Saturday, November 17, 2018

Become a Good Painter: Symbols, Icons, and Art

If you've been following along, I've gone back and forth on icons. Part of this has come from my brief inquiry into Eastern Orthodoxy, only to recoil backwards. Part of the attraction, I suppose, is the alien distance Byzantium and Muscovy has for an American, especially one disgusted with living in Babylon. I recall when I was beginning to look into it, I mentioned it to a dear friend of mine. He's a Christian, though not of a particularly well-grounded or intellectually clear faith. But he's from a Orthodox nation and a Jew, and he spoke to me with trepidation. He gave me a warning, vaguely mentioning some struggles his mother went through. I gave faux-consolation about it not being the same Orthodoxy as was his nation, but his unease was fair. It's easy to sweep away the past and idealize it when it is not in your face.

But I digress. I've spoken before in a way of a potential way forward for icons. However, I've backed off, particularly in regards to veneration, and yet still favorable to images for teaching and forming the imagination.

However, I've found at this art history blog on icons (here) that distinguishes between art (or maybe symbols) and icons. He has a few posts on the history of iconography in Christianity. In short, he distinguishes between images/art which was symbolic and episodic, engaging the mind in teaching and icons, with subsequent veneration. The former had roots in Greco-Roman culture, utilizing symbolic tropes for the purposes of conveying biblical stories. Thus the church and synagogue in Duros Europos had various art pieces depicting scenes of David, Moses, and Christ. Even Clement of Alexandria is quoted in saying Christians who use wax-seals should adopt images that connect to Christian themes (e.g. fish, boats, etc.), forbidding use of pagan themes or vanities. Icons, however, involved veneration and linkage, and were condemned as pagan ("gentile") rites. Of course condemnation meant that there were people who practiced these things. Irenaeus mentions that the Carpocratians utilized these "gentile" practices, and Alexander Severus (who was reputed to be favorable to Christians) had a portrait of Jesus, set aside portraits to Abraham, Orpheus, and Appollonius of Tyre. It was not until the seventh century when icons (in contrast to symbolic or episodic images/art) began to have apologists.

But what's most interesting is how, from a very early period, there was a clear-cut discomfort with the practice of icons. The following is from the Acts of John, an apocryphal collection of narratives about the St. John the Elder from the middle of the second century. It's worth consideration, especially when engaged with Orthodox apologetics for their theology of icons:

There came together therefore a gathering of a great multitude on John’s account; and as he discoursed to them that were there, Lycomedes, who had a friend who was a skillful painter, went hastily to him and said to him: You see me in a great hurry to come to you: come quickly to my house and paint the man whom I show you without his knowing it. And the painter, giving some one the necessary implements and colors, said to Lycomedes: Show him to me, and for the rest have no anxiety. And Lycomedes pointed out John to the painter, and brought him near him, and shut him up in a room from which the apostle of Christ could be seen. And Lycomedes was with the blessed man, feasting on the faith and the knowledge of our God, and rejoiced yet more in the thought that he should possess him in a portrait. 
And he took it and set it up in his own bedchamber and hung it with garlands: so that later John, when he perceived it, said to him: My beloved child, what is it that you always do when you come in from the bath into your bedchamber alone? do not I pray with you and the rest of the brethren? or is there something you are hiding from us? And as he said this and talked jestingly with him, he went into the bedchamber, and saw the portrait of an old man crowned with garlands, and lamps and altars set before it. And he called him and said: Lycomedes, what do you mean by this matter of the portrait? can it be one of your gods that is painted here? for I see that you are still living in heathen fashion. And Lycomedes answered him: My only God is he who raised me up from death with my wife: but if, next to that God, it be right that the men who have benefited us should be called gods -it is you, father, whom I have had painted in that portrait, whom I crown and love and reverence as having become my good guide. 
And John who had never at any time seen his own face said to him: You mock me, child: am I like that in form, [excelling] your Lord? how can you persuade me that the portrait is like me? And Lycomedes brought him a mirror. And when he had seen himself in the mirror and looked earnestly at the portrait, he said: As the Lord Jesus Christ lives, the portrait is like me: yet not like me, child, but like my fleshly image; for if this painter, who has imitated this my face, desires to draw me in a portrait, he will be at a loss, [needing more than] the colors that are now given to you, and boards and plaster (?) and glue (?), and the position of my shape, and old age and youth and all things that are seen with the eye. 
But do you become for me a good painter, Lycomedes. You have colors which he gives you through me, who paints all of us for himself, even Jesus, who knows the shapes and appearances and postures and dispositions and types of our souls. And the colors wherewith I bid you paint are these: faith in God, knowledge, godly fear, friendship, communion, meekness, kindness, brotherly love, purity, simplicity, tranquillity, fearlessness, grieflessness, sobriety, and the whole band of colors that paint the likeness of your soul, and even now raise up your members that were cast down, and levels them that were lifted up, and tends your bruises, and heals your wounds, and orders your hair that was disarranged, and washes your face, and chastens your eyes, and purges your bowels, and empties your belly, and cuts off that which is beneath it*; and in a word, when the whole company and mingling of such colors is come together, into your soul, it shall present it to our Lord Jesus Christ undaunted, whole (unsmoothed), and firm of shape. But this that you have now done is childish and imperfect: you have drawn a dead likeness of the dead.

*This text is clearly anti-gnostic, as its John clearly connects virtues in the soul to the effects one sees in the flesh. The point is not that the soul is important, forget about the body, but only the soul can shine forth through our flesh.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Synagogue of Satan and the Crucified Body,-the-patriarchal-projects-of-Poroshenko-45481.html

It seems things are proceeding on course for the pro-US quasi-fascist regime in Ukraine. The article, in short, is how Poroshenko, president from a NATO backed coup, is building his new church. He is deviating, slightly, from the Ecumenical Patriarch by going directly after the Ukrainian Orthodox churches still united to the Moscow patriarch. Through carrot-and-stick, he seeks to flip the bishops, having already elected one of the turn-coats as the new head of this autocephalous Ukrainian church. This strategy is not so much opposed to the Phanar, who is himself a western puppet, but a distinct advance upon it. While Bartholomew was willing to breach the schism under the guise of sanctimony, Poroshenko is pursuing a full-fledged politique erastian take-over. In Turkey, many Russian emigre are left without a church, where all Orthodox congregations are out of communion with Moscow. Russian bishops are now sending "missionaries" (not exactly the term I'd use) to establish congregations for the thousands without worship.

On this latter point, I'm interested how it will turn out. Depending on how Erdogan responds, the Phanar could be a flashpoint in Western media. Istanbul and Moscow have begun an unusual, but highly unstable, rapprochement over the war in Syria. Neither has any interest in seeing the advance of Saudi Arabia through its quasi-affiliated Islamists. Even though Erdogan's AKP is itself an Islamist party, it operates in a very different context with varied objectives. Turkey is a secular country, and the AKP cannot be, and is not, the Muslim Brotherhood or any radically Islamist party. It's possible that the AKP could try to reshape Turkey, but many of their supporters are more like Moral Majority Republicans in the US. They want explicit mention of Allah and Koranic values, but not overhauling the secular system itself. I'm not familiar with AKP propaganda, but I can imagine something like a revisionist mythology for Ataturk in the way many Evangelicals rewrote the Founders as having a "Judeo-Christian" worldview. Plus, with the continued war over hearts-and-minds between Erdogan and his former master Gulen, there's no possibility of radical restructuring, though it's clear that Erdogan's new presidential powers mark a significant potentiality.

Anyway, if Erdogan permits Metropolitan Kirill to send Russian priests, stepping on the toes of Bartholomew, it could become grist for a Turkey-Russian autocracy seeking to gobble up the poor Eco-sensitive, progressive Orthodox (of which almost none exist) that the Phanar can be said to be protecting. It can be a partnership of devils, in league to crush the pro-Freedom, pro-West, and pro-Democracy (all capitals to denote their ideological status) Ukrainians seeking a free church from the claws of the Soviets Russians. Of course, the fact that many Ukrainians, particularly the Orthodox and those in the east, do not support this westward turn, do no want to break their church away from Moscow, and lament this blatant politicking with their faith. That's not to say Kirill is oblivious to the political outcome, but, at least in his case, he acts as a partner with Putin rather than his creature.

