that is right in front of the subject is good or bad for the subject. We feel an inner sensation of goodness or badness, but it always refers to something out there. The thing out there may be misinterpreted, but it is still out there. It really exists.

Discernment always refers to an external real world, and good discernment must correspond accurately to this world of non-subjective reality. To be valuable, a personal discernment must be a rational judgment about what is really the case, based on evidence that originates outside of the subject. It’s not enough, for example, to intuit that the Fourth Gospel was penned by Lazarus rather than by John. If that’s not what follows from the evidence, you’re wrong.

But if you “discern” that John wrote the Fourth Gospel by examining as much evidence as you can stand, that’s still personal. The evidence out there does you no good until you take it into yourself and agree with it.

That’s the personal part of discernment.



46 thoughts on “Personal Discernment

  1. Thank you Alan – I’m glad you have articulated this here and now. What is true does not depend upon my ability to discern it. Yet even if I never discern it so as to accept it, it still remains true.

    But clearly there’s a difference between you and BC that is *prior* to examination of external evidence, and this would need to be hashed out before going any further. I see no hope for success in this however. I think BC would categorize these prior questions in a category of what he calls metaphysics.

    I’m loath to mischaracterize what he means (I’ve done it before to my discredit), but from what I can tell myself, if the term “metaphysics” is summoned it means that the rules you as the interlocutor are abiding by for discourse are not applicable for him (BC) because he does not accept them. He abides by a different “metaphysics.”

    • I think that Bruce needs to acknowledge clearly that his orientation towards Christianity is basically subjective, and not founded on a rational belief that external evidence validates its correctness. At least, this is the conclusion which would naturally be reached by a reader of his writings. If, therefore, he does not want to give this impression to readers, he needs to speak more clearly.

    • I am willing to concede the possibility of misunderstanding. What exactly discernment means ought to be elaborated. For example–what are the boundaries of discernment? If BC can give primacy to a specific gospel and change it’s authorship, can he discern other books need to be removed? Can he, via discernment, justify other theological truths? I am interested in understanding the boundaries for discernment.

      Can one discern oneself out of moral obligations? Is discernment aimed at some objective Truth or is discernment aimed at making oneself comfortable with ones reality? Who arbitrates differences in discernment over the same subject matter?

      The answers to these questions are important, as Alan says. If we can discern away moral obligations–then what is the value of having a morality? If we cannot discern away moral obligations, then there is an extrinsic reality that can supersede ones own personal discernment.

      If discernment is aimed at objective truth, then the goal of personal discernment is just to discover what is, in fact, true, and can be restated as “learning” rather than “discernment”. If discernment is not aimed at truth but rather is aimed at making oneself comfortable with ones own reality, then what is the point of discerning at all? Can’t we just say “I believe this because I want to?” That’s a much easier proposition to swallow than constructing justifications out of intuition.

      If two people are discerning the same thing–say, the authorship of the Gospel of John–and one person discerns that it was not John and another person discerns that is was, how does the process of discernment determine who is right? If both people are comfortable with their different beliefs, who cares? But if discernment is aimed at discovering what is true, then one of these two people is wrong and there needs to be some way of evaluating who is wrong. If it is an appeal to some outside authority–then who determines that authority? If it is not–then who decides who is wrong?

      • I don’t think BC would say discerning something to be true makes it true. Discernment is important precisely because you can discern wrongly. And, according to BC, no one can sidestep the terrible responsibility of personal discernment by relying on established authorities and traditions. This is because we are living in radically altered circumstances, the established authorities are corrupt, and our traditions are no better than outdated charts and maps. Wishful thinking can certainly be passed off as personal discernment, but real personal discernment included discernment of one’s own true motives

  2. Your sophistry is irrelevant. Catholics lied to us for decades saying “Unlike you Prots who have to engage in Private Interpretation of the Bible, we don’t! We just follow the pope!”

    Problem is they have to engage in Private Interpretation of both the Bible AND all papal encyclicals ever written. That’s how they determine Francis is a heretic.

    And of course that passage in Peter is not even saying we are not allowed Private Interpretation of the Bible. It says that “no prophecy of scripture came by the private interpretation of the prophet” (KJV archaic language said “is of” rather than “came by” and confused Catholics because they were illiterate in Elizabethan English). The meaning is the prophets were not Rush Limbaugh; they weren’t just interpretting the news to generate their predictions.

