Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Beauty of Holiness: Some Thoughts on Biblically Informed Aesthetics

This post is mainly in response, in rebuttal, and in dialogue with my blessed, beloved, and wise friend Proto:

I titled my post with a watchword of Anglican theology, coming from Psalm 96. Its context is sufficiently ambiguous, opening a channel between both concepts: true beauty is holy, and the truly holy is beautiful, and both are in the context of worshiping the Lord who is both holy and beauty. It ought to inform us as to how we think about aesthetics.

Currently, many in the Evangelical world are sprinting to an embrace of all classical aesthetics. The flood is a more recent phenomenon, but the trickle has been building up for awhile now. Francis Schaeffer was crucial in this shift, bringing Evangelicals into a focus on aesthetics as a part of the culture war. I've not read his art anlyses, but as I've heard, they're deeply connected to the philosophy Frankfurt school and so-called "cultural marxism", though obviously inverted. The basic idea is that all of art depends upon a philosophical basis, and be thought along those lines. In culture war terms, the idea is "we" (christians? church? America? the West?) need to create better art, dominate the art/culture production industry, and change the direction of society. It's a vision of Dominionism, gaining control of society's direction through seizing the means of (culture) production.

But this trickle of Schaefferian, Religious Right, and Dominionism has turned into a broader flood. Many Evangelicals have become tired of the utilitarian aesthetics of the contemporary scene. The Church-Growth movement saw an architectural boom-bust in modeling the church building as a shopping mall; it was a place to buy things, hangout, and drink coffee. This design was only a logical consequence of Billy Graham style evangelism, taking up the contemporary models of mass media propaganda for the purposes of saving souls. As Jacques Ellul helpfully pointed out, evangelicals like Graham were woefully naive as to the effects of media upon a message, and they may have done serious damage to the credibility of the gospel. And Ellul's American counterpart, William Stringfellow, stated well that most American evangelicals are rank Pelagians when it comes to thinking about society and social forces. The utilitarian model induced a stultifying spirituality, reducing evangelism to marketing, worship to an emotional experience, and following Christ into moral performance.

One reaction to this trend was the Emergent bubble, which combined an inchoate and incoherent desire to salad-bar Christian history. Others have sought greater dialogue, and blending, with Christian history and contemporary groups who have held onto particular patterns. Hence people swim the Tiber or the Bosporous, or go on the Wittenberg or Canterbury trail. On this point, I can relate, as I am somewhat camped out on said Canterbury trail, though my reasoning will be quite different than the phenomenon I'm describing.

While the Emergent movement tends to reflect a smells-and-bells twist in an otherwise milquetoast liberal theology, many who are sympathetic or have jumped the evangelical ship have maintained their dedication to culture war. Many of these folks have realized that they needed a firmer ground to stand on to do battle with their perceived enemies. Hence, there is much more time spent on reviving architecture, artwork, and festivals, among other questions of liturgical revival/innovation and so on. There's also a revival of interest in the Middle Ages, using figures like Lewis and Tolkien as springboards.

Not all of these shifts are necessarily bad, but their not very good either. In the realm of aesthetics, there's been a push to reinvigorate a sense of beauty and the use of art, but with little reflection. Most of these conversations have little to do with Scripture and more to do with a commitment to cultural development and philosophical speculation. There are a lot of assumptions held uncritically and a general lack of concern for Biblical witness.

As Proto makes clear in his article, art exists on a philosophical basis and originates as an inherently religious act. Even if we are to make the cases that there is non-religious art, it is because of a theological commitment that allows such to exist. Whether it was paintings, poems, songs, dance, or plays, all originate with a sense of the sacred. If we desacralize something, it is dependent upon a redefinition or, as one book put it, migration. Only a referential holy can inform us whether something is in fact not-that, not-holy. The thing set a part informs us that everything else is not. Contrary to atheistical critics, man is a worshiping creature, and it is only the elevation of a holy that common things are established; we don't start out in generic world of objects which then is infused with some sort of supernatural significance. If this fact were not the case, idols and gods would be the exception, not the rule. Considering it was not half-ape nomad people, but the architects of grand civilizations, who made cults, temples, and religious devotion elaborate, it seems that it is a highly rational, and not irrational, endeavor to worship, even if it involves, as it so often does after the Fall, worshiping demons.

This last point is a crucial component for reflection: we are weak and beggarly creatures in thrall to demons and our own inward conjurings. We fathom up our own gods in our hearts and seek after them; creation becomes clay to sculpt our idols of mud. Scripture is intensely suspicious about man's religious impulse. Like all of our passions, our desire to worship is both a created good and the source of our woe. The Lord sends many prophets to condemn Israel's worship. This judgement is not only about worshiping false gods, the baals and ashtoreths, but also in corrupting the true God's worship. Prophets damn Israel's use of "high places", the turning of mountains into devotional space. The prophets also condemn Jeroboam's altars at Bethel and Dan.

The sin of Jeroboam is a vague condemnation of many kings of Israel after the ten tribes depart. While some commentators dispute on what this sin exactly is, I think it is that Jeroboam built separate altars for the Lord in Israel. Jeroboam was rather insightful when he realized that his people would muddle the separation if they continued to return to Jerusalem to worship. The bonds between Israel and Judah would reestablish under Judah if the people of Israel returned again and again to worship in Jerusalem's temple. Instead, Jeroboam built alternative altars for his people to use and help affect the permanent separation between the two. The sin of disobedience to commands for worship twins with a sin of disunity. The two are of a piece, and as long as the altars remain the separation continues.

Most don't think about how catholicity features in questions of aesthetics. I'll address the problem more in another post, but few consider how enculturation of the gospel may go too far and cause disunity among the brethren. Many who hanker after some "Christian" past forget that the West's, or Rome's, cultural achievements do not map over to other ancient Christian churches.

However, one must recognize that Scripture is itself a piece of art. Proto's essay borders on Barthian existentialism when it drives a wedge between revelation and literary form. Israel's Scripture came in sacred history, poetry, and song. God's holiness came through the poetic, yea, even on Human terms, for Human terms were not self-derived but given. While the tongue may blaspheme and curse, it was created to sing blessings to our God. While Scripture provides a wariness of the sensual, it does it in sensory idiom. The Bible reveals a battlefield over the very shape and form of creation, over the what, how, and why of the holy and, thus as corollary, the common.