But let's read Poroshenko's motives off the surface for a moment. I very much doubt he would ever take an openly erastian posture: he's not trying to move the Church into a sub-division of the state. He is not a Hobbesian Leviathan, nor is he trying to build a confessional state. Instead, he's trying to use his political power to break the chains of a foreign despot, combined in the two-headed ogre of Patriarch and President. If he were to lay out his plan, I'm sure Poroshenko would say that this intervention is pure emergency, an application of shock so that the true Ukrainian church can then go on and govern itself.

What does that sound like? Well before I drop the bomb, I'll level a critique of Moscow. Its own autocephaly came from a level of smoke-and-mirrors politics. It only came from the ruins of Byzantium. As Florovsky documented, the church was granted autocephaly from a desperate Emperor who need Russian allies to fight the Turks, even as the Tsar (as he was now titled) continued to treat with them. It was part of a westward turn, a rejection of the Patristic Synthesis, now sneered at as "Greek", for a Russian nationalism that vitiated the church's spiritual autonomy for the privilege of becoming a department of state. We can drop Florovsky's lachrymose history to appreciate that the birth of an autocephalous Russian church, even the currents of theology that slowly dominated, was not absent political concern. Obviously this reality was in full-blast during the demoniac Peter's reign. We may not agree with Florovsky's set-up, but we can see that there many ecclesiastical figures that made components, if not the whole, of the Russian church into a religion of the Tsar and the state.

But, again, what does this sound like? It sounds like Luther's designation of princes as "emergency-bishops", it sounds like the Tudors battering the English Church to get the men it wanted into power, it sounds like the various Swiss city-states who lifted up gifted preachers/teachers to build newly minted "Reformed" churches. On this last point there is variation: Geneva had a handful in the energetic and pugnacious Calvin, and Zurich had to contend with the prophet-patriot Zwingli. Of course after these men, the reformation rolled over. It's a sad fact, but the Swiss Reformed were only as powerful as their charismatic strongmen. In Zurich, Bullinger handed the keys over the Council, and Geneva was hardly any better. If we look past the confessions, and we stop drinking the cool-aid, we see that the Reformed church was little better than institutionalized Stoicism, with hardheaded churchmen buzzing about, like flies around...well.

That's not to say that these organizations didn't do any good, but that's hardly an argument for anything. I'm sure the Nazis made property acquisition easy for some petit-bourgeois (especially because former owners were recently liquidated). There are some Ukrainians (a small minority to be sure) who are genuinely pro-West, pro-EU and pro-NATO and not neo-nazis. And unlike Ukraine, the Reformation city-states and factions were assumed through erstwhile legitimate factions. Of course, I'm not quite keen on how city councils were restructured throughout the Swiss Cantons; the succession of German princes in Saxony did not seem irregular. Of course both sides played this game. In France, both Roman Catholics and Huguenots gamed to get their princes in power. In Lutheran states, Roman Catholics schemed to disrupt succession to get their men in power. The Reformed had a life and death struggle to maintain Frederick on the Electorate of the Palatinate, ultimately failing, playing a huge part in triggering the 30 Years War. While the Dutch were nominally Reformed, their 70 year war to free themselves from the Spanish resulted in a pragmatic policy of indifference. Over the howls of churchmen calling for heresy trials, Stadtholders and city councils generally left the diverse bag of Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, even Jews and "Enthusiasts" alone if they were loyal. The Dutch were notorious for their fleets full of mercenary sailors of various faiths, some without any attachment or exposure whatsoever. And, of course, there's England, the site of both foreign intrigue and interdynastic struggle, wrapped up around confessional allegiances and varied reform programs. It was a mess of intrigue and political arithmetic.

And of course our contemporary apologists are quite buffoonish in their efforts to justify. They will say things like, "if these deals with the states were not made then the Reformation would have struggle, maybe even died out!" Perhaps this attitude was shared with shrewd men like Melanchthon or Bucer, but for the greats? For Luther, Zwingli, Calvin? They would have died from shock and shame! I can hear their shrieks and accusations: "Godlessness!" They did not deal with the states because they had to help God along, but because they believed themselves fully justified.

Florovsky details the conflict between the Possessors and the Non-Possessors in the Russian Church as a fight over the patristic patrimony. We don't need to be Byzantine to appreciate elements of the debate that ought to speak to us. The Non-Possessors, under Nils Sorsky, rejected the transformation of the Church into a scheming partner with the Grand Prince to usher in a Third Rome. Joseph Volotsky, leader of the Possessors, was not a craven creature of state; he was a brutal ascetic with a millennarian dream. He believed his army of monks and their fortress-monasteries could pave the way to a new Byzantium, a new Rome, the shock-troops of the Theanthropic Empire of God. Yet, without his unrelenting force of personality, his followers quickly became emissaries of state. Partnership became subservience. And, as Florovsky points out, Nils was not an otherworldly liberal, who wanted broad toleration where religion of the heart could thrive in the hearts of a thousand seekers. But Nils offered a counter-point to Possession: the Kingdom of God does not come through the will of the flesh.

Of course, the way through these problems depend upon how we set up the situation. If we only see the church in earthly terms, then we should despair. However, I have hope that the Church has a destiny that looks like Christ: it ultimately derives from the Divine Word, who as His Body, become connected to Him in the flesh, even as this destiny far exceeds the potentiality of createdness as such. In Orthodox terms, the People of God are criss-crossed through Theandric Energy of the God-Man. In more biblical terms, we might say that we have become conformed to the image of the Messiah's death, so that we might attain to the resurrection of the dead, somehow (Philippians 3). The eternal power to lay down our lives and the power to pick them up again through Christ. That this set-up is what St. Peter means when he says that we become partakers of the Divine Nature. In the flesh, in the institutional arrangements that Scripture prescribes, the churches of Christ are crucified, encircled by Gentiles, scorned and mocked, pierced to a cursed tree. Despite later forms, the Swiss Anabaptists were still interlinked with the Reformed Church of Zurich. And then there were the Non-Jurors in England and the Jansenists in France. Tyconius saw this clearly when he, quoting Song of Songs, noted that the Bridge was both "black and beautiful", marred and spotless.

We can only strive towards faithfulness. Many heathens will try to make a Christ that fits their objectives, state-building or otherwise. They will put up a dying Messiah on their Roman wood, not knowing that judgement is being wrought. That judgement may be invisible, but it is through such that the Kingdom of God is manifest, and the Woman hunted by the dragon stands victoriously, beckoning us, with the Spirit, to come. Maranatha.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A Body You Prepared Me: A Fragment on Scripture, Tradition and Christology

Therefore, when He came into the world, He said:

“Sacrifice and offering You did not desire,
But a body You have prepared for Me.
6 In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin
You had no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come—
In the volume of the book it is written of Me—
To do Your will, O God.’ ”
- Epistle to the Hebrews, 10:5-7

One criticism that has been leveled, I think mistakenly, against Athanasius was that in attacking the Arians, the bishop instrumentalized Christ's flesh. As it goes, Athanasius lacks the integrated sense of God and man that is reflected from later figures. Of course all of this supposes that this "instrumentalizing" is itself contradictory with integration. While not so sweeping and universal, John Damascene's aphorism that all heresies begin with mixing person and nature applies here. What I mean is that instrumentalization only applies depending on what exactly we mean by Humanity.