    • Please demonstrate exactly what my alleged sophistry is.

      And don’t complain to me about Catholics. I reject the distinctive Catholic doctrines. I’m a Protestant.

    • My understanding is that a subject is a being capable of introspection and an inner life. God is a subject in that sense. And an object is an entity outside of the subject which can be apprehended to a certain extent by the subject. God is also an object, since He exists in reality.

      If you meant something else by the question, please let me know.

      And I have a question for you. What is your philosophy of testing presuppositions? If a person does not test his presuppositions, he is just shooting blindly.

      • It’s interesting that you believe God to be both a subject and an object. I have difficulty conceiving of God as an object — not even as the highest of all possible objects because I believe God does not exist as an object.

        If we define God as an object, it becomes easy to deny His reality because we neglect to know Him at the interior of our own being. However, if we know God to be a subject, then we understand the reality of a being with whom existential relations exist. These relations are based on subject meeting subject, not on subject meeting object and not on external evidence.

        Yet, you propose that these subjective, personal, existential relations with God are presuppositions that must be proved in the external “reality” of the object world to be considered valid and true — otherwise, a Christian is just shooting blindly or being “subjective”.

        So, how do you test your presupposition that God is an object?

      • By “object,” I mean something that exists. And whose existence can be known. If God does not exist, reality cannot be what it is, because God is the source of all being.

        That’s just a summary.

      • Francis, it seems that there is some terminological confusion at work here; as though you are mistaking what Alan (like philosophers more generally) means by “object.” Some objects – Francis, Kristor, Alan – are subjects. Some others – your computer, your shoes, the chair – are not. If I am in a relationship with Alan, a reciprocal relation of two subjects, then he is an object of my subjective experience, and I am an object of his subjective experience. But my relation with my ham sandwich is different: it is an object of my subjective experience, but not vice versa.

        A relation of two subjects in which each was the subject of the other would be a relation in which each of the two subjects *was identically the same singular subject.* It would not, i.e., be a relation at all, but rather just a solipsis. If God is the subject of your subjective experience, and has no subjective experience different from yours, then you are God and God is you, and your experience is nothing more or other than what it is like to be God. If on the other hand God’s subjective experience is different from yours, then is he a different being than you; in which case, you can both be in a dyadic relation of mutual knowledge, love, joy, beauty, and so forth, in which he is the object of your adoration and worship, and you are the object of his mercy and grace.

        These considerations shed some light on the doctrine of the Trinity. The Spirit, Son and Father are in a reciprocal relation of three subjects, to each of whom the others are objects of his experience; and each of those three subjects are one substantial being.

        None of the foregoing should be taken to indicate that God is no more than an object among other objects, like Alan, Kristor, their shoes, a Chevy, or a ham sandwich. I mean, yes, to be sure, God can assume the status of objective fact among objective facts, as he did in the Incarnation. But he is more than a fact among facts, a being among beings, an act among acts. He is *also,* and *first* (in logic, not in time), the principle of facticity, being, and action, in virtue of which there are any such things to begin with.

  3. @Alan – You are just kicking the can here! You always arrive at a personal discernment, sooner or later…

    “Once I am satisfied that I understand reality well enough to select the true authority, I make that choice and then submit.”

    But by what means do you understand reality, and how do you know you understand it ‘well enough’? What does ‘true’ mean? What does submission entail? Personal discernments again.

    ” Catholics think their Church possess an authority that it received from the Lord Jesus Christ, through Saint Peter. If this claim is true in reality, then one ought to submit to Catholic authority. Protestants disagree, and place the highest earthly authority in the words of the Bible.”

    The problem for Catholics in 2022 is concerned with where and in who and what this authority lies – and there is no meta-source for determining this. The problem for Protestants of the kind you describe in 2022, is what the word of the Bible means – given the scores of translations and hundreds of analyses and commentaries, and the number of ways of reading the Bible.

    “Some people discern better than others. The better discerners try to make judgments about truth and reality based on information that they test. ”

    How did you make that judgment, concerning which people are better at discerning? By a discernment of your own – presumably – or a criterion that is based upon discernment.