However, even when Scripture adjudicates between the holy and the common, the ultimate holy remains the Lord Himself who is, as Creator, wholly other and totally distinct from creation. The foundation of holiness is the Lord, and therefore He is totally separate from all creation and yet undergirds all relations between the holy and the common within the creation. Therefore, the Jerusalem Temple is holy, but not in a deep or foundational sense. The Lord may abandon the Temple and it ceases to be anything. The nature of the holy is not dependent on a cosmic order, but on the plans and determinations of the Lord for His creation. There is no static order, but a dynamism towards creation's end. This ultimate end is none other than Jesus Christ, revealing God's true face to us, the Word reflecting the Father in the Spirit, and, simultaneously, man's perfection as creation's prophet-priest-king.

Christ is the Father's full image, radiant and effulgent, and this fact has consequence for our understanding of art.

On the one hand, flesh carried the fullness of God's glory. Christ is the holy icon. Since Scripture only exists to testify to Christ and reveal Him, it too is holy, writings set a part from all else. Yet, Christians do not believe in a pristine artifact of Scripture; there is no sacred language or original copy. This fact is not a problem, and it fits within the contours of Scripture itself. The Scripture is not disposable, but its existence is a gift. Thus, not only does the Lord take away the Scripture as judgement, He also blinds those who have it from understanding it. Scripture has an inherent holiness, but one that remains totally derived from its subject and author, Jesus Christ. That might sound contradictory, but its only in the same way that the early church understood the regula fidei, the rule of faith. As I've mentioned in other posts, the meaning of Scripture is at one present in and outside of the text. The baptismal creeds of the church, symbolized in the Nicaean creed, functioned as a basic confession of Scripture's content, arising out of Scripture, and a wholly derivative empty outline that must be plunged back into the depths of Scripture to fill out.

As symbols of faith, creeds are prosaic pieces of verbal art, a terse and explosive manifestation of Christ's glory, used as both a guide and a shorthand. Extra-scriptural art functions in a similar capacity. Poems, songs, even pictures, all of this art functions as extra-scriptural artifacts of Scripture. There is a derivative holiness as much as they manifest the truth of Scripture, namely Jesus Christ. When Christ told the Samaritan woman that a time was coming to worship in spirit and truth, He was not advocating a move towards aniconic worship through the intellect alone. He was talking about Spirit and Truth, worship was now going to take place through the Messiah, the Truth Incarnate going with the Spirit. These arts, whether visual or verbal, are Scriptural spillage, extraneous manifestations of Scripture's truth. If they detract from Jesus Christ, then they ought to taken down and destroyed. The things are not holy in and of themselves, but hover around Scripture. The best hymns are soaked in Scripture, and are thus appropriate forms of art for the church's worship in song.

On the other hand, Christ's monopolization of the holy means the creation's common use. Bread is just bread until it is spoken over and broken on the Lord's table, becoming His holy body. Bread still contains symbolic meaning, reflecting God's will and purpose in His creative design, but it is as so as bread, and not as the Lord's Body. While I'm tempted to say that, therefore, all art is just art and may be enjoyed as a common provision, I'm skeptical. As I highlighted above, all art works find their origination in religious orientation. I don't think this cultic feature has gone away, even if that does not determine a Christian's usage. To the pure all things are pure, as St. Paul said in reference to eating meat used in pagan sacrifices. A lot of great music, painting, and sculpture was devoted to something sacralized. Whether it was the vision of an immortal empire, or a king who was as a god on earth, or even our contemporary Hollywood valorization of transhumanist gnostic salvation, a lot of supposedly "secular" art carries a halo about it. I think caution and vigilance is always warranted, not a prohibitive approach. But many don't think much about it, and perhaps a stricter application would put things in better perspective. The goofy justification of looking for the gospel in pop-culture can easily turn into a licence for just about anything. Again, as Stringfellow put it, we're naive Pelagians if we think that watching movies, looking at paintings, or listening to music leaves us uneffected.

I hope this primer has inspired some impassioned thoughts, even if you don't agree with every conclusion I drew. I believe there is a different way between an embrace of aesthetics as some metaphysical category globbed onto the Bible and skepticism. I think the Scripture provides us patterns of thought for both holy beauty and an awareness of Human propensity to build idols and high-places, even when they're vainly consecrated to the Lord.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Thy Rod and Thy Staff: Discipline in Church and State

Recently I read George Every's work on the "High Church" party in the Church of England, dating from the Restoration (1660/62) to the mid-eighteenth century. One thing that makes Every's account compelling is how he frames the issues. He marks the issue of discipline, and how it functions, a key issue in ecclesiastical debates. Laud had attempted to weld the church to the state as a self-regulating branch. However, he did not define the position of the king's party, the Royalists, during the Civil Wars. Rather, when the Commonwealth and Protectorate under Cromwell collapsed, the Restoration brought back both king and a national church established by law, but there was hardly unity on what either of these institutions meant. While almost all Royalists were glad to see the re-establishment of the Church of England, there were stark divisions on what role the church had in terms of authority. The beginnings of the High-Church party were those, primarily ordained ministers but also lay people, who believed the church ought to have authoritative power, though even in this position there were divisions on how, exactly, the church was to relate to the state, including the crown.

I think Every's work touches on a fascinating question of ecclesiastical policy and power that is often overlooked. Many focus on questions of doctrine and orthodoxy, primarily debating in the realm of ideas. There are also many recent approaches that focus on liturgy, looking at cultural formation and practice. These approaches are not bad, but lack answers to institutionally formative questions, namely who is in and who is out, with questions of how and why following. Very few analyze church discipline in any sustained, comprehensive, or critical way. 