I generally agree with Richard Bauckham that not only did the NT have a fully formed Christology, one not afraid of giving the highest divine praises and titles to Christ Jesus, but that while the later traditions were sometimes unhelpful, they were accurate and gave fair schematizations of doctrine in different contexts. Bauckham is primarily referring to Nicaea-Constantinople, and in this case, he's right. Athanasius' doctrine lacks the fully formed nature-person distinction, but it is quite clear in how he describes his position in contrast to Arians, Manichaeans, and the Samosatenes (anachronistically hyper-Nestorians):

Whence by the good pleasure of the Father, being true God, and Word and Wisdom of the Father by nature, He became man in the body for our salvation, in order that having somewhat to offer for us He might save us all, ‘as many as through fear of death were all their life-time subject to bondage. ‘ For it was not some man that gave Himself up for us; since every man is under sentence of death, according to what was said to all in Adam, ‘earth you are and unto earth you shall return. ‘ Nor yet was it any other of the creatures, since every creature is liable to change. But the Word Himself offered His own Body on our behalf that our faith and hope might not be in man, but that we might have our faith in God the Word Himself. Why, even now that He is become man we behold His Glory, ‘glory as of one only-begotten of His Father— full of grace and truth. ‘ For what He endured by means of the Body, He magnified as God. And while He hungered in the flesh, as God He fed the hungry. And if anyone is offended by reason of the bodily conditions, let him believe by reason of what God works. For humanly He enquires where Lazarus is laid, but raises him up divinely. Let none then laugh, calling Him a child, and citing His age, His growth, His eating, drinking and suffering, lest while denying what is proper for the body, he deny utterly also His sojourn among us. And just as He has not become Man in consequence of His nature, in like manner it was consistent that when He had taken a body He should exhibit what was proper to it, lest the imaginary theory of Manichæus should prevail. Again it was consistent that when He went about in the body, He should not hide what belonged to the Godhead, lest he of Samosata should find an excuse to call Him man, as distinct in person from God the Word. (Letter 61, To Maximus) [Bolded Added]
Athanasius' point is the following: the Word of God, eternal Son of the Father, coequal in all ways, took up a body. The Word of God is the subject, the person, the agent, and the Human body, equivalent with Human nature, was assumed. There was no fusion of any kind. It's for this reason some think Athanasius was much closer to his erstwhile ally, Marcellus of Ancyra, who many feared and condemned as a Sabellian (which he, likely, was). Athanasius is thus unlike the better synthesis of the Origen influenced Cappadoccians, especially Gregory Nazianzen (c.f. Christopher Beeley). But this, again, depends on what we're exactly talking about when we say "nature" and "person". Athanasius does not seem to be deploying technical subtlety at all, and instead takes up the Human body (presumably including its life, learning, (thus cognitive functions, growing, etc.) as the nature the Word assumed. Thus, to posit whether God changed in the incarnation is a mistake, if by what we mean is whether God had something intrinsic change.

It's quite obvious that Athanasius was well-versed in Scripture, but this description is not much different than what we might call the Temple Christology of St. John. With clear reference to the history of Israel, John's Prologue announces that the "Word took flesh, and dwelt [skenein] among us". The word for dwelling is identical for the tabernacle, when the Glory-cloud was present with Israel. From thence, the mobile Tabernacle gives way to the Temple, where the glory of God sits. And yet the sins of the people result in God's judgement, when they suffer punishment for their sins. And yet what is the climax of this destruction? None other than the Temple itself. While some may externalize this reality, there's no sense in Scripture that the Temple was merely abandoned, nor that its destruction was anything but God's will, though carried out by blasphemous Gentile hands. John's Gospel, as some have pointed out, has the literary structure of the Temple itself (where the gospel author John was, as Bauckham has persuasively argued, not the son of Zebedee, but of a priestly family). The whole structure of the Gospel proclaims a Jesus who is the eternal Temple, the truest and fullest presence of God among men.

And yet, like Athanasius, the Temple is something that the Word indwells. That's not to say there's a spacesuit-like relationship. Such a supposition only comes from our unease with divine identification. God (the Word) was truly present in the Temple, identified with it, even as he exceeded it. That's not to say there's some "piece" of God outside of the Temple, and yet, as Solomon noted, that God was beyond both Heaven and Earth (1 Kings 8:27). Athanasius' dogmatic formula would be better refined in Constantinople III, where Maximus the Confessor was able to link together this formula with full consideration of Human cognitive life. It was the ultimate repudiation that the mind was not of, or a part of, the Human body, the nature, that the Word assumed. Hence, while the technical terminology is difficult, dyothelitism is still the right way of understanding (for example) what Jesus is saying in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was with a Human will that the Word feared of life, and it was with a Human will that He submitted to the Father, even as we would say that the very subject saying those prayers was none other than the Logos.

Appreciating and understanding the tradition of the church(es) can many times illuminate the content of Scripture, which is beckoning to be understood. Only Scripture remains canon, but let us not abandon many helpful guides along the way, whose wisdom exceeds our own.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

To Be a Man: A Brief Reflection on Human Nature

I recently read an article, linked on a blog-post, from a post-secular author writing about what it means to be a Human. The essay was to be published in a foreign language journal, and I skimmed it. The general gist was that Humanity was not a stable concept, usually defined through contrast to the not-Human (animals, inanimate objects, even ethnic differentiation). The main point was that claims on Human nature were reifications, many times with negative effects, of a historical context, and that Human nature is, itself, an ongoing project. This opens up liberative philosophy/theology to help direct this future. Humanity is a project, and thus it can be, in the long-term, made better than it is.

I have a mixed response to this kind of argument. On the one-hand, it seems a little flimsy. Much of the religious-studies world is decidedly Nietzschean, which is to say that it takes up the genealogical project. All of our normative categories are usually sinister palimpsests of  power. Appeals to universals, natures, eternal and immutable truths, are ways to lock-down a discourse, to hide the less than glorious origins or secrets at the heart of systems. Perhaps I'm naive, but I find this whole approach totally insane. Many of these people desire radical "leftist" overhauls of reigning systems, but I see no point why this direction ought to be taken rather than any other. What's the anchor point? At least with positivistic scientism, there's a naked appeal to nature and biology. But Nietzschean genealogies show that scientism is itself not simply an appeal to reality as it is, at least in terms of formulating significance from experiments and aggregate data. Perhaps you get a kind of existential rush from feeling like you're remaking the world in the image you'd prefer, but that's all it is, a preference.

However, I do think that this genealogical excavation has a benefit. Static categories of nature, inherited from the mix of Hellenistic philosophy and transmuted through the dialectic of modernity, can disguise the instability at the heart of a universalist project. A few weeks ago I listened to a biblical commentator I have some respect for attempt to define natural law. It was rather silly. I lost count of the times he said nature is natural, or something to that effect. That's a tautology. Of course, it's not to say that there aren't broadly conceived norms that all people share. Everyone has a distinction between licit and illicit killing, licit and illicit exchanges of objects, licit and illicit relationships. Of course, these categories are very broad and don't actually answer any questions. It's not enough to say "Murder is Wrong" if we don't know, precisely, what a murder is. Certainly, when the Spanish arrived in Tenochtitlan, they thought the Aztec shamans ripping out hearts for the sun god was cold-blooded murder. But then, liberal Europeans found the idea of dueling not as a contest of honor, but murdering an opponent. We have our own standards as what counts as licit or illicit, and these standards are easily malleable. Given the right context, we applaud a gun-toting action hero gunning down men who kidnapped/killed his wife/child/friend in a quite extravagant and visceral display of extra-judicial violence.

It's here where I would say that what we might call natural is itself a somewhat open concept, but not infinitely plastic. Despite later uses of static categories, St. Paul's use of nature is conflated with culture. The Apostle speaks about "Jews by Nature [kata physion]" in reference to circumcision and life in the nation of Israel. He also mentions how it is shameful, by nature, for men to have long hair. It's not that he thought men had to grow long hair by non-natural means (extensions? a weave?), but is referring to a way of life as a sexed person relating to other sexed human persons. This isn't to say that I'm saying the Hellenic philosophy didn't think this way; Aristotle's understanding of Human nature understood man as a social animal, one that constructed cities and ways of gathering, with a kind of metaphysical biology. It's not totally clear, though, what he meant when he talked about slaves as slaves by nature. But that's neither here nor there. The point is that St. Paul does not have a thick distinction between what we, today, might refer to nature and nurture, biology and culture.

