Sunday, July 23, 2017

When the Emperor Permits the Desecration of Icons

As many commentators point out, both friendly and hostile, Christians, particularly "conservative" Evangelicals, in the United States have near equal divorce rates to those who are not. As some have pointed out, the real root of the gay marriage problem is in the changing attitude towards divorce, and to the institution of marriage itself. Defanging the legislation was not only grounded in disdain for the permanence of marriage or the growing absolute primacy of romance as the grounds of marriage. But either way, taking the bite out of the marital contract allowed marital dissolution a free-flow, which became a reality as divorce became more and more socially permissive. However, this is not the problem. On an unrelated note, Petr Chelcicky comments on his contemporary situation of confusing the Law of God with man made laws:

Now concerning the second difference between the rule of the law of Christ and the pagan rule, the Master Adversary says[381] that the civil or state law of the pagans is (real) law by virtue of the sinfulness of men and for the purpose of obtaining justice through compulsion, while the law of the holy gospel exists for the (sole) purpose of obtaining spiritual gifts of grace… [ Civil law administers justice through compulsion, while the law of Christ establishes justice through love. ]
[ But while law checks – to a certain degree – injustice within one’s own country, it does nothing when iniquities are committed abroad. ] The straying Christians like to depend on secular power; they even seek it and cherish it since it serves their inclinations… Thus a material-minded people asks to have secular power (over them) because it enables them to rest in peace around fleshpots, under the protection of (state) authority; and if, peradventure, some hardship or threat to life or property should come about, these things will be defended by authority of the king, through war, driving away the disturber, and revenge… [ These Christians who have strayed from the law of Christ and are under the jurisdiction of the civil law are regarded as just and good as long as they live up to the standards of the civil courts and offices. But righteousness by law has nothing in common with righteousness in the eyes of God. ] The truth of Jesus is nothing but foolishness[382] to proud men, an oddity, an offense, a pain, and a shame.
Following Chelcicky's logic, Christians, the little Christs, the people of God, ought to live their lives in accordance with God's law. This has nothing to do with, or contradicts, the fact that Christ fulfills the law, we are always at war with sins that plague us, that fact that Christ's blood shed is the forgiveness of sins and the sure promise of pardon. However, Chelcicky is at war with the problem of "Sunday Christians". And one can see that real problem is that the Kingdom of God is removed from our day to day, public, lives.

As I stated before, the Reformation reformatted the Two Swords doctrine, but did not fundamentally maintain a deep sense of antithesis, one grounded not only in the heart, but also in the material and immaterial structures of our world. Spiritual is understood to be something other than common life, which is then placed under diverse rules and laws that have only tangential reference to Christ. This is the origin of Jesus as Beautiful Soul, which reaches its political theological climax in Niebuhr's claim that while Jesus' ethic is important as an ideal, it's not practical or practiceable in the hard situations of real life, the world of politics and economics.

Chelcicky doesn't refute that in the pagan world, Christ's law will be marked foolishness, and hence while Christians could theoretically hold these civil functions, they'd be hated and scorned. As Chelcicky said elsewhere, indeed a Christian could be a king, but if he was a Christian he'd know only preaching the gospel is the true path to bringing about righteousness, not the coercion of the sword. That is, the king would appear rather unkingly, even though Christ teaches us not to war against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities. For a king to reflect David is to mistake the kingship of Israel as typological of Christ's reign. Christ Jesus is not a different kind of king than David, rather He is the fulfillment, the filling full, of David's form.

When Christ's kingship is mistaken as having no impingement upon our lives, that He is merely spiritual in the sense that Christ's words have no real bearing on our public lives, we are in grave error. And the facts of divorce are proof of this. We no longer live in accordance with Christ's law as true, looking to Him in faith, but turn to civil law as our boundary. While the temptation to do so is always there, the fact many self-professing Christians can do so with a good conscience is because of doctrine that says America is a Christian country (and thus its laws are holy?) or that all law is merely neutral, lest it govern our worship or spiritual lives, and we need not concern ourselves of it, obedience is enough.

The second sounds innocuous enough, but it becomes license to dissolve our lives, and churches, into the surrounding civil life. While men like Wycliffe and Luther were right to oppose the Pope's temporal claims as a prince, especially his meddling in the affairs of princes, they (especially Luther) resulted in unleashing a kind of anarchy. From his perch in the monastery and university, I do not think Luther understood that the coercive conjoining of Papal and Imperial law was all that kept the thin veneer of Christian virtue over most peoples. He lamented that many had no desire for the things of God, only to be free from all constraint. Very quickly most facets of the Magisterial Reformation hitched their wagons to princely reform movements, and recreated the same alliance between state and church, though perhaps with new power differentials. In both cases, whether under Roman or Reformational governments, the church became a spiritual province, with temporal benefits, that subdued itself fully to the needs of civil power.

What does this have to do with divorce? Because of the legacy of segregating Christ's law from common life means that we hide in the boundaries of civil law. It should keep us in awe that even though Henry VIII was absolute master of England, he was still enraged that William Tyndale, a nobody with no civil power, wrote against him. Why did Henry care? Because he knew Tyndale, standing on Scripture and claims of Christ's church, might cause people to undermine the king's stature. Tyndale was not explicitly being political, but he refused to call evil good because the king demanded it. And Tyndale did not take the sword, he was eventually martyred for his fidelity to Christ the King.