In the twilight of voluntary associations, we don't think much about discipline because it almost doesn't exist. The phenomenon of "sheep-stealing" is rampant and, generally, a joke. Whatever one thinks of denominations and church-membership, they are almost broken concepts. Disciplinary mechanisms that do exist mostly don't function. One can easily point to dozens of pro-abortion Papists who still receive communion from dutifully negligent priests. And if an individual congregation decides to sanction someone, to require an account or deny a claim, a good many people would shrug their shoulders and walk out the door, go across the street, and worship with others who don't ask any questions of where they came from and why. Quite a few ordained authorities are happy enough to bolster their numbers and see a few more dollars fall into the collection plate.

Now, voluntary associations are not necessarily the problem, but they aren't the solution either. This story begins with the confusion and conflation of church and secular authorities beginning in the Latin church's spread into Europe. The Constantinian shift began a process of putting the burden of ecclesiastical institutions on political will. There was a subtle confluence between the political power of the emperor and the church's communal disciplinary actions. It wasn't so much that a bishop, like St. Augustine, used his episcopal throne to adjudicate court cases. Rather, it was when the adjudications of the bishop gained legitimacy as courts of the empire. Again, this credibility is not itself wholly problematic, but there began a certain expectancy that the Roman state would back the decisions of the church. St. Augustine, in the midst of dealing with Donatists, called down the governor to suppress them. The bishop mingled unity in the church with civic peace in the city. A number of the great ecumenical councils' aftershocks involved all parties looking to the emperor to enforce the policy.

The Latin church took the same expectation as it converted barbarians, even, at times, using it as an enticement. The rise of the imperial papacy was linked to a relative captivity of the church, where "barbarian" princes had assumed the sole right to appoint bishops and abbots, usually from their own families. The bishops of Rome sought to unite the churches of western Europe under its ecumenical clout, creating an institution that could fend off the decisions of secular princes. It was the ecumenical bishop of Rome, more and more reflecting the contemporary papacy of infallibility, who had the final word on the ministers of the church. And even more, since the princes of Europe claimed to be Christian, the bishop of Rome decided the good-standing of royalty, especially when crowned heads sought to dispute or reject papal missives. The Investiture Controversy was, in a sense, a long time coming, a culmination of political frustration in a distinctly non-Roman Roman empire. The whole controversy involved the question of institutional discipline, over who had authority in the church, of including, promoting, and excluding. The papacy won a resounding triumph as the emperor begged, knee deep in snow, at Canossa.

However, the bishop of Rome wielded a heavy hand, as he still was very much within the confines of the Constantinian shift. The Latin church did not merely gain autonomy over its own affairs, but subjugated princes to its affairs. The career of Julius II, il papa terible, who led armies in the complex game of Italian politics, testifies to the claim that Renaissance Popes had become a princes with an awesome power to delegitimize and destablize all who opposed them.

In many ways, the Reformation succeeded, spread, and flourished because many flocked to an anti-papal banner. Martin Luther was not exactly an adept politician, but much of his theological career had the subsidiary effect of binding German princes together. While I don't deny the sincerely theological aspects of his revolution, Luther sold himself as the balm for princes. Part of this pitch was to enforce doctrinal commitments. Luther was quite ready to meet intransigent and halting church authorities with the secular sword. If the bishops and abbots won't reform the church, then the princes will. Luther was not so naive as to believe that secular authority could be wielded cleanly. While he appointed princes and magistrates as "emergency-bishops", he was also ambivalent about secular authorities meddling in theological matters. The Peasants' War was Luther's greatest challenge and a might triumph. While many took to his banner as a rejection of all imperial authority, from both pope and prince, Luther turned the event into proof that his doctrine was not only true, but truly salutary for all secular realms. Since the gospel only spoke to spiritual matters, temporal affairs, as long as they remained temporal affairs, were not to be meddled with. Luther went further than many of his Reformed compatriots, even placing the church, its polity and institutional maintenance, under the temporal heading. While princes may not alter doctrine, they may manage the church's institutional shape and staffing. 

This doctrine was the real meaning of adiaphora, things indifferent. Whatever was not clearly elaborated as necessary truth was left for secular authorities to govern. The Reformed wing of the Reformation had a mixed approach. Calvin's pastoral career was a grim reminder of magisterial powers. Contrary to the myth that Calvin was somehow a tyrant over an austere and dour Geneva, the council harassed and hounded the man and left very little of his disciplinary forms in tact. He spent much time frustrated with state authority, though he had never lost hope in a godly council backing his measures. The doctrine of the lesser magistrate grew out of frustration with primary authorities. If the Spanish crown persecutes the faithful, perhaps a Dutch prince can stand up against him in good conscience; perhaps if a king encroaches, the nobility and gentry may rise against him. This teaching was the political edge of the Genevan Bible and lay behind some of the Puritan agitation against the Stuarts, climaxing in the Civil Wars and the decapitation of Charles I.

Contrary to some accounts, the radical Reformation was not a precursor to associational societies, though it looks similar. Rather, the Vaudois underground and Lollardy left imprints. Both of them emerged during the Reformation as allies, dissolving into the different wings of the Reformation. Though historically invisible, I think it's fair to say discipline was a key touch the Medieval underground left. These groups needed to remain communally intact to survive; solidarity was a necessity. While generally the continental Reformed sided with a magisterial model, there were still outliers. While the Church of England, also within the Reformed stream, clearly opted for a princely mode, there were still those uncomfortable with the changes. While some Puritans merely wanted to retool the national church's liturgy, doctrine, and polity, there were others who were uncomfortable with the whole project, especially as it unfolded. 

The Anabaptists sought a way to recover a form of communal discipline without license from the state. Some saw(see) this idea as cultish, but it's no different than how civic-minded pagans of Rome viewed the early Christians. There are noticeable differences, especially the public face of the Apostles we see in the New Testament. But, the fact is that there is a resistance to become fitted into a larger body and that alone seems suspicious.

Unlike voluntary associations, the Anabaptistic conception of discipline did not depend on a primary definition of society. The rise of voluntary associations involved a decoupling of churches, or perhaps religion more generally, from the state. This move is itself a theological claim, delimiting the boundaries. However, drawing boundaries, bracketing out theological claims through a-theological theology, is the essence of liberalism, for good or ill. Voluntary association became one means of integrating churches, usually a plurality, into a society, perhaps under one large heading like "Religion" or "the Protestant Interest", into a distinct sector of private society. Churches were still a part of society, but had a distinct function separated from the state. The idea of a church court enforcing anything was abolished, but churches still could gather social influence and pressure to lead the charge to political reform.