And yet there are standards, most especially in St. Paul's account of the Nations in Romans 1-2. And yet the judgement that God hands down is not wholly arbitrary, in the sense that God has a certain pattern that He wills into being over an otherwise plastic and flexible arrangement of Human beings. Rather, I argue that creation has its own fitting patterns that map onto the criteria God deigned for created things to have by right of their being created. They're not purely volitional, but rooted in God's Wisdom, namely Christ Jesus, the Logos. Pascal is right to say that creation is not only made by Christ, but for Him: it reflects something about the very Image of God. There's something essential in the revelation of the Slain Lamb that the Apostle can say that the Lamb of God was slain before the very foundation of the world. It has an axiomatic logic.

Part of the imbibing of Hellenistic categories for Scripture was the slow erasure of time and maturation from our understanding of Scripture. I listened to a Reformed systematic-theologian discuss the difference between what he schematized as the Roman Catholic and the "deeper Protestant conception" of creation. The latter, he argues, involves an understanding of the Covenant of Works, which sees man as created perfectly good, not lacking anything (contrary to the doctrine of the donum superadditum). The Edenic period was probationary, a test for man to earn the righteous ascension God created him for. As some critics have pointed out, this schematization is radically Pelagian in anthropology, even if it is stridently anti-Pelagian in its hamartiology. That's to say that God created man wholly perfect and capable of fulfilling the "Law", even though man's failure had an ontological effect, not merely an external deprivation of the goods. The pastor-professor avoids why the donum superadditum took root: to explain how Adam, as God's good creation, fell. If man was perfect, then why did he botch this probationary period? It either suggests a supralapsarian determination for man to fall, or it creates a dark mystery at the heart of creation.

I'm generally suspicion of the theodicy project in general, but I think Irenaeus was correct to distinguish good from perfect in creation. The nomist position of many Reformed thinkers touches on, I think, something similar (i.e. if Adam passed probation, he would enter a state of higher existence that precluded his ability to sin). But this approach is highly externalized and doesn't appreciate the more organic, repetitious, nature of Scripture. We don't see law-like patterns, but "organic" patterns of cycling growth. Like seasons, the cycles develop the thing in question. I think Eastern Orthodoxy, in general, has a better handle on this point, referring to Ancestral sin, not Original sin. Despite the privileged position he has in dogmatics, Adam is almost wholly invisible in Scripture. I'm not saying Adam doesn't matter so much, but that he casts a shadow. Adam's sin is something in process. It develops as it passes to Cain, and as it become institutionalized in the city he builds (c.f. Jacques Ellul's Meaning of the City). It gets so bad that St. Noah's ark stands as the single light in an ocean of darkness, one that receives its judgement in being drowned out in the elemental forces of chaos. Maturation is the better paradigm to appreciate.

Thus, man must mature, but what does this pattern look like? I think there is an interesting parallel between the creation of Eve in Genesis 2 and the death of Christ in St. John's gospel. Both involve a "falling asleep", an opened side, and the creation of a "bride". Out of our Lord's fleshly side flowed blood and water, a clear allusion to the elements of grace in life of God's people. It seems that the process of maturation for Adam, for Humanity as such, is the birth of a bride. And yet while it is quite clear that Eve is Adam's wife, there is no wedding. Consummation is forestalled and maturity held at a distance. Mankind was not yet ready to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and not prepared, even prohibited from, the Tree of Life. And yet, in the Messiah, maturity is not only proleptically manifested, but opened up. The power of sin, leading to man's degradation, towards a beast on all fours, even towards being a belly-crawling snake, ultimately in a senseless and in-animate (literally lifeless and soulless) object.

It's in this way that Humanity is a "project"; God is creating the Human being. Again He gathers up the dust of our lives, forms a body, and breathes life, where the Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, vivifies us. We too must be prepared for glory, which involves a falling asleep. The contrast between Eden and our contemporary world is stark: death is an ugly and vicious thing, the "last enemy", the fear of which the Devil uses to keep us in bondage. From a place of rest to a voracious maw with a never-ending stomach. In our days, neither is death a horror beyond comprehension, leaving us jibbering idiots before it, nor is it a pleasant or beautiful repose. The Apostles speak of it as both: an enemy to trample down, as well as our "falling asleep", a momentary place to be with Messiah our Lord. Part of Human nature, as God has made it, is to mature, and to mature in this way, despite its incredibly ugly and vile manner.

Thus, I'll conclude with a quote from the "patron saint" (tongue-in-cheek) of this blog, Ignatius of Antioch. Facing his martyrdom, he wrote the Christians in Rome to not attempt to rescue him. Read in the abstract, he sounds like a masochist. He might have been one, a bit, but I hope all of the above contextualizes his words. Let us take up his challenge:

I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ**. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice [to God]. I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free, while I am, even until now, a servant. But when I suffer, I shall be the freed-man of Jesus, and shall rise again emancipated in Him. And now, being a prisoner, I learn not to desire anything worldly or vain.
All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die on behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth. For what shall a man be profited, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?Him I seek, who died for us: Him I desire, who rose again for our sake. This is the gain which is laid up for me. Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me from living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death; and while I desire to belong to God, do not give me over to the world. Allow me to obtain pure light: when I have gone there, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God. If any one has Him within himself, let him consider what I desire, and let him have sympathy with me, as knowing how I am straitened. 
The prince of this world would fain carry me away, and corrupt my disposition towards God. Let none of you, therefore, who are [in Rome] help him; rather be on my side, that is, on the side of God. Do not speak of Jesus Christ, and yet set your desires on the world. Let not envy find a dwelling-place among you; nor even should I, when present with you, exhort you to it, be persuaded to listen to me, but rather give credit to those things which I now write to you. For though I am alive while I write to you, yet I am eager to die. My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me desiring to be fed; but there is within me a water that lives and speaks, saying to me inwardly, Come to the Father. I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life. [Bold added]

*Much of my ideas were inspired from the work of John Behr, though I've made some modifications. In many ways, I think he is cryptically a [post?]liberal-Protestant in the modified Catholicism of Cardinal Newman, but he has written much that is profitable, especially in the scholarship of the early Church.

**It's interesting to note that Ignatius describes the effect of his martyrdom as being "found" in a godly condition. This undercuts both sides of the Reformational debate about justification by faith, especially in the ways faith had come to be defined. In its biblical context, there is no distinction between faith and faithfulness, between intellectual-emotive inner disposition and outward actions demonstrating and/or realizing said disposition. One cannot have faith that is not obedient, it's like a corpse per St. James, a vestigial remainder of something that once was there. Thus, for Ignatius, martyrdom does not save him, but he hopes it will manifest his love of God, which is itself a gift from the one who loved us first.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Of Prophetesses and Traditions: A Brief Reflection

The following post is a critical reflection on the following post.

In honor of all saint's day*, I  thought I'd interact with the above post over the question of female prophets. Now before I give my thoughts, I offer a preliminary that I respect the above author as a truly wise, and biblically grounded, Christian who has much to say. If you look at some of my posts over the past few months, there have been far more critical interactions than might reflect my intellectual debt to the above. But I figure this is a moment of iron-sharpening-iron, and a way to further work my thoughts out.

In broad strokes, I think the above is generally true. Feminism, understood as an ideological movement out of the western liberal tradition, has become a rot that has infected self-professing "conservative" churches. It's not for nothing that it has taken root. One reason is that most Protestant churches don't know what a church *is*, and collapse the Body of Christ into common organizations like fraternities, voluntary associations, businesses, NGOs, etc. Thus, as women have gained greater power in American society, there is a desire for a spread to the seeming equivalent church as another old-boys club that needs reform. This sentiment didn't come from nowhere; the Protestant churches, without a strictly mystical and sacerdotal ministry, have to find other analogies for their professionalized ministry. Thus it became a kind of clerical, white-collared, career on the same register as lawyers and doctors.