St. Paul tells us marriage is a mystery of Christ and His Church. In this way, marriage is a sacrament, if we are to use such a category, because it forms out of common materials (the ordinary civil function of marriage) an icon of Christ's work, a promise to an otherwise common fact. If Christians are ever to appear demographically different, it will be because we care more for Christ's law than the terror of civil judgement. Many are beginning to wake up to this fact, but I'm afraid it's grounded in present day hostility, not the binding teaching of the Apostles. Even if the Emperor tells us it's permitted to desecrate Christ's icons, we should rather obey God, and not hide under theological skirts, fleeing to the coercive features of the state. May God curse such people with a bad conscience, so that they might repent; and may God bless His churches so we may soak ourselves into the life of Christ.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Confusion of Constantine

Leithart recently wrote two review articles about the Church of England in the Victorian era. These articles send mixed messages, especially in light of Leithart's larger body of work and thought.

The first article described how the Church was afflicted with a plague of absentee ministers and absentee parishes. The former collected their salaries and pursued their own interests, the latter were jacked the parish record numbers. Thus, the numbers of the Church of England were highly inflated and don't reflect church life in the slightest.

The second article described how an Evangelical layman was able to procure the ability to administer preferment. This was an old practice of the English church, where a church was staffed by men selected by the wealthy lay property owner who donated land to the building of said church. This process was a means to subvert episcopal hostility to evangelical ministers. Thus lay people helped the gospel go forth, despite the intransigence of her bishops.

These stories seem to militate against each other, and reveal the confusion of a church's involvement in the formation of a national identity and deeply intertwined with the functions of social prestige. I don't know if Leithart is bemused, or supportive, by the Evangelical layman's triumphing over stodgy bishops. But either way, both of these aspects are due to the fact that the church was tied in with the structures and institutions of the nation in such a binding way. This is the problem of, as Hooker put it , the church as the nation at prayer. This was mostly a fiction that was only ever true viz. coercion. The Glorious Revolution, and the resulting toleration that resulted, led to the Church of England only existing in national prominence as the legally established church. As ministers complained throughout the eighteenth century, many ceased to show up on Sundays now that coercion was severely diminished. If anything, this actually freed the Church of England to realize some of the problems of being attached to the nation and to the state, though many of these lessons went mostly unlearned. The current beauty of much of the Anglican Communion is the blossoming of it in the Global South, which has risen up to challenge the vile apostasy found in most of the West, most notable in putrid state of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.

When the Church of England ceased to English of essence and was such only by accident, it was freed to obey Christ's commission and reveal His glory. Constantine is not really the problem. Christians should praise an emperor (or whatever governing authority) who eases over persecutions and appreciate any gifts. But Constantine was not merely a passing phenomenon, but a mistaken image of Christ. Constantine is less a problem than Eusebeius' immortalization of him, which has become the defacto model of Sacralist Christendom ever since. National life becomes Christianized, which means actual people hardly are. Hence, the parishes empty and powerful "lay" people, lazy and blind, turn churches into Pagan dominions, little play things in the hands of a national life. The occasional Evangelical layman is only a set up for a greater tragedy, as the general anemia of the Church of England today shows. When will Leithart admit that, as it turns out, the Anabaptists were right the whole time about the relation of the Church to the nation? How many tragedies will it take to wake up?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A City in the Distance: Reflections on Church, State and Society

I am frequently disturbed by the American ideology of Progress. That is to say, the idea of an endless advance forward for its own sake is very bizarre. I want to ask: Why? Is this a blind faith, leap in the dark, for a meaning to be later found? Or is Progress its own reward? And again, why? There doesn't seem to be anything inherently rewarding about progress, except when conceptualized competitively. No one cares to get to Pacman level 1000 unless one kept score. And even then, so what? In the movie The Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan says to Ozymandias, "The world's smartest man poses no more threat to me than the world's smartest termite." In the grand scale of everything, progress is eclipsed and obliterated.

Of course, no one lives for that, not exactly. Even psychotic atheists, who revel in this sort of thing, like DeGrasse Tyson,  utilize man's epiphenomenal status in the Universe as a means to spur a kind of existential epicureanism. What I mean by that is the value of life is forged in experiences, of bliss, love, and acceptance, and when we, the collective Human race, get off our horse and realize how worthless and speck-like we are, then we get about enjoying our lives. Thus, all law and government is primarily for the purposes of providing restraint on those who might interrupt this quest. Humanity is broken up and atomized, to the point that to talk about nature is nothing but a peculiar short-hand for a nominal pattern of behavior.

While the idea of progress for its own sake is incredibly peculiar, it pales in comparison to the above. In some ways, Kant provided the scaffolding for this new modus vivendi when he tried to save the Enlightenment from Hume's scalpel. The division of the noumenal from the phenomenal unveils a world that is ultimately a shell. Marxists provide the saner of the two options, positing the non-existence of the phenomenal and reducing all things to material causes. While this seems wildly implausible, it is far and above better than the opposite, which seems to be more of the case today, outside a couple of cynical and reclusive academics that remain. Instead, the noumenal has taken an absolute importance. Some have thus referred to our age as "gnostic".

This might be hard to believe when many consider our age as hyper materialistic, but this is a critical error. The ease in which American society easily chases after material objects means anything but a materialist society, for the material is at best a conduit for the real benefits of the immaterial. People do not horde money, but lust after the new gem of experience. This is the new watchword that functions similarly, but crassly, to the Plotinian Pagan quest of salvation. Yes, America much more resembles a cargo-cult than the austere ascesis of the late Roman world, but they mirror one another. Experience is the opening up of the noumenal world within the world of phenomena. That is to say, the really Real appears amidst a bunch of useless, dead, and empty objects. These objects merely obstruct or assist us in the quest for the true treasure of experience. Some experiences build towards other experiences, but ultimately it's a quest for the interruption of all things and receiving the point of it all.