As voluntary societies, churches found a place within a larger social matrix which bore them, along with the state, corporate businesses, etc. Society complexified under a diffusion of bodies. The state still guided the direction of society, but this society was composed of lesser voluntary associations which were grounded in this primary society. The rise of religious societies, within and without established churches (e.g. SPG and Clapham Sect, or Fetter Lane Society, respectively), coincided with the rise of political parties (e.g. Whigs and Tories). All contributed to an underlying social reality, usually grounded in nation or some other fictive foundation that lay beneath the state and all voluntary associations. All were beneath a wider umbrella that could draw them together and bind them, creating a diffusion of frustration and hostility.

In a way, these features made our contemporary liberal democracy (as it is in much of Europe and in North America) possible. Voluntary association undergirds both laicite and the vaguely religious state (found in France and the US, respectively), while also a distinctly "Christian commonwealth". The Neo-Reformed of Dutch Calvinism, especially Kuyper, show how this ecclesiology is both a part of the liberal tradition and the Constantinian shift. Kuyper might not think churches should adjudicate court cases, but he'd be fine with state imposed fines for sodomy or blasphemy. It's in a sense that the United States, in its foundation, is both a secular-liberal and Constantinian polity. Christianity, the Protestant Interest, religion, all were ways of phrasing the same grounding of church in a larger social matrix. No church is conjoined to state in an establishment, but all the churches must abide by the rules of the society which the state seeks to adjudicate.

Anabaptistic political theology, to the contrast, radicalized St. Augustine's vision of two cities. Contrary to Lutheran Two Kingdoms, Augustine saw the temporal world as the space where both the city of man and city of God manifest themselves. The very structures, both material and immaterial, reflected foundations, whether out of love for self or love for God and neighbor. Hence, Augustine had no problem with the materiality and visiblity of holiness (miracles associated with the bodies of saints) as well as deep pessimism involving political aspirations and social aspirations. One reading of Augustine would suggest the possibility, though tentative, of building non-ecclesial, civil, structures in the light of the gospel. Thus, princes and their thrones could become manifestations of the kingdom of God. This strain was dominant in Medieval political theology vis. the doctrine of two-swords. Another strain may be even more cautious, decrying attempts to build this civil edifice as foolish and a portal for the devil. There was not a denial of Augustine's visibility of the Kingdom of God, but it was not to be found in a world dominated by Satan, who remained "god of this age".

The major difference in Anabapstic theory was that the church was not apart of the larger society, but a distinct and removed. This separation did not imply quietism, sectarianism, or flight; however, for many Anabaptists under persecution, they separated into their own villages and communities, slowly building a German ethnic sensibility into the theological position. The Amish and Hutterites in America and Mennonites in Russia certainly enclaved in this manner. Yet, we must not blame them for this turn of events. The rise of nation-states and the violence of the 17th century helped fragment diverse peoples away from each other. Mennonites, for example, remained a distinctly German sect because their survival depended on quashing a missionary zeal and obeying civil demands to stay in their allotted blind-spot. This frigid temper followed the Mennonites as they migrated to Russia, along the Volga, and to Pennsylvania.

Unlike the Anabaptists, the Vaudois maintained a more international composition. Medieval Europe was rather fluid and porous; the Vaudois created networks across southern France, northern Italy, and the Black Forest region of Germany. Some regional differences surfaced, but different Vaudois remained in contact with each other. They remained within Medieval society, even as they maintained their secret ecclesial identity separately. Sometimes being underground helps maintain discipline, as it is an issue of survival. Primitive bishops, called "Uncles", traveled circuits to preach, receive confession, and solve communal problems. Historically accounting for an underground movement is difficult, as we only know of their comings and goings when they get caught. Much about the Vaudois is cloaked in secrecy, though their surprising appearance in the heady days of the Reformation testifies that they indeed survived and left some impression. One of Calvin's first experiences in ecclesiastical politics involved his travel, with William Farel and Olivetan, to Northern Italy, where the Vaudois joined forces with the Franco-Swiss Reformed at Chanforan in 1532. This union was not one-sided capitulation; it's clear that Calvin's cousin and crypto-Vaudois Olivetan had an influence on the budding scholar's theological development and thirst for the Bible.

The point of all of this history is to highlight a genealogy of many churches' dependence upon external instruments to survive. The Constantinian shift involved a move towards depending on civic society, whether in the form of the monarch, the state, or upon a larger, and more general, social matrix, to survive. In our day, we live in what Phillip Bobbit has deemed the dawn of the market-state. Here, the global market is the matrix of society, where places like New York and London share a stronger common bond and affinity than New York and, say, Nowhere, Kansas. Capital is the growing prime source of power, and legitimacy is more and more tied to this resource.  In the US, we still live in the age of voluntary associations, but these have become more and more detached from some socio-civil matrix of "nation" and moved towards a global market. In a way, megachurches and mainline liberal Protestant denominations share a very similar method, which is activating discipline and maintaining survival through a fusion with market trends. The Episcopal Church is vile and wretched, yet still has power through seizing property and even as its pews empty will continue to exist through its capital investments. Megachurches as fully constituted corporate entities grow through tapping into streams of capital, functioning like start ups.

Contemporary ecclesiological trends, beyond liberal Protestantism and megachurches, are equally enmeshed in global Constantinianism. Radical Orthodoxy has hope in transfiguring the global market away from neo-Liberal imperial capitalism towards a virtue economy. These theorists hope to salvage the universalism of the Middle Ages in a new form. Milbank despises global capitalism, but he was rather angry with Brexit and its ethos of revanchist nationalism. Per Schmitt, the Medieval universalism in the Ius Publicum Europaeum became the foundation of Grotius' Ius Gentium. Britain leaving Europe, viz. the EU, involved Britain's move away from the Global; parochialism lashing out at a potentially catholic order. If Constantinian theory is in fact true, Milbank offers, perhaps, the most comprehensive, catholic, and contemporary form.