However, it's the second right reason that Feminism has taken root in Christian churches, namely that women had denied a place and position within the church as such. Complemantarianism is a kind of worthless holding pattern, because most adherents have given up natural arguments for sexual differentiation, and instead opted for divine-command justification. Men and women have to strictly learn differences that God introduces, rather than the commands in Scripture reflecting natural tendencies that can fulfilled, or obstructed, through cultural patterns. I give Alastair Roberts credit for distinguishing gender from sex as a kind of skillfulness with an otherwise physical given. Thus, one has hands, but one has to learn skillfulness with hands to show their full glory in things like building, playing music, writing, etc. So Scripture reveals the fullness of excellence for the sexes as they might not otherwise pursue in a fallen world of sin. Of course, what God defines as excellence is not the same as many have postulated, but that's another matter.

The above has suggested that women ought to involve themselves in "running the home" and remain in the domestic sphere. I'm not exactly opposed to this statement, but it's a bit misleading. Contrary to his distinction, the "domestic" did not exist in a vacuum as it came to be in the 19th century. Many people ran businesses that were connected to their home, or their market-oriented labors happened within the home. That's not to say there were not sex-divisions in labor; there certainly were. And that's not to say that his point about the husband's role of being the head of the family, its public-oriented representative, isn't correct; it is. But to talk about the domestic is a kind of misnomer and is a heavily freighted term.

Given the above's disgust for bourgeois mores, I'm not sure whether he implies this point. However, when he speaks of the domestic it signifies the differentiation between the hostile public world of cut-and-thrust, and the domestic world of peaceful, pious, tranquility. This public/private split was part of the fragmentation of life in the Industrial world, but it didn't really become toxic to women until the domestic ceased to have any visible labor component. What I mean was that women's work was wholly submerged in a sort of given, for the real world of economic vitality. Professionalization, salaries, etc. became a distinguishing mark of success. Part of the early feminist movement was to reject this differentiation. An interesting case-study is the work of Ivan Illich on the concept of "shadow-work", which was all of this submerged labor that makes the work-a-day world of business possible. It includes things like laundry, cooking, child-rearing, cleaning, etc. Of course, Illich drew scandal because, unlike the Feminists, he rejected economizing this work. Instead, he thought it reflected a domain that has not been gobbled up by the ideology of markets. Women's work needed to be recognized to de-totalized the power of the dollar, not to become integrated. Some feminists wanted to charge for domestic labors, a literal economizing of the home. For Illich this was the pinnacle of idolatry, a complete totalitarian shift.

Of course, Illich is hard to pin; he's not quite an anti-modern, but he rejected the dis-integration of home and labor, where the latter is alienated, projected outside, and consumes the former. I think his "pre-modern" (that's not exactly it) project is worthy of investigation, but that means rejecting this stark division between domestic-professional. That doesn't mean that wives do not have a responsibility to "keep the home", but what that means needs to be heavily revised from the idea of the domestic-sphere of the hearth. Christians need to rethink the relationship between their economic activity and their home-life, and struggle to reintegrate these phenomena. The separation of all things into spheres is troubling, from an ethical point but also more generally from an existential point.

But what does this have to do with the above's point about 1 Corinthians and prophetesses? He argues that it's quite clear from 1 Corinthians that the role of prophetesses was eliminated after the Apostolic era, as the time of signs had passed. I find this exegetical position somewhat bewildering, a seemingly arbitrary distinction within Scripture that only makes sense when read back into the text. To say that St. Paul's commands to prophetesses is to assume a contingency about it that is not precisely justified. I don't see how this standard can't be applied across the board: perhaps women's silence in churches, or commands about minding one's home are just temporary. There's a whole theology of canon and Scriptural formation that is neatly overlaid so as to avoid the messiness of Christians professing the faith.

But that's the kicker here. The cessationist position and the emphasis on domesticity do not so much arise from Scripture qua Scripture, but reflect the Fundamentalist tradition of the early 20th century. I think the above has underestimated the ability for a tradition to exert a kind of normative logic that guides the reading of the text. From my engagement of Scripture, I find the cessationist position far more easy to digest, given my empirical experiences and rational predilection. However, I have no biblical warrant to justify this position. The whole concept of Apostolic dispensation is itself a concept help organize the messy parts; it requires a canonical normativity to extra-scriptural events that I don't find warranted. That's not to say that these extra-scriptural events are not informative; they most certainly are. But they're not binding. St. John's extended life is referred to in Scripture, as much as the Lord's prophecy about the doom of Jerusalem, but many would be uncomfortable normalizing all of St. John's teachings (especially since he was a Quartodeciman celebrant of Pascha).

Part of the problem in modern, "conservative", Protestant churches is a failure to properly appreciate the gifts of women and their place in the People of God. The result has been a creeping feminism with the church as bureaucracy, business, or NGO. Instead, I think the solution is to appreciate what, precisely, female prophetesses did in the church, as well as deaconesses, and recovering these apostolically founded offices. Of course there are many charismatic peoples and said creeping feminists who have latched onto these concepts and warped them into things that look like the professionalized pulpit-leader. That's not it at all. Most Protestant churches barely understand the holiness of the church, the holiness of her offices, and the unique role and functions that the episkopoi, presbyteroi and diakonoi exercise within the Body of the Lord. Most treat these as mere trifles, equivalent to corporate officers, board members, and secretaries.  The pastor is not a professional motivational speaker, orator, or business consultant. Pastor is not even an office, but a gift and a metaphor for the leaders of the church.

Until people understand what it is to even be the church, the idea of recovering biblical offices and biblical giftings will become hard to appreciate. In most likelihood, feminism will keep ripping a part the church. The above is basically correct. But part of recovering the truth is to not become confined to the tradition of the modern world, including Fundamentalism. Instead, we have to recover a deeper sense of things. If women are to be given a stalwart sense of resistance, there must be a robust articulation of their potential roles and functions, not only within the home but within the Body of Christ. It's the only medicine to disarm the valid critiques of feminism, while also articulating a far better vision, a kind of Scriptural patriarchy, that gives rest and unity to both men and women, in their own specific callings, all in the sacred blood of Christ.

*I don't really *celebrate* All Saints' Day, but it is a time of remembrance. I'm not hostile to ecclesiastical liturgical calendars as a way to organize teaching within the church. Calendars are never binding, but are adiaphora, for churches to maintain a sense of themselves through time. A church calendar is like meeting on a specific day for the eucharist and teaching: it's a way of organizing time to involve oneself in the binding truth of Scripture, while itself not binding. The general rejection of the liturgical calendar among the reformers was, I think, a mistake. As some Anglicans were keen to point out among Congregationists, the lack of organized time and organized reading of Scripture made it very easy for specific ministers to only ever preach and talk about what they'd like. These are means to help us engage the wholeness of Scripture, but can not bind the conscience. Certainly liturgies have been abused and been used as clubs to beat opponents down. But that's no reason to swing to the other extreme. Whether we like it, we're time bound creatures and we're connected to regulation. It is best to regulate one's self around Scripture, and liturgies of time (aka. calendars) are one useful way to do so.

Retraction: After writing this piece, I reflected further on the functionality of writing it. What I mean is I wonder what, exactly, does my writing here do? My objective here was to communicate that the gift of prophecy of women, along with the office of deaconess, was a means to address the core issue that made feminism, in the first place, attractive. I'm writing in the vein of Illich here: feminism picked up on something more broadly in society, but failed in their answer. Much of feminism is about access to the table of power, yet it is that very table that is the problem. I think that people who try to segment the church too strictly off from broader social phenomena are in for a world of hurt. There are some very (relatively) well-know complementarians who think feminism is basically fine in all other areas of life besides the offices of the church. They've cut themselves off at the knees.

Why? Am I saying the church is a social organism like any other? Yes and no. The church has an end that is unlike any other social body we belong to, even the family. And yet it is still the relationships of human beings, and the norms of social interactions will be present. The church is a holy society, and Christians do not have dual sets of ethics. They worship as prescribed by the Lord, they give glory to the Savior in all that they do.