This sounds esoteric and abstract, but let me talk about this more in terms of time. According to Greek distinctions, employed later by Existentialist theologians, there are two kinds of time: kairos and chronos. The latter is the normal pace of things, moment to moment, past and future, where the present is merely the funnel through which the one becomes the other. The former, however, is an interruption, a breaking point, where normal time is shattered. Kairotic time is best thought of as the Moment for which we crave. There are plenty of songs, usually about orgasm or drug use, that document the quest for this moment, the experience of meaning. There is a distinction between reality as material, objective experience, and the real reality of the subjective experience. The moment is punctilliar, but in a wholly tangential sense. It is the moment when time is opened to timelessness. All who do and act for "experience" have this sense lurking somewhere in the background. As much as people care about things, they are merely shells carrying the goods inside of them. The divorce can be stark. As one recent song put it, "I remember back in Oakland, I was lying there in rapture on the bathroom floor."

The existential metaphysics make all of this different from classic Epicureanism, but it is on a sliding scale of similarity. Some argue for experience upon repeatable, usually licit, forms of gentle accumulation (e.g. you climbed a mountain, went skydiving, had a wedding, saw a birth, drank $500 whiskey, visited Bali, etc.), which fits more of the Epicurean desire for maximal happiness. Of course, there are those who are the crash course for the kairotic experience, and risking it all for briefly scraping it, and thus escaping the horror of the mundane, is totally worth it. Usually this sort of thing results in potent drug-use, socially radical sex, violence, etc. Thus, the dirty secret that ecstasy and agony are twin sisters practiced by those who crave this sort of life.

Both of these are pursued en masse, but neither of them really make sense of society or polity. I'm not talking about whether society is possible, ala. Lockean push and pull in the Original Contract. Rather, it doesn't make any sense. Society has no purpose, but to provide cover for all this experiential search. The kairotic moment of experience, the border-straddling of subliminal rapture, refers to nothing but to the subjective which some understand in strictly physicalist terms (i.e. brain chemistry, hormones, and nerve stimulation).

The maddening part is that people don't have any real objective sense to their lives. And this is very helpful for social policy, because the parameters of life are concrete and permanent, there is no deep-seated unrest or angst about this on the large scale. Now, this might become a factor if people are deprived of the means to go on this search; poverty, suffering, and hardship have the strange blessing of sobering people up.

For the strictly materialist, this is why Marx could say religion is the opiate of the people, cowing their energies for their own fantasies of the internal life divorced from material reality. Marx may have woeful philosophic presuppositions, but it shows the horrible error of the bourgeois Protestant theology of the day. While Kierkegaard, in many ways I suppose, is still part of the problem, his cries and shrieks that there was hardly a Christian in Denmark were an attack on this function division. When Christ is made conformable to Kant, the end is a disaster. The rise of the Social Gospel and the postmillenialist attempt to build the Kingdom on Earth was a reaction to this form of liberal theology.

However, this reaction within liberal theology is still tethered to the same impulses of the former. In terms of the faith, I'm not sure which is worse. All attempts at Sacralism, including the liberal Social Gospel movement, turn Christ's Church and His Gospel into a Pagan cult (meant in the traditional, not pejorative, sense), but at least they touch upon the discerned wisdom that Human life cannot be separated from objective, physical reality. The Christian Existentialist, which we might call the heresy, imaged in early Gnostics, cuts through reality, severing the life of Christ from the mundane. Kant may be the chief wizard for modern understandings of this fact, but he is not to be blamed as an innovator, or introducing something radically new. Instead, he allowed a form of Christianity to survive in tact while also allowing the pursuit of newly minted "Enlightened" forums to seek after. In a way, Kant typifies the logical conclusion of Lutheran Two Kingdoms theology, which I will from here on refer to as simply Two Kingdoms.

From the start I will say that Two Kingdoms is a critical error. It has a solid and long tradition, and develops as an interpretation of Augustine's theology of the Two Cities. Augustine's approach was a radical alternative to the other major political theology of Eusebeius of Caesarea's veneration of Constantine. The Eusebeian theology welded Roman Society to the faith as a story of conquest: Christ and His Martyrs overcame Rome, culminating in the conversion of the Emperor. Constantine's conversion heralded the creation of a Christian civilization, where Church integrated into Empire. This does not mean total capitulation, where the church is a toady of imperial design. Rather, it means that both emperor and bishop have a role within a larger society that one may call Christendom. Though there was not a strict divide between "temporal" or "spiritual", the boundaries of offices were understood.

Two Swords is an Augustinian spin on this idea, which became the de facto doctrine of Western Europe, once Germanic kings began to Romanize. In Two Swords, the king has temporal power and the church has spiritual power, wieleded by the two hands of the singular Christendom. It is less comprehensive than the Eusebian doctrine, at least how it played out in the Eastern Roman Empire, focusing rather on nodes of authority than a comprehensive sense of civilization. It's not that there wasn't a sense of Christian civilization, but it was less cohesive, focusing more on those at the top. Two Swords could become more or less Eusebian. In fact, it wasn't until the high days of the Imperial Papacy when Eusebian doctrine came back into play, full force. Rather, it was the Pope as Vicar of Christ who made room for the Christian princes of Europe. At its zenith, the role of bishop and emperor fused. After the Reformation, popes were now seen as having a spiritual power that undergirded temporal authority, and could be withdrawn through excommunication.

However, the Middle Ages also contained a more Augustinian sense of the Two Swords, which I think fully blossoms in the Lutheran enshrinement of Two Kingdoms. In this, the temporal and spiritual are strictly divided, but with the latter taking a more important place. As Augustine taught, the temporal was penultimate, while the spiritual was ultimate. In the Two Swords paradigm, this meant that the former was to encase and protect the realization of the latter. It was the religious life, questing for salvation, praying for the souls of the dead, accumulating heavenly merit, that was the really real. The penultimate order of the temporal sword helped protect the real workers.