As a shadow, Rod Dreher's Benedict Option reflect a pessimism with all current options and turning inwards towards the local. Of course, rather than the possibility of institutionalizing the Medieval dream, where the Church becomes the fount of the global order and can direct it against heresy and immorality, the Ben Op turns toward the local church, hidden in the wilderness of a barbaric and hostile society. Dreher's option certainly sounds more like the radical Reformation, but it has a different conception of its place in time. The Ben Op is strategic retreat, a lonesome time where Christians practice fidelity until civil leaders call upon the church, once again, to help restore society. But the Anabapstistic theory, to the contrary, never sees a time where civil society can be fitted into the church's role. Rather, the Ben Op possesses a foolhardy expectation of a return to glory, when only the cycle of secular abuse will continue. Per Revelation, the whore will once again mount the beast and fornicate with the kings of men, only to be thrown down and burned with fire.

I don't know what to do, but it ought to be clear that discipline is a key factor in assessing the health of the church. The Reformer were absolutely right to insist upon it as a mark of health, for a church can only maintain through discipline. Doctrine will escape into a historical slumber or hide in a university, and liturgy can lose its formative hold and devolve into peculiar custom. On the latter point, I agree with Jamie Smith that liturgy is formative, but how liturgy is formative is hardly broached. Walking into an average, say, Roman parish ought to sober up anyone who expects a robust and traditional liturgy to have innately structuring power. It's not just that Papists, like every other American, engages in all other sorts of affective, and otherwise, secular liturgies. St. Paul, among all the other apostles, spend much more time in their letters talking about communal order and discipline than the shape of the liturgy. Both are important, but the former seems to give power to the latter; otherwise the church's worship devolves from the ecclesiastical to the merely aesthetic; it is no longer an assembly of Christ, but a mystical performance and experience.

Many churches are suffering a nearly total collapse from the American social matrix's chilled relation. However, this fall is nothing new; churches will adapt to new Constantinian arrangements to manage discipline in whatever compromised and limited form available. We're certainly ages away from a Laudian dream of punitive church courts! But we live in a moment where we ought to assess the future. We see an alternative to the Constantinian polity in the first few centuries of the church, some patristic era skeptics (like Augustine in some ways), the Medieval underground among the Vaudois, the radical wings of the Reformed and the Anabaptists, among many other critics, pessimists, and pariahs. Sadly, most peoples' desire for an alternative depends on the horror and shock in front of them. But such, perhaps, is what it means for the church to be Christ's body: crucified and  hoisted before all the world. Perhaps our whorish dreams and desires must be joined to Christ, where our ecclesiology is crucified and thus cruciform, so becoming the pure and chaste bride promised to our heavenly bridegroom.

Discipline must be analyzed if we want to see the inevitable fate of all Constantinian arrangements. As said above, perhaps all reliance on such power will result in ultimate destruction from powers themselves. Defanged, toothless, and impotent, churches have little means to protect the sheep from wolves; a beast cast from one congregation easily fits into the next. The Church is not the spiritual kingdom, the right hand, the spiritual sword, or the religious department of state; but neither is it a club. Perhaps there's a place for Christian groupings within civil establishments, but such is not the church. Rather, we live in the City of God, and may we not forget it.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Luther is the Owl: Reflections on Holiness and Theology

In a collection of essay of essays on the state of the Anglican Communion, Ephraim Radner concluded the work with an admonition that the world is waiting for holiness. What he meant was that the Church's mission is primarily manifest in the bodies of Christians, and so is her teaching authority. Radner compares the broken bodies of bishops at the council of Nicaea with African bishops at Anglican gatherings. Both bore scars, mutilations, and emaciation, which were marks of faith. These bishops, both then and now, had authority to speak on account of their suffering. The voices of confessors and matyrs holds gravity over the untested and the untried. Thus, for the churches of Christ to possess a credible witness in the world is to put their faith to the test, to bear witness to Jesus Christ in times and places where harm may come. Fidelity to Christ comes with a price, and one becomes sanctified in doing so, being united to Christ in His sufferings. Holiness is both an apologetic for the faith as well as a testimony and converting witness.

Radner's work has pushed me to reconsider what it means for holiness to be visible. In another work on the Jansenist movement, he compares Augustine and Luther on their understanding of the holy. In his fight with Eramus, Luther goes as far to say that holiness is invisible and the saints unknown. What he means is that Christians, being as vile as anyone else, do not reveal anything different than the unbeliever. God's presence in the world is totally a matter of faith, nothing is evidentiary or tangible. Augustine, in contrast, saw unbelief as a cloud that marred God's witness in the world, but this presence was still accessible. So, for example, the Pharisees saw Jesus heal, but attributed it to the Devil; the crowds saw the Apostolic miracle of Pentecost, but they attributed it to drunkenness and madness.

Hegel said that philosophy is as Athena's owl, taking flight only at dusk. Hegel's meaning was that philosophy only comes alive at the end of an age and era. The owl, a typical symbol of wisdom, activates at the time of night. While all becomes awash in dark, the owl, unlike other creatures, can see. Philosophy thus represents the end of an epoch, the post-script of the times, rather than the beginning or as an enduring force.

Hegel's thesis might be applied to theological reflection, particularly Luther's. In some ways, Luther was a bright light, but he is more like Hegel's owl. Luther reflects the end of the Medieval Roman church more than anything else. His work must be understood in an awareness of the end; he believed himself to be living on the edge of the eschaton. While we might properly say that we are always in the Last Day, that's now how Luther saw his times. Perhaps, in such a context, one must see some of Luther's theological positions as dead-ends; he expected his discoveries to be a part of the return of Christ.