    I don’t understand why the above point is not obvious! Discernment is inescapable, and more-and-more frequently required – what differs is whether people are honest (with themselves) about the fact.

    Of course, there cannot be a single act of discernment – to function, there needs to be a significant and linked set of metaphysical assumptions – and such a complex of assumptions will also have implications that must also be acceptable assumptions.

    …And having accepted that fact of discernment, and the need to make discernments explicit – then we almost certainly need to revisit our primary metaphysical assumptions; because otherwise we can’t address what ‘personal discernment’ actually entails and means.


    “It’s not enough, for example, to intuit that the Fourth Gospel was penned by Lazarus rather than by John. If that’s not what follows from the evidence, you’re wrong.”

    Is just a cheap and lazy shot, which you *persistently* make. Just Read What I Wrote – – and you will see the evidence and assumptions laid out.

    You may not (probably will not) agree that the evidence which I assume to be most important and relevant, is also what You agree to be most important and relevant – but that is not the same process as you imply I have done.

    Your recurrent jibes at my argument that the Fourth Gospel is our best, and our only primary, source about Jesus Christ’s life and teachings – and therefore stands as a higher authority than any other part of the Bible; are becoming both stupid and wilfully ill-informed.

    You have never shown any evidence that you have even read, let alone considered, the arguments I make.

    Of course, nobody is obliged to read or think about anything I’ve written – and very few people do! But if you want to keep on commenting on my stuff, then you Are obliged to read it, or else be convicted of ignorant malice.

    • Bruce,

      I am writing about this issue because I believe it to be decisive, not to harass you. I have a theory of how beliefs, including religious beliefs, are to be justified. I do not think you are correctly justifying your religious beliefs. There have also been several occasions when you could have answered me but failed to do so. Whether that is because you did not understand my request, or you could not answer in a way that I would find satisfactorily, or because I didn’t read enough, I don’t know.

      When I read your writings, I see a specific error about religion. Maybe I need to read more, or maybe I’m not understanding you. But when I speak clearly about the specific issue that I find wanting, I never receive a satisfactory answer. from you. And what I do read of your writings seems to me to clearly put forth this specific error.

      And this is far more than Bruce vs Alan. This is a crucial issue for religion.

      I want to be as clear as I can. This is my belief about the issue at hand:

      Thinking correctly about anything involves two fundamental acts:

      1 Adopting a set of presuppositions about what reality is and the correct way to think about reality.

      2 Gathering data/facts/ideas/concepts/etc that exist out there, taking them into your mind, and thinking about them, using the presuppositions.

      To adopt presuppositions, most people use the presuppositions of others, usually without being aware they exist or exactly what presuppositions they are adopting. Almost nobody tries to test their presuppositions. A tiny majority is aware of this issue, and try to test their presuppositions.

      But presuppositions must be tested. Otherwise one is just shooting blindly.

      In the page you linked you state your religious presuppositions, and then you say

      “I reach the above decisions on the basis of what could be termed intuition or discernment – as all such decisions must be and are inevitably made — the difference being whether that knowledge of intuition is explicit, or denied; and with the conviction that explicit intuition is more reliably and powerfully discerning than is unconscious or denied intuition.”

      Most people who have studied religion have different presuppositions from yours, and they give reasons for their disagreement. A person cannot just give new presuppositions contrary to the majority, say that they come from intuition, and go from there. As the one who disagrees with the majority, the onus is on you to justify yourself with evidence. This would be the place to supply some evidence, but I do not see it. If you have given elsewhere the evidence that justifies your presuppositions, it would help me a lot for you to give me a direct reference. Like you, I’m busy.

      Step two involves interacting with contrary beliefs. I do not see you interacting meaningfully with opposing religious viewpoints. For example, regarding your belief about the Fourth Gospel, I do not see you presenting evidence given by traditionalists and then demonstrating that it is not persuasive, in light of certain other evidence and reasoning that you put forth. Have you done this? If you have, I would like to see it.

      About the issue of “poetic language.” Other parts of the Bible are not poetic at all, but present rational doctrine which the author wants Christians to know and believe. Surely you cannot just define these away with the presupposition that the Fourth Gospel gives the controlling narrative without giving evidence and interacting seriously with opposing viewpoints. Have you done this?