And yet in writing all of this, I'm not a little frustrated with myself. Why? Because it seems like empty theorizing. I plan to write more on this later, but one of my major concerns is argue that the best social polity is federalism. The reason being is that it best allows the church to be the church. I'm not saying that federalism is necessarily ideal for the church, as God gives growth in many seasons. But I am saying that the equivalent of good weather for peoples is a federal relationship. The church ought not to dominate, but also seek justice, which, means working to check the power of others through the word. What that might mean is speaking truth to power, as the cliche goes, willing to suffer and die for refusing to join the project of totalization that inheres in all civilizational projects.

My major concerns are for Christians to live as Christians, individually and corporately, which requires living as a church, as the Church. And, also, it is about understanding the world I live in and seeking a more just social arrangement, as the holy prophet Jeremiah instructs, typologically, for Israel to do in Babylon. Thus, even in the most brutal and godless empire, God's people must stay true, and yet be peaceable. They refuse to become Babylonians, even as they yet participate in the every day dimensions of life. They are reckoned subjects, and yet they know their task in to remain faithful to their God, the Eternal Creator of radical categorical difference. There is no god like God.

Thus, to even bother talking about domesticity and women in church can seem like a waste of time, even as a critique. In some ways I regret writing this post because, even as it was in the spirit of iron sharpening iron, there are so many other things worth spending time on. As our Lord taught us, those who have will receive more, and those who don't have will be stripped of they have. That's not economic policy, but the strange way of wisdom. For those who pursue Lord Jesus, they will receive the glory of wisdom; for those who don't bother to give a second thought, their hearts will harden further. Salvation is a way of life, it is the path out of Egypt and towards the Promised Land. But if one is headed into Arabia, Ethiopia, or Greece, or back into Egypt, then the Torah doesn't make any sense.

And, additionally, there's no credit to someone who performs a decontextualized gender role when they uncritically support the death-machine of the US empire. I'd rather spend time around a feminist who appreciates this fact. Maybe my priorities are misplaced, but to worry about women's behavior in comparison to one's stance towards leviathan and behemoth is like worrying about tithing mint and cumin instead of justice and mercy. The former should be done as well, but the latter are the weightier matters of the Torah.

I write this addendum not so much criticize the above author, but myself. I should not have bothered, even though I stand by what I wrote. I hope that if Christians began to live cruciform lives, men and women, the incongruous logic of their family life would snap into place. Obviously one place for that is brutal honesty. But that truly would be a supernatural gift from the Spirit of Christ. God help us.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Salvation is of the Jews: The Necessary Dialectic of Semper Reformanda

The charge of syncretism is a difficult, and often nasty, one. It is the accusation of failure, of compromise, of corruption, and is often deployed polemically. To call one a syncretist is to discredit and delegitimize. And yet for all of that, the charge still reflects a reality, one that is clear and present in Scripture. Judah and Israel both struggle with the High Places, with the latter additionally engaged in Jeroboam's sin, the maintenance of shrines in Dan and Bethel. It's not that these shrines are worshiping false gods, but they are false worship of the true God. The Lord established His temple and cult in Jerusalem. Like all things in Scripture, the ground of Mt. Moriah was holy by God's decree; man could not instantiate or declare what was or was not separated unto the Lord, though man had an obligated to treat holy things as holy. The worship of the true God had become polluted with Human vanity, disobedience, and realpolitik.

However, what does this lesson have to do with Christians today? Much in every way, though it is no easy task. The history of Israel typologically reflects the Messiah, however it is also a parable, lesson, allegory, and heuristic for the spiritual Israel, the people who wear the name of the Christ Jesus. Thus, we are not to believe that the Christians are some replacement for Jews, but that the Christians reveal the fullness of the Jews. There's a nuance here that rejects supercessionism in a linear fashion, even if fulfillment and maturity is contrasted with awaiting and childhood. As Jesus is clear: the Torah is not rejected but fulfilled, and the Temple Cult is not abandoned, but transfigured through the Spirit. Still, as Jesus points out to the Samaritan woman, salvation is of the Jews.

However the progressive view of history, which has taken many forms, has created a damaging kind of syncretism through arid traditionalism, as well as uncritical reinvention. The latter point is rather simple, in that it is impossible to merely restore the past. Groups like the Restorationist Churches of Christ reveal a noble ambition, though ultimately foolish. In trying to restore the New Testament church, purified of denominational and confessional wars, they ended up creating just one more group, and one that was equally embedded in its American context. They still thought and acted as 19th century Americans, which colored their approach to reading and interpreting Scripture.

Traditionalists will laugh, but for all the wrong reasons. In fact, the Churches of Christ did engage in the process I will talk about, though by accident. Traditionalists, perhaps best summed up in Eastern Orthodoxy, but also Rome, take a supercessionist line to the church that ends up failing to appreciate what it means for the people of Christ to be the true Israel. An example of this phenomenon is Florovsky, who is quite clear about his allegiance to Hellenism. However he frames this episode as the Christianization of Hellenism, of the biblical faith accepting the challenges of the Greco-Roman world and answering, and reconfiguring, the various answers into a system that would be the Patristinc synthesis. However, Florovsky does not see this event as a contingent victory of the gospel over the Greeks, but as itself normative. Florovsky sees providence in that Christ was born in the Roman empire, and the church's lasting works and achievements happened within the Hellenistic milieu. He is quite clear that if Christianity is to spread, it must come with the cultural patrimony of the Greeks. Failure to do so results in failure. Thus, he contrasts within Russian Orthodoxy those who accepted the Byzantine patristic synthesis and those who rejected it. The latter (hence why he writes of "Ways" of Russian theology) offered various dead ends, trapped in false philosophies, superstitions, and acquiescence to the state.

Though Florovsky would certainly not put it this way, he believes Christian culture is really just a tuned up Greek culture, the kerygma of the Hebrews fitted within the universal problems of the world found most fully in the Roman world. There is a Christian civilization, and it speaks Greek, unlike the polluted theologies of the West, which fell as they abandoned their Romanitas. The Greek speaking bishops of Rome became the servants of the Frankish barbarians. And the reaction took the form of Hellenizing Christianity, a pendulum swing that missed the Patristic synthesis.

However, this traditionalism is a crystalization of a process that is not necessarily a problem, but bodes ill. For rather than learning to think like the Apostles, all the key terms, idioms, and problems are normalized by the philosophers. It is one thing to apply the Gospel in different terms to answer problems within a certain cultural milieu, but it's another to make them normative and binding. If we cannot understand how the fullness of faith can survive without a term like homoousios, then we're on our way towards Newman's development of doctrine. I'm not saying the creed of Nicaea is false, only that if we make it a binding standard, it forces us into false dilemmas and problems. Watch many contemporary theologians struggle to define hypostasis, per the traditional distinction of one ousios and three hypostases (or in Latin, one substantia and three personae). Even in the age that these terms were used confusion reigned. For the more proper Latin translation of hypostasis is substantia, not persona. Many Latin-speaking Christians thought the declaration of three hypostases was tri-theism!

Ok, but the Fathers worked out the technical meaning of these words, so why abandon them? Because while it may be useful in a time when people spoke Greek (and that's debatable), we hardly have a sense of them. And if we don't understand them (with many average Christian's totally ignorant of what "person" means when used theologically) we have to ask what we get in recovering this teaching. Would it be more worthwhile to teach a Christology that conforms to the NT, or the settlement of Nicaea-Constantinople or Chalcedon? Richard Bauckham should be profusely celebrated for revealing that the Apostles had their own, fully fleshed, Christology that was not barren. If we are to say that the Scriptures are normative, then we don't need to take an evolutionary view of history, of doctrine, to say, as Newman did, that the fathers of Nicaea knew more than the Apostles. That's the worst kind of supercessionism because it ejects the very Jewish foundations of Christianity. It is to make Jesus a liar, for there is no contradiction that salvation comes from the Lord and that salvation comes from the Jews.

