Sunday, January 7, 2018

He Gave Gifts to Men: Evangelizing and the Goods of the Faith

I was reading a blogpost that was dealing with progressive politics, Trump, and self-acknowledge liberal squeamishness about political conflict. I found one passage that was a rather succinct way of explaining some commonsense about evangelism which I can intellectualize away. Here's the paragraph:

In the short run, we will win by mobilizing the people on our side and demoralizing the people on their side. And what will convince people in the long run to switch sides is not reasoned arguments, but positive changes to their lives. Those of us who have switched from being conservative to liberal, for instance, didn’t likely do so because we read a pamphlet and decided abstractly that our beliefs were wrong. We changed our views because our lives changed, because the communities formed by conservatism were no longer working for us and more progressive settings were. That is the way it is and should be — no one should make a major change to their deep convictions because of a mere argument. So if we want to convince people, for example, that the government can provide certain important goods better than for-profit companies, we need to take power and make that the case, so that people can live out that fact and see for themselves. [bold added for emphasis]
It's easy to ignore these facts. The power of the gospel was not in merely providing true arguments. There's a place for that, certainly, but it's not the hinge upon which people move. There has to be some perceived and tangible good that one receives in shifting from one side to another. The Gospel is not just intellectually graspable content; it is not just knowledge. Rather, faith in Christ is a pattern of how one lives one's life. I'm not denying grace here, but grace should not be understood as some sort of spooky and invisible process. God intervenes to gather up His elect in ways that can be seen, but of course only through the eyes of faith. Jesus Christ's disciples saw men healed and praised God, while Pharisee opponents accused the Lord of demonic possession. But the presence of grace was something someone could grasp. It was restored vision, healed ligaments, even life from the dead. It was also forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and wisdom.

When I had a period of detachment from Reformed theology, I was frustrated with Evangelicalism's Four Spiritual Laws but was at a loss as to what to replace them with. How was I going to present the gospel to someone who wanted to know? While I'm more comfortable with certain aspects of a moderate Calvinism (for lack of a better category), I've since realized that my concern was way off. The early Church did not need Bill Bright's mutilated and mutant covenant theology to make converts. However, the Four Spiritual Laws were doing something right, namely offering people something.

I think Reformed theology, especially in a godly preacher like St. Richard Sibbes, has done well to emphasize the free-offer of grace in evangelism. For those with weary consciences, ones who are broken through failure and abjectness, the gospel offers reprieve. Reformed theology at its best tore down tyrants from their haughty thrones, and made them aware that God's wrath burned against them for their oppression and wickedness. It also collected up the weak and beggarly and made hope known. There was a way to salvation through the Word of God who took on flesh and offered Himself on the cross as a propitiation for sins. Forgiveness is on offer.

Of course, I also appreciate the general Patristic emphasis on the gospel as the true way of life. Women and slaves, the lowest of Roman society, humiliated the philosophers, perfecting what many of them could only dream of. They scorned mortality and earthly goods with an unquenchable courage. St. Irenaeus could say that martyrdom was the moment in which a Christian fully achieves Humanity; St. Ignatius could turn his own death into a duel to the death with the devil. The holy martyrs Felicity and Perpetua made the great Roman men look like bashful schoolchildren in their indomitable faith in the Lord of Glory. The premise of philosophy was not just knowledge content, but a way of life which achieved Human flourishing. In the hands of an able scholar like Origen, the gospel outshone every pagan philosophy. It was not only righteousness now, but righteousness eternal forever. In his apologetic Against Celsus, Origen makes it clear that people convert to Christ because of how the Christians live.

And besides the Patristic and Reformed emphases, there are more common benefits. Christ told the Apostles that all those who left their own to follow Him would be restored with families and households a thousandfold in this age. Christ is not referring to paradise, but the church's unity and the brotherly care for one another. This fact comes and goes, and is more prevalent in some areas than others. But it is clear that the truth of the gospel should be manifest among Christians who share earthly goods with one another, supporting each other in their livelihood. No Christian among other Christians should starve while the others feast. St. Paul condemns such behavior, as it was manifest in the Lord's Supper of all places. Material succor should be an attraction to the faith, even as it always points beyond itself. The error with Prosperity Theology is that material benefits become goods in and of themselves, rather than Christ's miraculous feeding which points to bread that won't corrupt.

I've avoided talking about the more unusual benefits, such as divine healings, tongues, and other such things. I do believe that such things still occur, but not in such a way that many Charismatics do. But even if such things don't occur, there are others goods that preaching the gospel ought to bring to bear. If we miss out on the fact that Christ's saving work has tangible effects in the here and now, we're going to do our evangelizing efforts a disservice. Of course the Lord Jesus will gather up His flock no matter what we do, but He will do so through finding those willing to learn from Him and do as He teaches in Scripture.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

China as Catharsis: The Difference Between Christian and Western Canon

I've recently undertaken a brief survey of Chinese imperial history. I am rather unread on the details, and my memory of the dynasties was pretty rusty. I'm still in the middle of it, but I didn't realize how refreshing it would be.