It make sense that this was how Luther understood his world as an Augustinian monk. However, he radicalizes this notion when he blows out its foundation through his discovery of sola fide. This doctrine is biblical and life-giving, and removed the social purpose of Medieval monasticism. If Christ chooses the weak and beggarly, and accomplishes this work fully and firmly, then doctrines of purgatory, indulgences, and penance (at least understood in their Medieval form) are meaningless, if not potentially damning. However, Luther seems to follow Augustinian sense of the Two Swords, not abandoning a doctrine of Christendom, though the role of the spiritual is now overhauled. This is Two Kingdoms emending of Two Swords.

While later Lutheranism crystalizes this into a doctrine, Luther's body of work is not thoroughly consistent, and develops over his life. In his early days, Luther can appear pretty radical, totally secularizing all temporal authority, it being irrelevant whether one is ruled by a Papist, an Evangelical, or a Turk. Later on, as Luther gains momentum through the support of princes, Luther attempts to rebuild a sense of Christendom, where temporal rulers have a distinctly Christian role to play. They become aids to the work of the Church, which is focused on manifesting the drama of justification in the mass, bringing again and again God's terror against sin and His gracious word of reconciliation, to Christians. Princes could even function as emergency-bishops, having the authority of the church to bring about reforms. This is not the madness of the English Act of Supremacy, putting the king as the supreme head of the church of England. Luther hadn't confused temporal and spiritual power, but the role of the prince was to maintain order. Luther's emerging Two Kingdoms had flexibility for both a more Two Swords variety, with the temporal playing a role in a larger Christendom, and more Augustinian approach, where there was less concern for any distinct ideology of the temporal arm. This reflected Lutheran geography, those under Evangelical princes and those still under Papist princes. The latter desired tolerance, at least for themselves, and not a fully functioning arm of Christian enforcement.

This brief summary of some twists and turns of Augustine's doctrine was a set up for the real value of Augustine's Two Cities. In fact, while Augustine acknowledged the presence of a Christian emperor, he didn't make any distinct place for it. He was much more cynical about the possibility of its sustenance, though he certainly took advantage of it in the suppression of the Donatists. In this, he looks a lot more like a Lutheran. However, the deep division was Augustine had a much more optimistic sense of the Church than Luther. For Augustine, the City was a materialization of a blueprint, the love of the heart manifest in actions. Thus, there were two cities, one of man based in self-love, and one of God based in love of Christ. The kingdoms of this world, including Rome, even Rome with Christian emperors, were founded in self-love and their structures, both material (e.g. buildings, monuments, etc.) and immaterial (e.g. institutions, civic rites), manifested this. The Church was a part of, if not the, manifestation of the City of God, since Christians were those who had the love of God in their heart. Luther, on the contrary, was much more pessimistic about this, recognizing that all Christians are afflicted with sin. They were simul iustus et peccator, not merely lovers and friends of God who still struggled against their sins. While Augustine recognized that hypocrites, liars, and apostates could and would be in churches, even their leadership, this did not lead him to believe that all holiness on Earth was invisible as it did Luther.

Later Lutheranism has not been so cynical, but a stench of it has followed the development of the Lutheran church and has, perhaps, been part of the reason for its anemia. If holiness is invisible, even to Christians who are constantly beset by the Old Adam and his sins, then when Two Kingdoms is uncoupled from a Christian state, malaise about the role of the church can set in. All one sees is the kingdom of the world, with the exception of word and sacrament, and this can lead to a turn inwards. Perhaps Pietism's development is proof of this, as their reaction to "dead' Lutheran Orthdoxoy led to an emphasis upon subjective experiences of crushing law and liberating gospel, despair and rejoicing. Faith becomes increasingly experiential because a physical manifestation is wholly invisible in any objective sense. Living by faith becomes understood as an atomized act. In the English world, the reverberations of Pietism melded with, and influenced, wings of Reformed theology to create the Evangelicalism of the Great Awakenings. When secularized, it is easy to see how an unmoored mutation Two Kingdoms becomes the modern day modus vivendi of experience.

Sacralist attacks on Two Kingdoms will tell a similar story, and they are right at points. But, they beg the question that their approach is right approach. Of course, I would accuse them of Judaizing, mistaking the empty Torah of Israel for the fulfilled Torah of Israel's Christ. They are no better than those who sought to retain circumcision for Christians in St. Paul's day. While most are not open Eusebeans, they keep his spirit with an Augustinian gloss over it. However, I will say, once again, I much rather appreciate the emphases of the Sacralists, even if they are more dangerous. They, at least, do not divorce matter and spirit, and more properly recognize Creation as God's gift, not a stumbling block.

Augustine's doctrine of Two Cities is absolutely necessary, and it is because it does not obviate the intermeshing, though distinct, of matter and spirit. Christ's Gospel manifests in temporal form and in visible ways, hence why Pagans were shocked to see the love of Christians for one another as they perished. Augustine keeps both sides of the Biblical account in tact: the crowds see Christ heal the sick and rejoice, while also turning on him and bringing about His crucifixion. He both trusts the power of God, while also retaining healthy pessimism. The City of God intermixes with the City of Man, but the two remain distinct. Augustine, perhaps unknowingly, provides a political theology for the Church of the Underground, who do not put their trust in princes. Churches are thus politically engaged, but oriented towards giving and a willingness to suffer shame, scorn, and attack. It is not about control, but about witness. Hence, the congregation was a distinct society from the Roman world, but the former was not poised to conquer the latter. Thus, the Christian faith was not oriented away from, but within creation as the site of God's work. Chronos, linear and experienced time, was not disregarded as a problem, but was recognized as the place where the Creator God appeared, in the flesh. The radical nature of the Kingdom of God is not in a divorce between matter and spirit, but in a new interaction, where sin was overcome by the cross of Christ, and the folly and weakness of God stormed the Devil's palace.