      • “ A person cannot just give new presuppositions contrary to the majority, say that they come from intuition, and go from there. As the one who disagrees with the majority, the onus is on you to justify yourself with evidence.”

        What does it matter whether a presupposition is held by a majority or not? You seem to be thinking about presuppositions and beliefs in some rhetorical context, rather than from the perspective of an individual seeking understanding.

      • The point is, presuppositions need validation, and part of that validation is to refer to ideas, facts, theories, data and so on that originate outside of the individual. It is not enough to say that they seem right to my intuition. Intuitions must be tested, and part of the test is external data. And majority presuppositions probably have external data to back them.

      • The dominant presuppositions of the present era are nihilistic, transhumanistic, etc. None of them rest, ultimately, on any “external data.” Some people will say that the external data of the size of the universe, and our relative smallness, proves that man is insignificant. But such “external data” are just papering over some core assumption/intuition/feeling. Your presuppositions determine what counts as evidence and what is significant.

        I do not see any “need” to “justify [myself] with evidence” to reject such evil presuppositions, to hear the voice of Christ, and follow Him. Your view that majority-presuppositions require rebuttals is itself a presupposition (or deriving from one) and one which, frankly, seems ridiculous.

        I have followed many of these exchanges in the past. My understanding is that the general line of attack is that Dr. Charlton’s worldview conflicts with traditionalist presuppositions; therefore, you, and others, demand an explanation from Charlton, and his answer doesn’t satisfy you. Charlton points out that his worldview is internally coherent, and ultimately any worldview is decided by assumptions/perceptions (everything else is just logic). The only use of reason and argument is to uncover contradictions, which might reveal an incoherent worldview. I believe that Dr. Charlton has pointed out that there are certain contradictions in the expressed worldviews of *some* traditionalists. Still, he has always been careful, as far as I have seen, to acknowledge that these contradictions are not a necessary consequence of being a traditionalist. You can be a traditionalist and recognize that individual discernment, of who has authority, for instance, is fundamental.

        As far as I have seen, there has been no serious effort to argue for a contradiction in Dr. Charlton’s worldview or that of Romantic Christianity. The argument rather seems to be that Romantic Christians need to prove their worldview to Traditionalists by playing some theological glass bead game.

      • Traditional Christian apologetics and theology refer to scientific data and theories, the historical record, mathematical, logical and philosophical principles, observations about human societies, personal experiences, theological constructs and theories from a wide variety of sources, literary analysis of ancient texts, and so on. All of them external to the individual making his case. People like Dr. Charlton do not do this, as far as I can tell. I have seen him refer briefly to some of these things, but without meaningful engagement with opposing views.

        Consistency is necessary, but not sufficient. Dr. Charlton claims, for example that in actual space and time, Lazarus of Bethany penned the Fourth Gospel. This is a matter of something that either did or did not happen in reality, not in the mind. Whether this claim is true is not a matter of intuition and consistency only. If you do not have evidence taken from such things as scientific data and theories, the historical record, mathematical and logical principles, observations about human societies, personal experiences, theological constructs and theories from a wide variety of sources, literary analysis of ancient texts, and so on, then you are just spinning a yarn.

      • After so many years of engagement, you appear not to understand the worldview you are criticizing.

        You first conflate, on the one hand, the extent to which Dr. Charlton’s views reference the external world; and, on the other hand, how much he engages with opposing views. Charlton has been pretty clear on his metaphysics and whence they derive. You seem to believe that Charlton ought to take more seriously the set of external data *you* find compelling, either because you think they are inherently compelling or because you think he ought to take engagement with your particular set of opposing views more seriously. Yet he has been very clear about why he does not find your curated subset of external data compelling, and your arguments/responses never, as far as I have seen, reach the point of this “presuppositional divergence.”

        “ Consistency is necessary but not sufficient. Dr. Charlton claims, for example, that in actual space and time, Lazarus of Bethany penned the Fourth Gospel. This is a matter of something that either did or did not happen in reality, not in the mind. Whether this claim is true is not a matter of intuition and consistency only. If you do not have evidence taken from such things as scientific data and theories, the historical record, mathematical and logical principles, observations about human societies, personal experiences, theological constructs and theories from a wide variety of sources, literary analysis of ancient texts, and so on, then you are just spinning a yarn.”

