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Experience, Reason, and Authority in the Apologetics of Ronald Knox | Milton Walsh | From Ronald Knox As Apologist: Wit, Laughter, and the Popish Creed

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Editor's Note: Throughout the first half of the past century, both as an Anglican and then as a Catholic priest, Ronald Knox was a well-known part of the English literary landscape. He was a favored preacher for occasions great and small; his articles on a host of topics found a place in the newspapers and monthly literary magazines; his voice was heard often on the BBC. Most significant was the tide of books that flowed from his pen and found a wide readership in Great Britain and the USA.

In this book, Father Milton Walsh, an expert on Knox's writing, has analyzed and provided ample quotations from the most significant writings of Knox that fall under the genre of apologetics. Knox was a superb apologist because as a priest he was a man of deep faith, and as a writer he had a wonderful way of expressing the Christian truths in an elegant and clear language. Knox was also a man with a grand sense of humor and a keen wit, as well as empathy and kindness, and both his humor and charity are captured well in these writings. Ronald Knox stands alongside G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Evelyn Waugh as a great spiritual and literary British writer whose works are once again receiving wide readership and appreciation.

This excerpt is from pages 103-107 of Ronald Knox As Apologist.

Knox holds in theory that reason is the common ground for believer and unbeliever, and so his formal approach to apologetics is strongly intellectual. As a matter of practice, he finds his meeting place to be the world of ordinary human experience. Of course, this does not exclude either the intellectual or formally religious aspects of human life: following the logic of a clear argument can be very satisfying, and most (if not all) people have had "numinous" experiences of some kind. The advantage of drawing on ordinary experience is twofold. First, it is universal: it appeals to what is common to all people, not just those with a philosophical or mystical bent. Secondly, it is immediate: the listener does not hear something he will have to think about; the image from daily life evokes an unreflected cry of recognition. Knox finds this cry in the earliest Christian preaching, at Pentecost:
What tourist does not know the sudden thrill of hearing his own language talked under strange skies? It was that thrill, experienced beyond all reasonable belief, that gave St Peter an audience when he preached his first sermon (US, 434).
Having established an identity with his audience, Knox can share his insights with them. His listeners are encouraged to stand in his shoes because they sense that he has stood in theirs. As Philip Caraman has remarked, the "we" of his sermons is not the cliché of the orator; people sense that their difficulties are also his (OS, vii). His natural sensibilities were marked by a conviction of his own ordinariness, and his sympathy for others was heightened by his lifelong work as a translator. Knox is able to identify himself with Saint Thérèse or Saint Paul, but he can also share "The Average Man's Doubts about God" that keep him awake at four in the morning (US, 166-72). Unbelievers, too, are of the family and claim his empathy:
Even when there is no bond of common Christianity, we have a vague respect for a man's religion; he is a Buddhist, yes, but he has got hold of something. To have any respect at all for a man's irreligion--that is much harder. And yet he, too, has got hold of something; he believes, as we do, in logical proof; believes, as we do, in historical accuracy; hates, as we do, the very name of superstition (OS, 357).
In his appeal to the ordinary experience of his listeners, Knox is addressing their imaginative faculty, inviting them to recognize in these happenings an encounter with God in Christ. What connection can be made between this "imaginative apologetics" and the logical approach Knox takes in The Belief of Catholics and in some of his other writings? As Newman has been helpful in underscoring the primacy of imagination in coming to faith, so also he suggests a relationship between the experiential and rational elements of belief. In order for something to be believed, it must be credible to the imagination; however, once that has happened, the belief must be investigated in order to be authenticated. In this way "an impression in the Imagination has become a system or Creed in the Reason." [1] Such an investigation involves, in the case of Christianity, a study of personal testimonies, episodes from the history of Christianity, the acts of those who have lived this belief authentically in the past, and the controversies and decrees of the Christian community. Predisposed to accept this evidence as "reliable", the investigator finds that, unlike scientific logic, it does not demonstrate necessity; rather, like legal logic, it converges and coalesces.

Roman Catholic apologetics in the first half of this century sought to convince with inexorable logic, and, in Knox' estimation, strike the modern reader as inhuman (PGNA, II). Presumably he includes in this judgment his own apologetical efforts; treated in isolation they might give such an impression. But an understanding of his apologetical writings must also embrace the sermons and conferences in which he treats such issues of faith more informally. When this is done, his logical arguments take their place as one part of an approach to apologetics that is truly convergent and persuasive because it appeals not only to the intellect but to the whole person.

To the end of his life, Knox defended the essential place of the intellect in religion. For the sake of Christianity at large, Catholic theology should not "haul down the flag of intellectualism" and betray part of her characteristic witness; at the same time, intellectual propaganda must not be isolated from moral and spiritual witness (PGNA, 15).