If Christians are to escape from anemia of modern existentialism, with its aimlessness and purposelessness, literally without an end, a telos, then we must return to a vision of faith that does not pry a part spirit and matter, eternity and time, kairos and chronos. The latter is not merely an empty vessel, a means to an end, but the site of God's redeeming work. The Kingdom thus comes with power, but a power shaped by cross, a spiritual force that appears in the flesh. The Church of God, holy, one, catholic, and apostolic, may be an article of faith, the churches of God are visible, even if weak and unimpressive by the standards of This Age. We may still be pilgrims, not yet arriving at our city in a distance, but our tents and homes within the walls of Babylon reflect a Kingdom that is, indeed, not of This World.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

How Many Churches?, or the Perversity of Ring-Fencing

I recently watched an older video that was a little tiff between Lutheranism and the Reformed. The general details are irrelevant, but at a point the talking-head made the claim that there are four, distinct, church communions: Roman, Eastern, Reformed, and Lutheran. The claim was that in all four there were legitimate Christians and all four were legitimate churches in as much as they rightfully administer word and sacrament. But, and this is the point, the Lutherans grasp the truth of doctrine best and are the truest church. And in case you were wondering, Reformed means everything from Westminster Presbyterian to Pentecostal to Amish. They are all offspring of the radical Reformation, and not the conservative Reformation initiated by Luther.

This reminded me of similar claims you might here. Rome claims that papal communion is the mark of the true church, even though Vatican II does not condemn all outside (referring to Christian groups outside as ecclesial communities). The Orthodox believe in the unity formed in the seven ecumenical councils is the basis for the true Church of the Apostles. Then there are lesser claims. Some strange Anglo-Catholics desperately cling to the Branch Theory, to include themselves as a true church and denying all "Protestants" as lacking true ordination. There are some Reformed who refer to a stark difference of presupposition, there is either the pure gospel of Calvinist theology (which is exclusively Christian) and Paganism, everything else being inconsistency or mixtures of the two. Then there are Pentecostal claims that only those who have the Spirit are true Christians, wherever they are, and Evangelicals who look for "true believers", not having any sense of church beyond a mere gathering of fellow Christians.

Listening to the talk, the idea sounds attractive and simplifies a whole host of issues. But, I've also been enamored with the simplicity of the idea that Church unity is forged around the Petrine figure of the pope (ala. von Balthasar). In earlier days, I was also attracted to the sense of looking for the "true" Christians ala. Evangelicalism and the simple idea that there was some set of presuppositions where I could use as a criteria to judge whether a church was a good church.

Of course, there are clear historical, biblical, and logical problems to this proposition, which I won't waste time enumerating. What I want to talk about is the attraction to ring-fencing as a form of problem solving. The idea is basically to formulate some set of criteria that causes a quarantining divide to safe-guard a formal purity. This purity may be in the form of doctrine, form of worship, or form of institution, though some lunatics seek to find it in a form of person, which involves an abyss of psycho-analysis. This tries to soothe the conscience against what is otherwise a disheartening mess of divided churches, apostasy, rank heresies, and the development of both pre and post Christian Paganisms. While I am wholly opposed to Confessionalism (though not to confessions), I can appreciate the motive behind it in trying to bring fierce and ferocious touchstone. It seems a safe way to police the borders and maintain the faith. And while Confessionalist bodies tend to dabble in the same zeitgeist, they are better able to defend many forms of Apostolic Christianity. Sometimes I wonder if this is better or worse; is it slowing the poison for a time when the true cure can be introduced, or is it merely masking the real rot and prolonging a deep evil. I don't know.

I am someone who is struggling to believe that the current situation is mapped out in the Scripture. I do not believe history, and thus time, is the meaningless play of events, or that Scripture has little but proscriptives for events. Rather, the Holy Spirit is always working, gathering up the broken shards of our lived experience, and knitting them together to reveal Christ crucified. This, I think, is the heart of Christian theology of nature, by which I mean all things temporal and secular (literally of "This Age") but I'll come back to this in another post.

Contrary to the above claims by silly non-Papists, Scripture does not reveal four church communions, or three branches, or unity viz. "ecumenical" councils (which refers less to catholicity than Romanity; Ethiopia wasn't invited to these councils; and many Syrians, Arabs, Persians, and Armenians weren't invited to most) or a Petrine office founded on his grave in Rome. None of this is based in Scripture (though I can imagine creative exegesis about the numbers three or four, or appeals to Biblical reference to the Roman Empire or Peter's martyrdom in Rome). Rather, it all assume Scripture has nothing to say. I'm not sure of all that Holy Writ says, but I do know that it speaks of One Church (eschatologically figured in the Heavenly assembly) made out of a unity of churches, referring to concrete, local, congregations. And it has no place for fixed churches, where Revelation reveals churches can embody not three or four, but seven types of churches that succeed and fail in their loyalty to Christ.

But ring-fencing is a temptation to ease our sense of time. It's denial that, perhaps, if the Church is indeed the Body of Christ, it not only bears about glory, but crucifixion and humiliation. She is attacked not only by the foreign enemies of God (Pilate), but even stricken and betrayed from within by those controlled by Satan (Judas) and those under siege by Satan (Peter). And in the moment of betrayal, how does one know the difference between Judas and Peter, let alone those who flee? Perhaps we're not taking Scripture seriously enough if we don't think these same marks that happened to our Lord would not also happen to us collectively. But the urge can be great, so I strongly warn against it. For the Body is One, without a single broken bone, but remains stricken, even by ideologues.