        Are you making an argument based on presuppositions you think are shared, or simply stating a perception/presupposition you have that Charlton doesn’t? You seem to believe that Charlton’s understanding of the Fourth Gospel requires scientific evidence, etc., and that without it, he could only be spinning a yarn. Yet Charlton’s presuppositions sharply distinguish between someone spinning a yarn and perceiving truth. You can think he is delusional about this or not, but if you want to engage with him where he is, you ought to acknowledge where your presuppositions differ. There are plenty of ways of having great conversations with people of other presuppositions, as Pascal, among others, has shown.

        If you view Romantic Christianity as a worldview worth engaging with, you ought to, perhaps, first seek to understand it. Your present arguments are only compelling, perhaps, to those who share your assumptions.

      • What I describe seems obvious to me. I have done my best to explain it. If you reject it, you reject it.

    • Respectfully Bruce and Alan, to a certain degree, both of you’re approaching this as “rationalists/modernists” instead of as Christians. The notion of discernment, as a “rationalised preference” no matter how good the rationalisation, misses the role of Grace in the the operation of belief.

      I didn’t “choose” Catholicism because of it’s historical claims or a rational argument, rather it chose me: It wasn’t a rationalised preference.

      Faith is a product of Grace and it lets me see that the Church is right even though my natural preferences,or logical brain, sees it sometimes as stupid. When Newman converted to Catholicism it wasn’t because of any innate deliberative preference for it. I get the impression that everything about it ran against his nature yet he chose it because of a perceptive sense of it’s “rightness” despite all of his intuitive biases against it.

      Faith gives us a “set of eyes” that lets us see the truth of things and takes us to positions where we probably wouldn’t want to go if it was a simple matter of rational discernment. However as scripture teaches, its a very vague sense ( 1 Corinthians 13:12 ) so rationality needs to shore it up. Note: Aquinas teaches that there cannot be a conflict between faith, reason and data sense.

      Objectively, I think that the Catholic Church has a very good argument for its claims, but given the history of the Church a bit of doubt is certainly in order. It’s faith that gets me over the line and commits me to it. It isn’t all about “rational discerment”. Grace is at play here.

      • Yes, it takes God’s grace for us to be able to believe in Jesus.

        But God also works through secondary means, one of which could be called “evidence.” The evidence is there, for those who seek it and who interpret it rightly. And sometimes a failure to engage with the evidence is a fault of thinking.

      • Logic and data ain’t enough, you need Grace to settle the matter. Otherwise you’re just a rationalist and not a Christian.

  4. Discernment always refers to an external real world, and good discernment must correspond accurately to this world of non-subjective reality.

    In the external, non-subjective, real world, the Church is mortal hierarchs with buildings and mortgages and corporate forms who have to follow certain State legalities or be dissolved. But we are simultaneously told that the real Church (as opposed to its physical immanentization in State corporate registries, hierarchies, monasteries, parishes, Synods and Colleges, dozens of Protestant denominations, the various “Orthodox” denominations, the Crystal Cathedral, the 700 Club, etc.) is a metaphysical entity on the spiritual plane.

    Now, as much as I’d love to believe that my particular brand of Christianity is the real Church–that spiritual, God-created entity–and the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of others are false Churches, this cannot be anything but a matter of individual discernment. Nobody can tell me why I should be Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian Tewahedo, Seventh Day Adventist, Anabaptist, Baptist, Anglican, Assembly of God, etc. based on objective reality. Post whatever 10,000 word exegesis on “On this Rock will I build my Church…” you want; I’ll call and raise with my “Where two or more are gathered in my name…” The Romans, Eastern Orthodox and non-Chalcedonians all split over these questions centuries ago before the various Protestant splinterings were even imagined.

    When there was a physically real and objectively verifiable Christendom, the Church was simply there in the Rome and Constantinople of Antiquity, Belloc’s Europe/Faith/Faith/Europe, the most ancient Armenian Church, and others. That objective reality blew up at identifiable points in history, like the Jew’s God-promised Zion blew up in, at the latest, 70 A.D.