What I mean to say in this post is that China represents a sweeping and labyrinthine history that is, in its high culture and politics, not Christian. During the Tang dynasty, Syrian Christians established a beachhead in the imperial capital, Chang'An, but remained a respected, but disenfranchised, group. The emperor never heaped favors on the church, nor offered much besides tolerance and neglect. Besides this brief moment, there was almost no Christian influence in China until European explorers began to show up, reestablishing trade networks that collapsed with Constantinople. Even then, these Papists were well-liked for their technology and their knowledge, but remained in the outer rim of the Ming and, later, Qing courts.

Why is this significant? Because reading Chinese history, one can see how a civilization can function, and function well, without Christendom. Contrary to the racist caricatures from the 19th century, China was a well-functioning state that meted out justice in a relatively equivalent form to European, so-called Christian, kingdoms. Against all such advocates of Christianity as a great civilizer, China came up with very similar results and tactics through its array of schools consolidated, generally, under Confucianism, with amendments from Buddhism, Daoism, and other older schools of thought or folk customs. At the very least, studying China, even briefly and superficially, will show how the Human mind can grasp some of the basic structures of creation. I prefer not to call this phenomenon natural law, but that's what I'm generally referring to. What I mean is that God's fingerprints, His order and design, are manifest from creation and from the Human's mind, which discerns such patterns. Order and patterns impact not only our ability to pursue the hard sciences, with their applied forms in engineering and other technical disciplines, but also applied to society. I don't see constructing polities and societies much different than building bridges, and both are accessible knowledge from the order of creation itself.

And not only Christendom, but Western philosophy's supposedly sacrosanct canon can be unmasked as well. The Chinese did not need Plato or Aristotle to arrange a just society or establish "metaphysics". My frustration here is with, particularly, people who put so much weight on the "classics", as if they were the fount of civilization. This position isn't just cultural chauvinism, but it's moronic. My sentiments are with Gregory of Nazianzus: I've studied Plato enough to realize that he leaves no satisfying answers. Well, I'd go further: Plato is like Hegel; his obscurity and muddled thinking provoked philosophical adulation. He is an ugly Helen of Troy that launched a thousand ships in pursuit of a mind that is indecipherable.*

But I'm not saying to reject Western philosophy, only to severely diminish its importance. If the grammar they provided helped, contextually, to clear out some blockades in some earlier Christian thinkers, great. I'm glad an Athanasius or a Gregory, or even an Origen perhaps, could use the schools to further their study of Scripture. But there's no need to keep up their grammar. Scripture does not require anything outside of itself; it has no need for Greek philosophy, which has had a longer rap-sheet of harm than benefit. Reading Plato and Aristotle should only be for specialists who seek to elucidate this or that church-father, but they have no inherent good. Other philosophical grammar, whether of Laozi, Kungzi, Mozi, or whomever, is equally accessible. The point is to treat pagan philosophy as stolen gold from Egypt; it's something appropriated for utilitarian purposes. Christians should wash the word "classics" from their mouth. It's all up for grabs.

I think reading the history of China, or any other vast civilization isolated from Christianity, can free the mind from nonsense and silliness. It shows how vacuous and morally bankrupt most arguments for preserving Western civilization really are. Europeans behaved about as well as east Asians; trying to figure out the genealogy of Christianity in European society is chasing phantoms. But it's easy to become intoxicated on Western philosophy and history, as if that's all there was. I'm not saying European history is unimportant, actually to the contrary. It's far more important than Chinese history in some respects; mostly because western Europe has molded most of the world through the global Anglo-American empires and hegemony. But the point is that none of this has anything, explicitly, to do with the doctrines of Christ and His holy gospel. Providence has strange ways, and God had set out and permitted, for one reason or another, the way things are. But the government of the Word was not only over Europe, but Asia as well.

The distinctiveness of Christ's work, the revelation of the true God, is a solid rock upon which all of His people stand. But it should not be confused for the common, which many theorists attempted to gloss and put a Christian spin on. The real distinctives of the gospel become clearer when false claims are made apparent through historical comparison. It teaches you to look at history through the lens of the cross, and not so much through national propaganda or mistaken cultural chauvinism. Such will exist, but that vice should not be named among God's elect.  Let common things remain common, and perhaps even receive praise when they are just and tolerable. I can appreciate my own American patrimony and English tongue, but as a fleeting good held in a detached manner. But let holy things be kept from the mud of brainless pseudo-scholars. For the Christians among them, may they be pulled from the flames of their castles of wood and straw.