Friday, July 14, 2017

God's Strange Gift of Melancholy: A Reflection

One of Luther's radical theological moves was to rearticulate faith's relation to knowledge and action. He took St. Paul's insistence that Christ was a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks as a wedge to destroy Medieval theology. Following Aristotle, it became a commonplace to understand Humanity caught within the binary of contemplation and action. Meister Eckhart produced the finalized version of this through his interpretation of Mary and Martha. Unlike Aristotle, who merely placed contemplation as superior to action (and both were Human and superior to creating/making (poieisis)), Eckhart saw contemplation only ever emerging superior when it went through the fire of action. Thus, Mary only becomes Mary through the way of Martha. Action leads to contemplation. This became standard practice for Medieval monastic practice.

Luther blows this a part by recognizing the receptivity, not instrumentality, of faith. Christ offers Himself to us, giving Himself to us sinful Humans through the preaching of the Gospel. This is not an offer, rather Christ is given. This is how faith is a gift. We already have Christ, we only open our hands for the gift to be ours and be our benefit. For Luther, this was the receptive life (vita passiva), something that happens to us. This is not inaction, but rather our world is shaped by the address and call of an Other, through which we are constituted. In this, faith reconfigures our knowledge and action. In faith, both knowledge and action can come to life and serve their God-given purpose. Without Christ, knowledge and action will always threaten to become demonic, moving towards self-justification. Being addressed, hearing God's word draw us into reality (namely, we are perishing sinners in need of redemption which God has decisively accomplished in Christ). We undergo this process, which stops dead attempts at knowing and acting which gives our lives meaning, fulfillment etc.

While we no longer are beheld to Aristotelian metaphysics, our modern metaphysics of subjectivity need to hear this Pauline injunction even more. The modern world pushes us to act, act, act; to justify our actions and our knowledge. Are we effective, efficient, productive? Are we doing anything useful? The Modern world is marked by the removal of all ends, a part of Liberalism's suspension of the ultimate, but was unable to replace this social dynamic. An end, something for its own sake, was elusive. Culture, art, civilization, knowledge, none of these were able to bear the weight of being a civic religion. Now all that is left is endless progress, a search for the search, ever onwards and upwards. 

However, we may do well to consider the phenomena that many call "depression". While I detest the term, as it is highly clinical, the phenomenon is a forced experience of jamming the ideology of progress. In a bout of melancholy, one is overwhelmed with a sense of iniquity and uselessness. One's works turn to ash. Friendships are exposed, usually with the flash of pessimistic creativity, as unable to bear the weight of expectation. No one really seems to be your friend. Now, the bout of melancholy does not mean one generally rejects these things (you might still imagine other people have friends, a purpose, accomplishments etc.), but it does suspend it in your own life. There's a moment when it all of life, in all of its mundane features, is nothing but an empty play, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

However, this is a great opportunity for the Christian to awaken to a fundamental feature of reality. The truth is that we are never in a position of arbitration and authority. We are born in media res, in the midst of things, which shape and define us. Before we speak, we are given a name. We only know when we are known. The whole of life, in all of its particularities, is a given.

Of course, for the Pagans of old, this was not an uplifting or good fact. The gods were cruel and capricious, to be known was not necessarily a benefit. The walls of the polis and rituals of the variety of cults were intended to ward off, to form boundaries, against the world of the divine, to limit the interaction. By blocking of this ultimacy, the truly Human was bracketing our givenness to focus on a realm of control and mastery. The marble of Hellenic art does not show a love of the body, but the love for the ideal of body. Our actual givenness is separated towards the form that we perfect towards our distinctly Human goals. In Antiquity, this was for the freeborn and the aristocratic, who were authentically Human by divesting themselves as much as possible from the accidents of creatureliness. All theology of glory is an attempt to escape from our God given limits. There is no Christian theology of glory, though some Christians practice a theology of glory. Rather, it's the root of all Paganism, whether monotheistic or polytheistic.

For those who suffer the bouts of depression/melancholy, that come up like a storm, it's an odd gift that shatters these illusions. We are confronted with the all too Human in our present state, one that is in a cursed world and in exhausting circularity or in downward spiral. One caught within a depression recognizes that he is being identified, and paralyzed, through an addressed from the whirling storm of his psyche. The gift in this is to deflate the vanity of the Pagan division between act and thought from the primacy of givenness. The reflective melancholic knows that at a moment he could be stung with paralysis. Now as Christians, we are called to mastery over this form of madness, and one way is to see how beneficial it can be in a world that obsesses with progress. Because Christ addresses us in His promises, His Gospel of raising up the poor, the broken, and the sinner from the dusts of death, we can survive these storms and bless the Lord. This is a thorn that Christ leaves in the side, a means to battle Satan and remain realistic, the definition of humility.