    (Incidentally, the modern state of Israel appears to be an objectively verifiable and physically real Zion since 1948; what is the correct Christian response to the modern State of Israel which devout Jews worldwide regard as their Spiritual Home?)

    We are in undiscovered country at this point. This is not a theological debate objectively winnable by any side.

    • “This is not a theological debate objectively winnable by any side.” That is not my experience.

      If Christianity is truth, it will withstand honest inquiry.

      In my experience, one side consistently points to written evidence of what Christ and the Apostles did, believed and taught. That side examines the system of thought presented in the Bible to see if it is internally consistent and whether it can be squared with facts that can be verified from other sources, with the common experiences of mankind, and with philosophical, ethical and scientific knowledge. Other sides either do less of this, or do not do it as well.

      This side also examines the question of whether we should regard the Bible as a reliable record of what it records. I find their answers persuasive on rational and emotional/esthetic levels.

      This side is conservative, traditionalistic Protestantism. It convinces me.

      And if it can convince me, it can convince others.

      At the same time, I can respect a study that draws different conclusions, as long as I do not detect any obvious flaws of reasoning.

      • Devout Buddhists, Shia, Sunni, Alawi, Sufi, Hindus, Jews, Baha’i and others all say the same thing about their respective traditions, not to mention the numerous Christian sects all professing to be the true Church.

        Your comment is evasive and this–“Other sides either do less of this, or do not do it as well”–is completely subjective. Amazing–your God-like mind; you are proving Bruce’s point for him.

      • Except that you don’t know my experience because you are not me.

        And most religions do not offer proof based on historical events or multiple, detailed, fulfilled prophecies. Nobody else claimed to be God and backed it up with the evidence.

        What is your religion, other than being anti-Gnostic?

      • Except that you don’t know my experience because you are not me.

        I.e., subjectivism.

        What is your religion, other than being anti-Gnostic?

        I was a Protestant Christian for 40+ years less a four year detour into atheism in young adulthood.

        Nine years ago, I was chrismated into Orthodox Christianity. I would need to confess and do penance to get back in Communion.

        After 50+ years (whatever the math is) of professing Christianity, my observation is that religion is downstream from culture, and culture is downstream from ancestry.

      • “i.e., subjectivism.”

        No. I had said “In my experience,…” to which you said, in effect, “Wrong,” in response to which I pointed out that you cannot say “wrong” to my experience, because you are not me. Not subjectivism, just paying attention to what was actually said. Also trying to be somewhat charitable: It seems obvious to me, but your mileage may vary.

        Given that you are a Christian, do you think that there is an objective truth somewhere in it, or is it entirely downstream from ancestry?

      • @Alan – we’re getting into the weeds on a debate over objective truth. Bruce’s point is that Christians are on their own now because the Christendom in which their faith was immanent and lived (rather than discerned) is gone, blown up in revolutions and two world wars.

        What follows from that is pretty grim, and is at the center of the debate between the Trads and the Romantics: the current institutionalized Christianity (the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Church et al.) is no longer the same institution as when it was one head of the double-headed eagle (i.e., Christendom). The institutional Church is now a shadow. This became terribly apparent in 2020, when the bishops ceded control of liturgical practice to the atheistic State. There are other markers: the Church’s activism in displacing white Christians in their own homelands; the complete failure in the culture wars; numerous financial and sexual scandals; the incoherent, out-dated ecclesiology.

        We perceive that Western Civilization (now the Secular Democratic Atheist State) heads to its grave. I think the Churches in their current iterations are going to go with it, but maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. More likely, I won’t be around to find out.

      • I agree in general with Bruce’s diagnosis of the leadership of Christendom, and I partly agree with his solution to the problem. But personal discernment must be based on external facts/ideas/concepts/theories/etc that are inwardly apprehended. In all of his public pronouncements on this topic that I have seen, he fails to acknowledge the need to check inward discernments with external truths.

        For example he never interacts meaningfully with contrary arguments or theories. He never presents evidence and then tests it, as used to be common in academia.

        Regarding the state of Christendom: it is as if we have been thrown back to the first century. In those days there was only the beginnings of a formal hierarchy. Christianity was based not on the authority of bishops , synods and traditions, but on the beliefs of Christians that the message contained in Scripture was understandable and correct. This attitude/approach is available and valid in all ages.