However, engagement in a, say, Hellenic context is not the problem either. We don't need to Judaize people as a means towards conversion. St. Paul was rather firm on this point (to put it mildly). Florovsky is not wrong to say that there was much glory in the Fathers who Christianized Hellenism. But there is a danger. And here's where the dialectic of Scripture must come to the for. We cannot be anything other than what we are. Unlike the Churches of Christ, we cannot renounce our Americanness to be Christians (or whatever one's cultural/ethnic/national milieu). And yet, our own native ways and practices are not to be left unconverted or alone, as if the Gospel fuses with these ways of life or merely crowns them, supernatural icing ontop of an otherwise unchanged cake of traditional mores. Here is where, if we are to be serious about salvation being of the Jews, we must approach Scripture dialectically, that the very Jewishness of it must contradict and contrast with our way of life as it is.

That is not to say that Scripture is Jewishness qua Jews/Judaism, but that the Messiah and His teaching emerges from the Jews, as God foreordained, and that context cannot be ignored. Idioms, sayings, phrasings, and the like, cannot be abstracted from their historical context. And yet even without that knowledge, the Spirit of God has made the teaching of Scripture clear despite lack of knowing. If anything, scholarship confirms the truth, not establishes it. The Spirit bridges the differences, transforming our ways of life into the image of Christ. We are not disciples of Christ in the way that the first century church of Jerusalem was, but the Spirit links us through time, where we share a catholic bond, conformed to the same Image that transcends time and space.

We can contrast between the Frankish art of Charlemagne's court and the Renaissance. I'm not validating the former's interpretation or practice to say that they understood the bond more clearly, at least in this way. The Christian Franks, at least according to their bishops, saw themselves as Israel, instantiating the Spiritual Commonwealth of God. Thus, their artwork placed biblical figures in contemporary garb: in spiritual terms, the figure of David (to pick one example) appears in the here-and-now. We might say that for the biblicists of the Renaissance, a similar project was underway to break the systematizing that went on. For the Middle Ages slowly froze this image of the Church, where now the West (the true Romans) was the people of God, its cultural norms reified, sanctified, and systematized. The Renaissance, in part, was an attempt to break this frigid image. And yet, many Renaissance figures looked not at Scripture, but Rome and Greece, seeing a world lost that must be creatively engaged with to build a new world, something edging towards the golden age.

Christians, wherever they are and wherever the gospel comes from, must work to not lose the Jewishness of Scripture, even as such Jewishness cannot be uncritically replicated, but understood so it may speak clearly, and that the Spirit may do His work. If seek to freeze the Spirit's work, we'll end up creating our own shrines of Dan and Bethel, sacralizing a cultural norm as the universal and export it. Hellenization is just one instance, perhaps the most glorious, a good that has become a crippling evil in many cases. We must learn to think like the Apostles, who learned to think from Christ, and approach our own world in such a light. Such is the task of semper reformanda, to always ask for, and pursue, the mind of Christ.

Addendum: This approach to always being transformed through the Scriptures, seeing the distance as well as adhering to the Spirit's work, is a necessary means for approaching historical theology, the history of doctrine, and questions of orthodoxy. Many theologians and historians get involved in church-history with an axe to grind or a perspective they need to balance. As just one case, there are questions about how Nestorian was Nestorius, what does the anathema really mean, and what ought we to make of the "Nestorian" Syrian Church, which in the East was vibrant and dynamic. Their theology, even if we will say that it was in error, did not play out as an error; that is to say that the Church of the East did not fall into the problems that Ephesus was supposed to safeguard.

One road from this point is to relativize dogma and doctrine; it doesn't matter what it says, but how it motivates, or emerges from, right action. Dogma is reduced to pure functionality. While I'm certainly more sympathetic to this approach than its opposite, namely reducing all action to the effects of dogma/ideas, trapping people in iron logic, it's not helpful either. It presupposes a body of orthodoxy and orthopraxy that is regulating how we understand the right effects; the functionalist argument is sawing off the branch it is sitting on.

If we're to escape this binary or dialectical back-and-forth, it is only when trying to refine and reform theological doctrines through the lens of Scripture. How did the Apostles articulate their Christology, and how do we translate it into our own terms. We may appreciate historic battles, such as between Cyril and Nestorius, even if we should not become partisans in them. Even if I think Cyril was correct (and I do), it is not at the expense of the Syrians. Nestorians may be living and believing, pursuing a way of life, that is in accordance with the truth. Why? Because neither Christotokos or Theotokos are binding in the sense that they are not Scriptural images or terms. Or at least not directly so, for we may draw a parallel between the figure of the Ark (which bore the glory) or Israel (who produced the Seed, the Messiah) and make the same point. That regulates the flux of our grammatical structure without necessarily needing to re-fight the Nestorian battle, or try to idiotically apply that label to some set of people. God did not promise ecumenical creeds as canon, but Scripture, with the former possessing a limited, and contingent, authority to help guide us in understanding the latter.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Abda Effect: The Temptation of Rome and the Martyr Complex

I want to give a foray on what I'll refer to as the "Abda effect". The following post will be interacting with this lecture, that discusses the place of Christians in the Persian empire from the 4th to 7th century, and somewhat beyond. As I will discuss what I've scraped from it in terms of moral guidance, I also want to interact with a definition from Proto called the Shapur effect. The following is how he defined it (larger context here):
"Like the Christians of Persia who lived peacefully under the Parthian and Achaemenid rulers the conversion of Constantine and the subsequent politicisation of Christianity suddenly made the Christians in Persia look like potential enemies. Due to Constantine's actions they were almost overnight likely to sympathise with Rome and its anti-Persian policies. Even though this wasn't the case, the Persian Shah, Shapur II began to persecute Christians."
This account supposes that the persecutions under Shapur emerged from a fear of Rome and the potential consequences of Constantine's allegiance to the Christian Church. I don't deny that this account is true, however the above lecture offers a serious revision of these accounts of persecution. According to the lecturer (Richard Payne), the Christians of Persia were not targeted wholesale during Shapur's grinding war against Rome, but only the leaders in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the capital of the empire. Strapped for cash, Shapur decided to invite the Christians into the official business of tax-collecting, something that Zoroastrian priests had alone been responsible for. Bishop Simeon refused the request, violating the king's law which carried the sentence of death. Simeon and his supporters, up to hundreds of fellow Christian leaders, were executed, and the matter concluded. This episode does not seem to have offered any problem, decades later, in the relationship between Christians and the Zoroastrian empire.

Payne offers no interpretation as to why Simeon refused to pay taxes, and there's no commentary on why his successors, and other Persian Christians, moved on, or what they thought about this resistance to imperial law. It could have actually been fifth column activism, or it could be that the Christian bishop had scruples of funding a war where the blood of his brethren could be shed (i.e. Christians living in the border towns that Persia sought to reclaim). It could have been noble, or it might have been scheming. However, the limited scope of Shapur's persecution is, according to Payne, offer a light on the relationship between Christians and Zoroastrians, as well as Christians to a explicitly non-Christian political structure.

However, what I want to briefly discuss is the account of the monk Abda, and his martyrdom/execution. Sometime in the 5th century, Abda led an effort to burn down a Zoroastrian fire-temple, striking down an idolatrous center. Roughly around the same time, there were limited incidents of organized Christian efforts to attack Zoroastrians, not physically, but symbolically. One bishop led an effort to storm a fire-temple, put out the sacred fire, and destroy the instruments of worship. For these attacks on the state cult, the empire put Abda and all others involved in these attacks on state ideology and iconography to death.

Payne makes a point to note that the literature between the west and the east connected; Syriac speakers in the Roman empire were not cut off from the east. Thus, Persian Christians were reading literature about Constantine, Christian efforts to close down and destroy pagan temples, and the victory of God's people in running the empire. Payne references a Roman historian's phrase that the Constantinian moment turned Christians from lambs into lions, who quickly filled the positions of Constantine's administration and his many successors. Payne's account offers how a similar phenomenon of imperial service could take place among Christians in a non-Constantinian empire, where many Christians engaged in the affairs as the state as long as it did not compromise the faith.