We are called first, we are given a name, the Lord chooses us for nothing we can contribute. This is our great hope, and melancholy's strange virtue may be to illuminate this startling beautiful and hopeful truth. In the midst of the wreckage of the storm, God comes bearing gifts, He who is without Limits among us limited creatures. Amen.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Nestorian Principle

John McGuckin's assessment, in his magisterial work on St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus, was that Nestorius was not really Nestorian. That is to say, Nestorius did not teach a doctrine of Two Sons, where Christ was both a fully Human person and a fully Divine person. The technical language of person did not quite exist yet, but principally, the Syrian church, with such luminaries as Theodore of Mopsuestia, taught doctrine that came close to saying that there was a functioning dualism in the life of Christ. It was not adoptionism, where Christ was a regular Human who, on account of His life, was granted divine privilege and/or status, but Two-Sons doctrine took on certain elements of it. It held that there was some sort of coming together of the fully Human Jesus, and the divine Word. This doctrine was never fully embraced, though it was skirted around and implied quite frequently, and therefore the obvious flaws (e.g. how is the one Christ not schizophrenic? How do the two relate? Was there a moment when the Human Jesus was without Divine Word? Is that conceptually possible?) were never ironed out. Since the technical language of person, whether hypostasis or prosopon, was not developed, these debates have a strange flavor when looking back.

Nestorius was a Syrian who succeeded to the office of archbishop of Constantinople, and carried his theological training with him. Constantinople was still theologically undefined, there was no "Byzantine" theology in the 5th century. However, because the Emperor of the surging Eastern Roman Empire resided there, it took on an artificial importance. Unlike other ancient sees, such as Rome or Alexandria, which gained its authoritative influence through a well established church, brilliant teachers, and blood of their martyrs, Constantinople was decreed influential through Church council. Thus, it did not develop its own unique brand, and because of its sudden rise to power, became a contested ground between other theological schools (e.g. Greco-Rome, Asia Minor, Egypt, Syrian etc.).

However, just because Nestorius was not Nestorian, does not mean he did not deserve condemnation. McGuckin is Russian Orthodox, and his colors show occasionally in the work. But the point he makes quite well is that Nestorius was not a helpless victim before the ecclesiastical politics of Cyril. Rather, Nestorius was brash and arrogant, and his main problem was that he sneered upon common people. Nestorius taught a doctrine that was hard to understand, unless you follow carefully the twists and turns of his logic. And this was something he was proud of, he did not think theology was something that belonged to the prols, but something for the well-educated.

The basic crime of Nestorius was that he introduced a split between the liturgical life of the Church and its dogmatic center in the teaching authority of her elders. The former was a residue of the latter. Thus, when Nestorius wanted to banish the grammar of Theotokos, Mother of God/God-Bearer, from the liturgy in describing Mary, he did not intend to give proper explanation. The phrase Christotokos, Mother of Christ/Christ-Bearer, was more fitting for Nestorius' system, which wanted to keep a strict division between the created and the Creature. Nestorius' primary concern, reflecting his Syrian origins, was to not diminish Godhead with the taint of creatureliness. Calling Mary the Mother of God sounded like Pagan myths, with gods who dwell among men and act like men. However, when it came to dealing with the facts of the Incarnation, Nestorius struggled to keep the Divine and Human together.

It was his convoluted theological system that the many unlearned bishops at Ephesus struggled with. Nestorius wanted the council to be a scholastic debate, where he expected to easily crush Cyril and condemn him as a Sabellian. However, Cyril had attempted to make this a catholic debate, where as many bishops throughout the world could attend. In these days, most bishops were not much more than the local pastor of a village. They were still many times chosen from the local area. For the well-heeled Nestorius, he was offended by the dozens of Egyptian and Asian bishops who had little formal education and some who were illiterate. Contrary to myth, this was not a battle between the distraught Christian bishop and the legion of quasi-Pagan pastors from the countryside. This is an elitist story, assuming that the schools of the city made better Christians than the rural hicks who passed on their training at a personal and communal level. Rather, it was a mass of perplexed pastors who could not grasp Nestorius' nuances, who he began to grow increasingly frustrated with. Yes, the council involved underhanded politiking. It's not clear why the Syrian delegate never arrived to bolster Nestorius, whether Cyril was trying to crush Nestorius with a consensus he forged, or if the Syrians were trying to run out the clock, and purposefully delayed. Nestorius promoted the former account, while Cyril pleaded the latter.

The main hinge of the debate involves a question of "sound words". Nestorius was rightly condemned, not in spite of his doctrine but because of it. The problem with Nestorius is not exactly about glorifying Christ indirectly through His mother. Rather, it's about the relation of theology to the life of the congregation. Should theological formula only make sense to the educated, those who go to schools? Or how should liturgy and worship reflect the common faith of all, both the ordained and the lay? What is the role of the teacher in the congregation? He is the public defender of the common faith, or does he hold the keys to the actual truth that lies behind the strange, possibly barbaric, words of the vulgar grammar employed in the liturgy? Nestorius is a perfect example of Clericalism, and his controversy opens a debate over the teaching office in the Church.

I generally like Carl Truman, both as a historian and a Christian teacher. But I was highly disturbed when he conceived his role as teaching elder as keeping to the Westminster Catechism, which was not a standard that the congregation was held to. I'm not accusing him of clericalism, but there was a shadow cast. It seemed that there was the true doctrine which the ordained held, and there was a lower bar for the congregation. The former could only be grasped through formal education, and thus helps prop up the Seminary-Educational complex; the latter was for the common peoples. Milton said that Presbyter is Priest Writ Large. This approach sounds little different than the moral tiers of Rome, between the monks who obey the Councils of Perfection and the lay people who are given a lesser, more reasonable standard. There is much about the Westminster Confession which is unintelligible to those uninitiated into the complexities of Reformed dogmatics, and barely reflects the worship of the congregation. Perhaps the most grievous problem with moving a doctrine of election from a doctrine of salvation to a doctrine of God is that it fundamentally annihilates an impetus to worship. I've heard song about God's glorious choice of us for salvation, but I've never heard a rousing song about God electing the saints in eternity past in His inscrutable councils.