      • I think the antignostic is right about our situation and Charlton’s reaction to it. The churches resemble public schools insofar as they suck up money without providing much in the way of tangible services. The judgment may be unfair, but growing numbers fell that they are required to support institutions that do little, or nothing, or that are actually hurting them. They feel they are entirely “on their own.”

      • I agree with Bruce’s general diagnosis, and with part of his cure. I disagree with his evident exclusion/downplaying of what others have said/established about Christianity. He does not interact meaningfully with other theories and evidences, but sticks with his own system. This is not a valid way to proceed.

      • I take Bruce as a radical individualist, with all the good and bad points that go with that title. I cannot make heads nor tails out of much that he writes, but find some of what he says very insightful. You are right that he does not much go for dialectic engagement and correction, but I’d say that goes with being a visionary. Like I said, I get something out of Bruce being Bruce and do not ask that he be something else.

      • I cannot let it go at that, because Part of Bruce’s diagnosis is desperately needed, and the other part is fundamentally wrongheaded. I don’t know how influential he is on this point, but many, many people operate subjectively, as he does.

        When authority is sound, people’s individual errors tend to cancel, and our leaders keep us in a more or less tolerable state. When authority is unsound, correct thinking by individuals becomes more important.

      • I think Bruce probably would have entertained these back-and-forths a couple years ago, but at this point he is probably done for the most part.

        He has laid out his arguements in depth on his blog, in his books, and even going so far as to personally clarify them for individuals in the comments.

        If somebody is still unconvinced, that is *on them.* You cannot expect somebody else to put in the work for you. I can’t put my finger on what the disconnect here is. Maybe it is over-philosophizing on something that should be incredibly simple and self-evident. Take a leap of faith – adopt a new set of assumptions – or don’t.

        But I see nothing new brought up in this post or the comments since this “debate” arose 2 months ago. Just more of the same errors that have already been clarified. What else to say? Analogies will always be insufficient, given the *subject* is God. This isn’t about apples and oranges. Back to basic assumptions.

      • This is not a debate with Bruce, per se. I am making an important point: inner belief is not enough. There must also be outer confirmation.

        Bruce’s orientation, if not his exact approach, is shared by many.

  5. I can’t say whether Mr. Roebuck has accurately characterized Dr. Charlton’s position (evidently not), but I think we can agree at least with Dr. Charlton that personal discernment is ultimately unavoidable. This seems obvious to me, whether you’re a Catholic, Protestant, or anything else for that matter. It also seems to me that Mr. Roebuck agrees with that much.

    The same sort of thing is true regarding interpretation: it’s not that Protestants individually interpret texts and Catholics don’t: Catholics still personally need to interpret papal ex cathedra statements, for example. (This is true of all communication, personal interpretation is unavoidable). This isn’t to say that there is no substantive and significant difference between Catholics and Protestants in their respective approaches to interpretation, only that personal interpretation is necessary to both.

    I’m not so clear on what the contradiction is that Dr. Charlton describes in the linked post. I see an obvious tension in the phenomenon described, but not a contradiction: no more so than there might be in a man making rash or critical remarks about his foolish or even wicked father and then wondering whether he had run afoul of the Fourth Commandment. Are trad Catholics denying that they utilize personal discernment in deciding to submit to the Catholic Church? I guess I’d want to see examples.

  6. Pingback: On Personal Discernment – The Orthosphere

  7. Re: “Protestants disagree [with RCC supremacy], and place the highest earthly authority in the words of the Bible.”

    Protestants undermine this claim because they place authority in the words that the RCC has selected as canonical. If the RCC interpretation of the texts is questionable, then wouldn’t their original selection of the books be questionable? Instead, Protestants embrace this selection of NT texts (there are some differences in OT texts) and, apparently, the doctrine that they were divinely inspired, which makes their selection unquestionable. So, an element of RCC supremacy is accepted, and your “personal discernment” is confined to parameters established by the RCC.

    The history of Christianity would be very different if only one Gospel were selected (say, just Mark or just John) and others relegated to contemporary early writings. But this is not what happened: the canon was finalized in the early second century, and four Gospels were selected, Irenaeus being an influential decider (I see where he made Kristor’s list of greats).