This emphasis on the intellect, taken as part of a broader approach to belief, is of particular value in our own day. Knox suggests that, by a kind of palace revolution, existential philosophers have threatened to dethrone the intellect; he wonders if the Age of Reason will be succeeded by an Age of Will (PGNA, 34). Perhaps what has come about is an Age of Experience. The thirst for "experience", unaccompanied by critical investigation, can lead to tragic consequences. The unexamined life is not worth living; unexamined experience is not merely worthless, it is dangerous. Ronald Knox could draw on the experience of his listeners with his powerful use of images; so could the Reverend Jim Jones, or Adolf Hitler. Experience must be submitted to critical investigation.

A necessary test of experience for Knox, as for Newman before him, is the authority of the Church. The importance of this aspect of Catholicism is evident in both his life and his writings. In his youth, Knox tried to frame the question in theoretically exclusive terms: experience or authority. Yet upon his conversion he did not publish a reasoned defense for the authority of Roman Catholicism; he shared the experiences, and the reflection upon those experiences, which led him to become a Catholic. Years later, in Difficulties, he noted that "The wave of experience will always dash you up against the rock of authority, which dashes you back to seek refuge in experience again" (Dif, 239).

The teaching authority of the Catholic Church provides an indispensable context for a reasoned reflection on experience. However, a proper investigation of a particular religious tradition must not be limited to a study of decrees and definitions. As Knox shows in The Belief of Catholics, it is not enough to examine "The Truths Catholic Hold" and "The Rules Catholics Acknowledge"; one should also consider "The Strength Catholics Receive" and inhale "The Air Catholics Breathe". Knox views the whole of Catholicism as apologetic. His individual talents are employed to mediate the communal witness of the Church.

Corporate witness has a double significance for Knox. In the first place, it represents a final authentication for the investigation of experience. Knowledge is incomplete until it is tested in the sphere of action. The wave of experience dashes us up against the rock of authority; the system or creed that emerges dashes us back onto the waves of praxis. For this reason, Knox constantly urges believers to live their faith. For example, at the end of the every summer term, he would encourage the Oxford undergraduates to enter into the corporate life of their home parishes, "not just to be the kind of Catholic who is seen slinking off to Mass every Sunday at the Oratory or at the Cathedral, a lost unit in the crowd" (US, 149). It is not enough for their knowledge to be theoretical; it must be experiential.

The second point about the Church's communal witness is that it must be expressed in the lives of individual believers. Knox reminds his students that their lives will be the illustration, for better or for worse, of the Catholic creed; others will seek in them the real mark of the Church for which the world hungers--the mark of a transformed life (US, 64, 234).

Here we encounter Ronald Knox' most convincing apologetic argument: his own life. More significant than his clever arguments or penetrating images is the testimony of a life transformed by the Gospel. The brilliance that expressed itself in so many literary forms finds its integration in his belief. Knox aids others in integrating God's gift with the rest of their living by sharing the integration of his own life. He does so unobtrusively; one finds him to be not only an apologist but a spiritual director and a friend as well. Father Caraman, who edited three volumes of his sermons, notes that they seldom contain a reference to their author: "Mgr Knox was convinced that the preacher should not obtrude himself into his subject" (OS, ix). Explicitly, no; but one feels when reading any of these sermons that Knox is speaking of something he has made his own.


[1] John Henry Newman, Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford (1843; repr. of 1871 ed., Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1961), p. 329.


US: University Sermons of Ronald A. Knox, Together with Sermons Preached on Various Occasions. Edited with an introduction by Philip Caraman. London: Burns Oates and Washbourne; New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963.

OS: The Occasional Sermons of Ronald A. Knox. Edited with an introduction by Philip Caraman. London: Burns and Oates; New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960.

PGNA: Proving God: A New Apologetic. With a preface by Evelyn Waugh. London: The Month, 1959.

Dif: Difficulties: Being a Correspondence about the Catholic Religion between Ronald Knox and Arnold Lunn. A new edition with two additional letters in conclusion. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1952.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:

IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page for Monsignor Ronald Knox
The Four Marks of the Church | Ronald A. Knox
Review of The Belief of Catholics | Carl E. Olson
Ronald Knox, Apologist | Carl E. Olson
Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The History and Purpose of Apologetics | An Interview with Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
Foreword to A History of Apologetics | Dr. Timothy George
"Be a Catholic Apologist Without Apology" | Carl E. Olson
"Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apologetics" | by Fr. John R. Cihak
"Kreeft On Apologetics" | An interview with Peter Kreeft

Fr. Milton Walsh is a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He wrote his dissertation on Ronald Knox and is a longtime reader and researcher of the works of Knox.

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