However, the Church may go through a period of cycles. God's judgement on one epoch may usher in another. Thus, despite his beliefs, Luther helped to usher in a period of critical reassessment, manifest in the more radical wings. Both the Reformed and the Anabaptists, to give vague labels to incredibly diverse wings within the Reformation, expected not the end, but a new beginning. Luther saw his world end, but didn't fathom the beginning of a new one. In many ways, this is how tradition works. Represtination of the old is nothing but the dead faith of the living (as Jaroslav Pelikan put it); but reforming, returning, rediscovering is hearing the voice of the past once again. Ad Fontes was the cry of the Renaissance, but in confessing Christian hands, it's the great legacy of the Reformation.

While I understand the reaction to monastic works-righteousness, the later Luther's corpulence contrasts with the wounded and martyred bodies of the Anabaptists. The latter wielded a gravity in the willingness to suffer threats and torture for a commitment to Christ's call to evangelize. Their blood remains a stain, a judgement, on Europe's so-called Christian princes. As the Dutch Reformed writer, Leonard Verduin, put it, in so many words: the main Reformers recovered Christ's justification of sinners, but failed, unlike the radicals, to reclaim an understanding of Christian holiness.

I write all of this with myself in mind. Despite all of the above, I would always caution pessimism as a virtue, a manifestation of wisdom and discernment in a world of sin. While Christ has accomplished salvation, He did so by dying on a cross. As the Apostles testify, the Devil is still god of this age. However, I am prone to cynicism, to a jaded rejection of all of God's works in the world. Christ's question, "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on Earth?", reveals the hearts of men in how they answer. Some days I want to answer that question with a no, but my response only reveals a heart that grows colder. Indeed, Christians pass through Winter seasons, when it seems that the seed of God's Word is obliterated. Yet, just as in Winter, the seed is not gone but hidden, growing and awaiting the coming of Spring. Thus, even in desolation, the Christian has eyes above, hoping in the Lord who can make things, all things, new.

All pessimism, if it is to be wise, must be tempered with the hope of the Word of God, who never comes back void. There may be theology that functions in the dark, but let us not listen too long, lest we forget that the light is always coming. It is only the light, and its manifestation in Human life, that provokes crisis for this age, whether to repent and believe unto life, or to reject and not believe unto death. Indeed, even as we are sinners, afflicted by sin, holiness becomes ever the more miraculous.  Such witnesses not to the power of man, but the power of God.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Flesh and Blood will Inherit the Kingdom of God: Doctrine, Biblical Text, and Regula Fidei

The great bishop and holy apologist Irenaeus spent a considerable amount of his writing career combating what he coined as the "Gnostic" heresy. He created the category, lumping diverse groups into a single error. Irenaeus combined pseudo-Christian groups to the outright pagan in order to clarify the particular resistance to the Biblical doctrine of creation. Gnostics held to a novel cosmology that saw creation in an ontologically negative light. That is to say, whether it was an accident, the invention of an evil god, punishment, or something else, the material world was, by nature, vile. This was not to deny corruption. Instead, Irenaeus combated those who saw corporeality itself as evil.

The bishop goes even a step further. In his Against Heresies, Irenaeus boldly stated that flesh and blood inherits the Kingdom of God. This contradicted, flatly, St. Paul, who wrote exactly the opposite: flesh and blood do not inherit the Kingdom of God. Now, Irenaeus knew this and explains as much. He qualifies his statement by explaining that what he and St. Paul mean are two different things, that the Apostle attacked corruptibility, not corporeality. Against the gnostics, Irenaeus inverted Paul's phrase to get at the truth of Paul's phrase. With their strange cosmic myths and Hellenistic metaphysical attachments, Irenaeus had to defend St. Paul from becoming a tool in the Gnostic arsenal.

Perhaps I'm too skiddish to do as Irenaeus did, or perhaps I'm rightly cautious, but it's interesting to note that one of the first major church fathers and apologists directly misquoted the text to affirm the meaning of the text. According to Fr. John Behr, this strategy was not wholly uncommon, as many voices of the Church appealed to the regula fidei, the canon, the rule of faith. The regula fidei was not alien to the text, or separable into an "unwritten oral tradition" that flowed alongside Scripture, but rather a sense of the whole of Scripture as a single book. Thus, against individual proof-texts, there was a grammar and pattern guiding the entirety of Scripture, namely the shape of Christ Jesus, His birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and promised parousia. The idea of a baptismal creed was not separable from the text, as if all you needed to do was memorize the creed, but rather see the creed as a form to organize our entry into the text, and the text as filling out the meaning of the creed. There's a deep interconnectedness between the regula and the Scripture; the former emerges out of the latter and reengages it. Thus, for Irenaeus who strongly held to the bodily resurrection, not only of Christ but all of Humanity, Gnostic proof-texting distorted Paul's words against themselves.

It's for the above reasons that one may appreciate that Luther added the (in)famous 'alone' to St. Paul's words. In doing so, Luther was trying to communicate how Rome had warped the meaning of the text. Luther was not against good works, but the sacramental-industrial complex the Medieval church had created. Faith alone was a means to detonate the entire system of penance and works which kept Christians in bondage to the traditions of men, no longer seeing Christ as savior. The semi-Pelagianism of Luther's day threatened to destroy the entire meaning of the faith, warping it into a syncretistic apparatus of magic and fear. Sola fide was an attempt to save Christian theology from becoming a tool of anti-Christ.

Perhaps, I make all of this sound more dramatic than it was. Certainly, Luther's solution is highly problematic. It's one thing to purposely misquote to regain the truth, but it's another to add to the Scripture itself. Now, I believe 'faith alone' is true and good, but I have no problem with St. James' statement that we are not saved by faith alone. It all depends on what you mean, just as both apostle Paul and bishop Irenaeus are both right, even as on the surface they contradict each other. Again, Luther's decision to put it in the Bible is not an error, per se, but reflected a growing systematic commitment. Hence, Luther was always frustrated with the Letter of James, considered removing it from the canon, though reverenced the tradition enough to never do it. It wasn't merely because of James' statement above, but because Luther thought the letter had no gospel. Here, a systematic commitment to a paradigm of law-gospel, while, again, not exactly wrong, begins to organize theology. For Lutheran theology, both law-gospel and sola fide can become a new regula, and, to put it harshly, warp the Scripture. In proportion, they're both true, but only so. Like some contemporary readers of Irenaeus, the bishop's emphasis on corporeality and matter can be warped to insist upon a love of the sensual and a near physicalism. Irenaeus, who lived a pretty ascetic life, would've found such beliefs totally alien to the church.