    It strikes me that the issue of which texts are to be considered canonical isn’t discussed much, but I could be wrong since I’m not as deep into this as most here. If it isn’t already evident, I believe that these texts were selected by influential men, and I find implausible the doctrine of divine inspiration.

    • It is not correct to say that the specific and continuing entity now called the RCC deliberately selected which ancient writings are Scripture. A group of people called Christians recognized the God-breathed nature of certain writings. The RCC had nothing to do it, except in the theory which later Christians created retrospectively.

      Protestants accept the NT canon because we recognize that the early Christians made the correct call. Later Christians made some incorrect calls, which we protested. I have posted more about this issue which I may repost if it seems good to do so.

  8. I can only speak from my own understanding, but I believe the understanding of discernment that Bruce Charlton is proposing is that discernment never inherently comes to an end. That is, while at any time people may come to a conclusion, at some later time they can always reopen the process of discernment and come to a different conclusion (or not, as the case may be).

    This is in contrast to the understanding that discernment only happens in the beginning when deciding between competing bodies of doctrine or worldviews and then someone decides to submit to one of them. According to (some versions of) this understanding, once the choice to submit is made, discernment comes to an end, not just as a matter of practicality, but of necessity.

    I think Charlton’s main concern with the particular interpretation that I mentioned is that in the world as it is now, things can change so quickly and also so subtly that someone who does not believe in revisiting discernment could be misled.

    The core of the idea is that discernment may end for a variety of reasons, but it can always be brought back.

    Also, this idea about discernment does not entail the belief that Lazarus wrote the Fourth Gospel or any other particular doctrine; it is possible to agree with this understanding of discernment and believe that the Apostle John wrote the Fourth Gospel.

  9. Also, I would disagree that the sentence:

    “But at some point, in some respect; each individual – here-and-now – is compelled to make a choice that has no ultimate basis but his own personal judgment.”

    is intended to mean subjectivism. I would interpret “no ultimate basis” not as meaning “no ultimate justification”, but rather, “no ultimate fallback”. The idea is that even if one decides to base one’s choice on some other person or group, then that itself is a discernment, based on one’s own evaluation of the person or group.

    I don’t believe that Charlton has intended intuition or discernment to mean an arbitrary feeling based on nothing else. I understand intuition to mean the basis of thought, the direct apprehension of truth (however that happens because there may not only be one way). And I understand discernment to mean the process by which someone comes to determine what is true, however that process occurs. Discernment does not itself refer to a specific process; it is a placeholder for whatever the process itself might be, which can certainly include authorities, empirical facts, reasoning, etc.

    • Charlton’s discernment of his religious presuppositions does not seem to take into account such things as historical records, linguistic analysis of ancient texts, scientific evidence, arguments made by mainstream Christian theologians and apologists, and so on. If he refers to these things, he does not interact meaningfully with them.

      If something is (or was) real, it leaves (left) evidence that can be accessed by ordinary means of investigations, including evidence of the types I listed above. When challenged, Charlton does not resort to any of these. He just restates his presuppositions.

      I think he is ignoring (perhaps deliberately) a mountain of evidence which speaks against his beliefs. I could perhaps accept it if he weighed more evidence and found that his beliefs were the best explanation of all the phenomena he surveys. But he does not do this.

      • A person’s “world-picture,” by which I mean a network of assumptions and beliefs, determines what he counts as testing, proving, how he interpret evidence and his whole system of verification.

        “Think of chemical investigations,” says Wittgenstein, “Lavoisier makes experiments with substances in his laboratory and now he concludes that this and that takes place when there is burning. He does not say that it might happen otherwise another time. He has got hold of a definite world-picture – not of course one that he invented: he learned it as a child. I say world-picture and not hypothesis, because it is the matter-of-course foundation for his research and, as such, also goes unmentioned.” – On Certainty (Emphasis added)

        Wittgenstein was not without a certain sardonic sense of humour: “If a blind man were to ask me “Have you got two hands?” I should not make sure by looking. If I were to have any doubt of it, then I don’t know why I should trust my eyes. For why shouldn’t I test my eyes by looking to find out whether I see my two hands? What is to be tested by what? (Who decides what stands fast?)

        And what does it mean to say that such and such stands fast?” – ibid


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