What I'm interested in is the possible link between Abda's arson of a pagan temple and what was going on in the Roman world. Payne, very obviously, is motivated to articulate a kind of pluralist vision, wherein he blends pluralist social polity with pluralism in religion. Christianity's intolerance, its drive towards a universal truth (something he trips over with Zoroastrianism' similar motive), was edged off through forced exposure to other faiths. Its imperious aggression was subdued. I think that's quite an overreach, since we have little reason to believe ancient Christians would hold such a view. In fact, the limited scope of Abda's acts, as well as their fundamentally non-violent nature (nothing close to the Hypatia incident), show that Christians of this time had a very different conceptual relationship, but I'm just speculating. Instead, the Abda effect may be a very dangerous temptation not only in Sassanian Persia, but in our contemporary times.

If Abda was influenced by Roman literature and the changes in Roman Christianity, then the arson was an attempt to model Christian destruction of pagan temples. Perhaps there was a belief that God would reward Persian Christians for faithfulness and give them their own Constantine. However, in conjunction, it means that Abda's death became sacralized, perhaps for the wrong reason. While I'm not saying that his punishment was warranted, and I'm far more impressed that there was no beatings or killings of Zoroastrian priests anywhere in the lecture (something I think Payne would've highlighted if it were there), Abda's destruction of a pagan temple was unwise. There's a distinction between voluntary renunciation, as St. Paul led a group of Ephesians in burning their witchcraft texts, or indirect damage, as St. Paul threatened to cause among the idol-smiths, and involuntary and direct destruction. That is because while idols are nothing, we must, in renouncing the devil and the pomp of this age, cast down the symbols of our slavery. Months after I converted I destroyed all of my Marine Corps items and destroyed an American flag, which I had held in a sacral reverence. But that's not the same as storming a government building and burning a flag. In fact it may signify the opposite, believing that magic items have some intrinsic power. Objects of witchcraft or idols do not have any actual power; there can be a million pagan temples and they are just as hollow or demon-possessed as none. Christians, in their own homes, in their meeting places, and in their own hearts, however, have an obligation to tear down the High Places, to mortify, sanctify, and purify.

However, supposing Abda was a troublemaker (not unfair, I think), then why remember him as a martyr? To call Abda a troublemaker is not to say that what he does was sinful or evil, even if it was foolish and caused his own downfall. However, if we valorize Abda, then we begin the process of creating a martyr complex. The same phenomenon happens among Evangelicals who joined the Moral Majority Crusade. They sought to gain power to wield over the nation, shaping domestic social policy towards social engineering, reform, and reconstruction. Of course the actual lever-pullers linked to the Moral Majority were usually tepid at best, but they knew that they drew strength from organizing many people who were true believers, and depended upon gatekeepers who believed in the cause. But when the coalition failed, once with Reagan and again with Bush II, the howls of persecution came like a rushing wind. The Trump era may invite the third backlash, perhaps more powerful than the Reagan or the Bush II years. However to cry persecution and posture as martyrs is obscene as it is foolish. You are not a martyr if you die with a gun in your hand. Lord Jesus told us plainly that if we live by the sword, we die by the sword. And St. Peter is also clear that we ought to suffer for righteousness' sake, and not as a swindler, a drunk, or a murderer. Christians may indeed slip, fail, and fall, and may suffer as such, but there is no virtue in doing so. We are, many times, receiving due punishment for our failures.

But the Abda effect is to catalyze sword-wielding to justify martyrdom. But unlike the American example, the Persian Abda was pursuing a path blazed elsewhere. More like Rome, the USA has vibrant Babylonian-Whore disposition, seeking to confuse Christ's gospel with the myths of Aeneas, Romulus, and Caesar. And yet we are not alone, for the world is watching. Analogous to Persia, many places where Christians are minority populations receive inspiration from the United States, if not direct aid and direction. The Chinese Underground churches face a difficult situation in this regard, where some (I don't know how many) are making odes to America to intervene, to aid, to support. But unlike the Shapur effect, which is far more aboveboard and direct, the Abda effect is a grassroots effort at imitation. There are quite a few Protestant Christians in eastern Europe that are imbibing doctrine of dominion, rule, and conquest from their American counterparts. They seek to, if possible, stomp their boot on the enemies of God. The rather disturbing prospect of Bolsonaro's election in Brazil is an example of a worldly and vain Evangelicalism that has made common cause with a fascistic leader as means to reform social mores. Not to say that modern day Brazil is a moral exemplar, or that Lula's government was anything but a failure for many struggling peoples. However, Evangelicals are on the front lines of leading a moral crusade to clean up the open displays of sodomy, looking to stoke conflict and bring in sweeping social engineering. Many look to the United States' Moral Majority as a grassroots (or astroturf) movement to seize power.

Now I won't say if the level of involvement in Persian imperial affairs was wise for Christians either. This lecture offers no commentary or examples of whether there were disputes over participation. Certainly, there's a level of tension between some kind of policy of not trying to convert Zoroastrians, while simultaneously evangelization of some of the Zoroastrian nobility. And then there are the stable Christian communities in towns and cities, and the missionaries the roamed as far as southern India and western China. There was most likely no single, or homogenous, view of the church's relationship to its idolatrous countrymen. However, the Abda effect offers a continuous warning. For our example and our networks as Christians will impact many elsewhere, and refusal to explicitly repudiate may poison future generations of Christians elsewhere. As Proto has posted on Andrew Brunson's turn to the Fox News interview circuit (here), what kind of legacy did this American pastor leave to Christian Turks, who may now believe agitation and overthrow of the moderately Islamist AKP is part of their faith. They are now in a bad position of becoming American tools to shake or disturb Erdogan's regime. Wittingly or unwittingly, they may bring shame on Christ due to the foolish ideas of evangelist, who points them off to the edge of a cliff.

Christians should expect to be despised in this world, for we look forward to an End that this age denies. But we should only rejoice when we suffer for righteousness' sake. Otherwise our tears are as useless as Judas', who became nothing but a son of perdition. God help us.
Addendum (10/29/18): Having flipped through Richard Payne's book (A State of Mixing, 41-43), from which the above lecture is based, I found the relevant text from the Martyrdom of Simeon. In it, after Shapur II issues an edict for the bishops to collect taxes for the war effort, bishop Simeon says:

"I bow to the king of kings, and I honor his commands with all my power, however, concerning that which is required of me in the edict, I believe even you know that it is not my business to demand taxes from the people of Christ, my Lord. Indeed, our authority over them is not in the things which are seen but in those things which are unseen."

All fellow bishops who refused, along with Simeon, died with him, though bishops who complied with the edict survived. From this evidence, Payne says "Simeon and allied ecclesiastical leaders perished in the 340s for failing to cooperate in the extension of the fiscal system, not simply for being Christians." Of course the logic behind this conclusion is pretty fuzzy. In an analogous example, Stalin shifted his policy of actively persecuting Christians to welcoming back the Orthodox church, with all things modified to support the state. If Russian Christians did not like this state of affairs, whether it was the state's ability to meddle with church offices, or turn all ordained peoples into spies and agents of the commissariat, they were not being persecuted as Christians but as political dissidents. Really? Payne is too overly absorbed in the perspective of the Persian state to strike the right balance (even if he's offering a good and necessary course-corrective).

Obviously Christians in the 5th century (from which the text is dated) were uneasy about the functioning alliance of the church with the empire. If the quote from Simeon is remotely accurate, then that means there had been Christian unease with the empire's gaze on Christians. They would be loyal to the king-of-kings as a civil authority, but they were not willing to be his agents. I suppose this complements the other-side of the coin. While Abda may be drawing on examples of violence in the Roman empire against pagans, the same temptation manifested with those Christians who too easily folded into the machinery of the empire.

Payne is wrong to say that Christians weren't persecuted as Christians, though from the Zoroastrian elite's vantage that may be the case. However, he has helpfully shed light on a complicated process that is surprisingly insightful for the contemporary situation. May we take inspiration from the holy martyr-bishop Simeon (along with the 4 bishops, 97 presbyters and deacons, and an ascetic lay woman) and appreciate what faithfully walking the line costs.