To the point, Irenaeus' and Luther's misquoting of the Bible was a means to preserve the actual teaching of the Scripture. Both handled the text with an awareness of the actual patterns of Scripture against what was being imposed upon it. While we might say Luther went beyond Irenaeus, to his detriment, we might still appreciate both as faithful expositors of the text, despite the appearance of abuse. The Devil can quote Scripture flawlessly, and the Pharisees and Temple Hierarchy knew their Torah well. Yet, Christ Jesus is the key to the whole of Scripture, and to Him we must turn again and again to learn how to understand the wonderful Book He placed us under. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Regnavit a Ligno Deus

I recently came across this post, which was proof to me that many Evangelicals lack understanding about Luther's greatest, perhaps only, contribution to Christian grammar: theologia crucis. The article basically documents, through a personal anecdote, the validity of Jenson's recent work on the cross in Christian art. Jenson's claim, filtered through the blogpost, is that early Christian art didn't use the cross for a few centuries. However, when Christians started using the cross, it was an empty one. The point is that early Christians focused more on the victory of Christ, which included an empty cross. It was in the Middle Ages where a piety formed focusing on Christ the victim. This sucked the victory out of Christ's work and turned worship into a piety of contemplation, sorrow, and suffering.The implication is that Christian theology warped, becoming more introspective, fixated on suffering an death, filled with bleakness, passivity, and tears.

I don't know enough about specific claims, but this account might generally true. However, this account of the crucifix as an art piece mistakes what else besides this sort of pietas dolorosa that one finds in the Middle Ages. In comes Luther's contribution at the Heidelberg Disputation. The theology of the cross, that he contrasts with a theology of glory, emphasizes a difference of approach, not a difference of narrative or event. No one denied Christ was crucified and no one denied Christ rose from the dead. But how those two events were related is key. It's easy to mistake a theology of the cross as somehow a reveling in suffering and death, but that's not the point. Rather, it's focusing on how God's work happens within a world of sin. The cross was not a step on the way to glory, rather the cross was the means of glory.

Evangelicals tend to flip between different aspects of a theology of glory. On the one hand is the above author, who is following a cavalcade of evangelicals who want to focus on Christ's resurrection. I was one of them, and it's a legitimate concern. The weepy, and frankly effete, piety of gazing on the womanish Jesus, passive, dead, broken, is disturbing, though not in the right way. It's perverse because it demotes God's ultimate presence in the world into something passive. For this reason, I despise those stupid and sappy Christmas hymns about the babe Christ in the cradle, as if God were merely passive as man felt bad about his actions. My soul hates the depiction of a god who like some weak beggar merely pleads for his rebellious children to come to him. There is a part of this which is true, but its overemphasis makes the Christ Pantocrater into a dumb doting grandfather. There are many of a Lutheran bent who would confirm my near-strawman, but they are blasphemers and lovers of men.

The other aspect is, as I described above, embrace the focus on the passive Christ of the cross. If you want to see a really perverse outworking of this theology, read traditional Moravian hymns. Zinzendorf, the chief theologian during their heydays, had a love of the dead Christ. Hymns refer to Christians as little maggots and corpses bees, hovering around the corpse of God, making a home in His wounds, eating Him and rolling around in His blood. This sort of thing is enough to be Zwinglian in regards to the sacrament! Moravians promoted a freakish liturgy that distorted the Lord's Supper into something evil.

I understand the Evangelical reaction that the above post reflects. However, it still mistakes the cross in the role of salvation. A theology of the cross sees the crucifixion not as a moment of brokenness, but of victory. But this vision is only accessible to the eyes of faith. It is why Fortunatus, a 5th~ century Latin, wrote the hymn Vexilla Regis Prodeunt, or 'The Royal Banner Goes'. In it, there's a line that goes, Regnavit a ligno Deus, or "God reigned from the tree". Here, one sees the cross not as a tragedy, but the instrument by which God incarnate judged, condemning sin, the world, and the devil. Thus, the passion account is a victory procession. It's why all the Gospels account a strange mix of exaltation and denigration. Christ's coronation takes place not in the center of the holy city, but outside. In purple, His crown is of thorns, and He is processed by thronging crowd of mockers and weepers. The account is truly bizarre because of the jarring images. Royalty and filth are brought together in a wonderful paradox: the King of Glory crucified.

What Luther articulated so succinctly in theologia crucis was this strange reversal. Christians since the Apostles have saw the paradox and marveled. God's ultimate presence in a sinful and corrupt world takes place dying on a cross; the fullest manifestation of blessing appears in the form of a curse. The crucifix is not, necessarily, a symbol of saccharine piety, but rather the stark revelation of God in victory. Art that depicts the crucified Christ may indeed be a hymn of conquest. To eyes of faith, one sees God's saving work; to the eyes of unbelief, one sees failure, mistakes, stupidity, or tragedy. Yet, as St. Paul tells us, the cross is the foolishness of God that is wiser than the wisdom of men. It is through such a prism that Christians should not only see God's ultimate work, but all subsequent works as well.

To conclude, I quote Pascal on the shape of natural theology through a theology of the cross. He understood that Scripture reveals the shape of the world, which enlightens the elect and blinds the reprobate. May you reflect on it:

"If the world existed to instruct man of God, His divinity would shine through every part
in it in an indisputable manner; but as it exists only by Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ,
and to teach men both their corruption and their redemption, all displays the proofs of these
two truths. All appearance indicates neither a total exclusion nor a manifest presence of divinity,
but the presence of a God who hides himself. Everything bears this character."

Sunday, August 13, 2017

From the Arms of Robbers: Divine Violence and Salvation

Many people have deep unease, to put it lightly, over the violent sections of the Old Testament. There God seems to be the war-master, bearing the title Lord of Hosts. Well, that's because He is. God is a warrior who has no problem entering into the thick of combat, getting His robes bloodied fighting for Israel against her enemies, enemies that resist not Israel per se, but Israel's God.