Nestorius ought to be a warning for all theological discourse. The role of the teacher in the Church is to be of, not above, the Congregation. The common faith of the Church is exactly that, common. The problem is not schooling or education, the problem is that the seminary has become a part of a caste system. Reformed circles can be worse than Rome in creating a dividing line between preacher and congregation, where an intellectual indelible mark is placed upon the ordained. This ought to govern how we think about doctrines of God (especially the fact of Triunity), doctrine of salvation (and thus the meaning of election in the drama of salvation), among many others. If for nothing else this is why we should give honor to that great Cyril, for he remains a firm shield against attempts to divide the congregation. For all his pesonal faults, his legacy speaks to the role of bishops being one of, and among, the people that they lead in worshiping our only hope, Christ Jesus, the savior of the world. Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Egypt: A Spiritual Harbor?

This is an interview of an Egyptian Evangelical explaining Egypt's political, social, and church environment. Contrary to myth, and despite the turbulence of Arab Spring and the US' support to eject Mubarak, Egypt has become calm. al Sisi is not a military dictator, but a widely popular leader who stabilizes Egyptian life. Again, contrary to establishment narratives, al Sisi did not overturn the "democratic" Morsi, but represented a popular revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood from seizing the reigns. Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood had a solid base of popular support, especially among rural Muslims. But it was dependent upon Qatari money and the Obama administration's attempt to reshuffle the Middle East through a corruption of the Arab Spring. Against American ignorance, politics is in fact complicated. There is a race for zone control between the Saudis and the Iranians, with the US playing puppet master.

The American ideal of democracy is mostly a fiction, and used as a disingenuous tool to hypocritically sermonize and morally justify horrendous action. Most people across the globe, even peasants, appreciate geo-political realities, even if in crudely pragmatic, even Machiavellian ways. They may or may not like it, but most appreciate it's a fact. But being in America is to be subjected to hypnotyzing propaganda of the worst kind. Many Americans really believe we're different, and not because we've mastered the game of neo-imperial global politics. If America is exceptional, it's because we're like the Mongol Horde, we bring unprecedented power to bear upon the world in deeply oppressing, humiliating ways. But at least Ghengis Khan never had to convince the Mongols that they were conquering the Chinese for their own good!

The piece comes off a bit flowery, but it does represent a reality Christians ought to consider. The point and purpose of the state is to restrain evil, and Sisi is doing that. Even though he may be an evil man, he represents what Christians should actually hope for. It's not romantic, there's not deep infatuation or loyalty, but there is a sense of respect and honor paid to one who allows, even unwittingly and against his direct intention, for the Church to grow and perhaps flourish. Like Assad before, many Christians support Sisi because he is trying to keep the peace and allow for an open society. Granted, conversion may officially be illegal for Muslims, but this is not the point. The existence of this antagonistic law has the indirect benefit of reminding Christians that the state is not their hope, nor is it machinery to take over.

For these reasons, Egypt is a much safer space, spiritually speaking, than the United States and even much of Europe. While Egypt was predominantly Christian in the later period of the Roman Empire, before the Muslim Arab conquests in the 7th century, it is a legacy that is no longer operating upon the imagination of the Coptic people. There is no sense where nationalism and state control can seep into the Church without a trace. A sense of antithesis exists. While Christians like the author and others like him may enjoy the benefits of living in Egypt and value the policies of the al Sisi government, they do not become a part of the Church's liturgy. There is no equivalent to "God Save the Queen" or "God Bless America" belted in the churches. The threat of erecting the golden calves of nationalism and statecraft in the Church retains a foreignness which one is pressed to find in America. No one bats an eye when American flags decorate churches in a near cultic fashion.

There are many benefits to the formal pluralism of America, at least on paper, but like Brave New World, they are useless. That is to say, no one is putting a gun to anyone's head to buy into the Establishment, love the Empire, murder for our way of life, and include national mythos in the civic religion that is represented throughout both so-called theologically liberal and conservative churches a like. Everyone embraces the system rather willingly, even if ignorantly. Falwell and Niehbuhr, the Southern Baptists and the United Methodists, neo-Social Gospel SJWs and the Moral Majority, they hate each other, but share the same common ideology. The benefits become corrupting. No one forces churches to function as corporations, at least not directly, but a little carrot-and-stick with tax breaks, and churchs start behaving like little corporate entities, with managed stock portfolios, pension plans, and a corporate leadership structure. These things become corrupting because whatever financial benefits become a means to get people to buy into the program. Like a Trojan Horse, the church becomes infected with a virus and is rewritten to become a satellite of the civic religion, even if unconsciously. These benefits become harder to let go of.

It's in this way the interviewee is correct to say that Sisi is more friendly to churches than Western governments. He leaves them alone and covers them under the umbrella of a comprehensive national policy.

In addition, the mixed historical legacy of Egypt is helpful for a growing sense of Church unity. I'm not sure about his numbers for "denominations", but there is some truth. While the Oriental Orthodox church remains committed to its interpretation of the Alexandrian theology of Athanasius and Cyril, opened a split which has kept the Egyptian church from the delusions of comprehensive catholicity. Byzantine orthodoxy remains present, along with churches established by British and French missionaries.  This is fertile space to work together. I don't know enough to weigh in on the interviewee's statement about the Copts being a Bible loving and thirsting church, but it's good news to hear if it's true. It also clears ground for theological conversation and dialog. I hope this is not towards milquetoast ecumenism, but towards healing of wounds through cooperation and mutual recognition, in fasting and in prayer, where real theological discussion may occur.

May God bless the churches of Egypt with growth, both numerically and spiritually. May the Lord Christ give the home of such saints and teachers as Origen, Athanasius, Didymus, and Cyril a revival. Amen.