Now this unease arises not only from current sensibilities, a mix of philosophy and custom, but also from the New Testament's peace ethic. As I noticed elsewhere, there is a new work by Greg Boyd on the theme of divine violence in the Old Testament. I like Boyd, but the work is not worth a penny. Ten years of intellectual fervor and wrestling for incoherence and stuttering. All of it trying to run away from the plain reality of the text; all of it rooted in stupid indignation. For it is the same Jesus that brings life, restores, forgives, heals, and takes the sword from St. Peter who killed the rebellious Israelites in the Wilderness (ala. St. Jude). Scholarship can be a form of institutionalized, engraved, madness.

Yet it is clear that divine violence does not go away in the New Testament, but it is fulfilled. As St. Paul will notice, we wage war not against flesh and blood. This Greg Boyd understands, without knowing the sense of Scripture's unity. Boyd knows that we are in a cosmic war, but fails to appreciate how this violence is in fact pedagogical. Christian saints ought to be as violent as the Israelite saints. Yet our violence is given a fulfilled form, revealed in the life of Christ. We have better weapons than the Israelites; bronze swords and chariots do not attack the true evil. The wars of the Lord in Canaan were meant for us, as everything in Israel's history. Those who invoke just-war, realpolitik or crusades are Judaizers; while those who despise all violence are gnostics. Neither understands Christ as Lord of Hosts. And at least theonomists believe God is the proper authorizing force to usher war. I can't understand those who herald war, but rightly see Christ as not bringing a sword. These people are half-converted at best; at least in the crusades, one thought he killed for God, but what worth is it to kill for prince, country, or state? That is sheer lunacy or disguised Paganism. If one sees the abundance of American paraphanalia in churches, and keeps in mind that the Romans believed Rome herself, the city and its government, was a god, one can sadly say the latter is prevalent.

Peacemaking is a form of warfare. Baptism is the drowning of judgement upon the sons of Adam, the soldiers of Pharaoh's army. Prayer and fasting is to wear the armor of God to combat Satan and his forces. Apologetics is taking all thoughts captive for Christ. Repentance is a daily battle. The victory is guaranteed on account of Christ, who like holy Moses keeps his arms raised for us to crush our sinful passions, inner demons, and selfishness.. This is all the form of love in a sinful world. I conclude with some words from Blaise Pascal:

498. It is true there is difficulty in entering into godliness. But this difficulty does not
arise from the religion which begins in us, but from the irreligion which is still there. If our
senses were not opposed to penitence, and if our corruption were not opposed to the purity
of God, there would be nothing in this painful to us. We suffer only in proportion as the
vice which is natural to us resists supernatural grace. Our heart feels torn asunder between
these opposed efforts. But it would be very unfair to impute this violence to God, who is
drawing us on, instead of to the world, which is holding us back. It is as a child, which a
mother tears from the arms of robbers, in the pain it suffers, should love the loving and legitimate
violence of her who procures its liberty, and detest only the impetuous and tyrannical
violence of those who detain it unjustly. The most cruel war which God can make with
men in this life is to leave them without that war which He came to bring. "I came to send
war," He says, "and to teach them of this war. I came to bring fire and the sword." Before
Him the world lived in this false peace.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

"To the Pure, All Things are Pure": Belief and Unbelief in the Shadow of the Cross

Discourses on humility are a source of pride in the vain and of humility in the
humble. So those on scepticism cause believers to affirm. Few men speak humbly of humility,
chastely of chastity, few doubtingly of scepticism. We are only falsehood, duplicity, contradiction;
we both conceal and disguise ourselves from ourselves.

The above quote is from Blaise Pascal in reference to philosophy. For Pascal, the ultimate utility of philosophy is that it reveals the confusions and contradictions of man. All schools of philosophy are valid, because each tells a certain point. To quote another brilliant insight: "If he exalt himself, I humble him; if he humble himself, I exalt him; and I always contradict him, till he understands that he is an incomprehensible monster." Philosophy at its best reveals the Gordian knot with desperation; it has no answer besides chopping at it with a sword, mutilating mankind in the process.

However, more to the point, Pascal as a Jansenist believed that fundamentally Scripture reveals two categories of man: belief and unbelief. We might say that all of mankind is revealed when Jesus is on the cross between the two thieves. There is one who repents and throws himself upon the mercy of Christ, the other scoffs and mocks. In the moment of crucifixion, both die, but both see radically different worlds. To the one, there is translucence, Light that is shining through all, even the horror; to the other the world is opaque, fully enthralled to the devil and oriented only towards suffering, confusion, and death.

Pascal's Jansenist vision is stark, but helps make sense of St. Paul's sense that "to the pure, all things are pure", and that while all things are not beneficial, all things are lawful, according to the law of Christ. Libertines like to quote these without appreciating the Apostle's qualifiers. This is not merely according to some utilitarian purpose, but how all of created life exists through proper sight. Per the example above, in unbelief, a story of humility involves the two-sides of pride, arrogance and despair. One reads these and is stirred towards competition, sneering, or complacency, the other turns to tears, fear of judgement, and horror. Both reject a life of faith. Thus, one can hold together both the life of Antony, the first desert monk, and Luther's Reformational breakthrough, a total rejection of monastic life. While Antony can reveal a life turned against lust for wealth and prestige, Luther does the opposite, showing how a monastic life based in pride (in his case the despair side) becomes a tool of Satan.

Protestantism has a tendency to downplay many "monkish" practices. Fasting is mostly disdained, celibacy as anything but a precursor to marriage is seen as freakish, among other practices. Yet these are firmly advocated within the New Testament canon. I understand the whiplash of the Reformers, even if this pendulum swing has become institutionalized into both worldly asceticism (the Bourgeois practices of restraint documented by Weber) and a conscientious rejection of restraint. Fasting in unbelief is arrogant and vile, and so is feasting. All things not of faith are sin. The Jansenists understood the radical dichotomy in the wake of the Messiah. This is key to unlocking both a Christian sense of anti-thesis, and also a Christian sense of being, and remaining, firmly within the World.