*Of course, as I've highlighted elsewhere, Plato and Hegel's obscurity is not accidental. Philosophy was originally esoteric, in the literal sense: doctrine was only made known to initiated insiders. It was intended to be occultic. Much of Plato's metaphysical framework comes from Pythagoras, who headed a cult. Philosophy generally took on such a peculiar flavor; it was a form of elite religion for those devoted to higher pursuits than the kitchy civil cults the prols involved themselves in. Hegel was a primary architect in designing a post-Christian cult, using biblical language to move beyond it into something else. Much of German and Continental philosophy was occultic and esoteric. It's easy to see such in Heideggar's mystical atheism, with its "shepherd of Being" archetype. Obscurity is a way to keep the uninitiated out, and to draw those seekers who desire to worship alongside the master.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Strangers in the World, or Why We Need More Alienation

In one of his lectures, Slavoj Zizek argues that appeals to multi-culturalism can be not only oppressive defenses of the status-quo, but emerge from colonial justifications for subjugation. He gives the example of India's Dalit class, the untouchables at the bottom of the social totem-pole, even after the official abolition of the caste-system at independence. Many members of India's elite, belonging to Brahmin class, complain about the damage Western influence has done. Any attempt to criticize Indian policies get met with wails of neo-colonialism and Western imperial hegemony. However, the Dalit intentionally choose to speak English rather than Hindi, and prefer English styles over anything "traditional". The reason being is that if the Brahmin traditionalists got their way, the Dalit would be back in the mud. The caste-system is the apogee of Indian "tradition"; as Hindu nationalists might say, it's part of their way of life, a balanced system of order, helpful to all parties. Who are you to criticize?

Zizek is not trying to defend colonialism or its atrocities, but he's highlighting how colonialism can provide a form of necessary alienation for oppressed people to escape. The entrance of Europeans into India destabilized many socio-political bonds, creating a chaotic moment for the weak to overthrow their oppressors. I don't mean it in the sense of violent revolution, but in the sense of a rejection of traditional hierarchies for a new order that allows the possibility for success. By adopting English ways, the Dalit frees himself from his native culture. Yet, he is not exactly English either. This middle space, a double alienation, frees people up to forge new ways of living, free from previous bondage. Speaking English rejects Hindu abjection.

There are many examples of this phenomenon in history, and it makes a lot of sense. European entrance into the Americas created a revolution among American Indian socio-political configurations. Small nations allied themselves to the new-comers in order to fight their larger, oppressive, rivals (e.g. French-Huron alliance against Iroquois confederacy). Even the domination of the Qing court through Britain's naval supremacy shattered Manchu control of the Han-Chinese. The point is not to pick sides, but to see in geo-political events the possibility for freedom from domination. Cultural alienation becomes a means of achieving such liberation.

I think this same process is something that Christians ought to recognize and value. Christ reigns and rules, and all Nations are His; the Prophets foretell that the Peoples will bring their treasures into Jerusalem and worship at the temple. The above is usually interpreted along the lines of multi-culturalism, but such, in our modern frame of reference, usually means a liberal, superficial, appreciation of "culture", a reified entity one samples from. Western peoples tend to fall prey to appeals from culture, which many people use to their own advantage (i.e. either in selling things to tourists, extracting concessions through a tactical use of history, etc.). Such emerges from a false sense of universalism that the West has equated itself to. Waves of tourists fan over the globe filling their bellies with culture. We're all fat Platonists now.

However, the Christian position is not to pretend to non-culture, as it has in the above Western example. However, the gospel empties "the nations" of significance. There is no Christian culture, but there is a Christian way to approach "culture", and that's through the process of self-alienation. This is different than what "baptizing x culture" or "Christianizing" usually means. Rome led the way in "Christianizing", which made the Dark Ages such a syncretistic blend of Pagan folk ways with a thin Christo-Roman veneer.  Contrary to contemporary theonomists, the Middle Ages was no time of flourishing for a Christian civilization; it was a time of immense confusion and power squabbles. The legacy of Rome fell to a patchwork of barbarian backwaters, who fought to become a new Rome. The Vatican, at the same time, aggregated power as well, leading to the standoff between Pope and Emperor throughout the High Middle Ages. The high politics was a contest over the future of the Roman Empire; the common people were kept in line with an increasing requirement to participate in the Roman Church. Heretics appeared all over Europe when inquisitors went looking. After the Pope had properly cowed the Emperor, it was the privilege of a universal monarch to purge his lands of dissent.

Of course, the Reformation became the Emperor's revenge. Some of Europe's princes took to the Reformation, officially freeing themselves of the Pope. However, even those who remained loyal sons of Rome renegotiated all of the terms of papal power. Never again could a pope pretend to universal monarchy; he was now fully indebted to the Habsburgs and the Valois of France to maintain strength. The Americas opened up new possibilities to fill imperial coffers. However, as the story goes, the Reformation unleashed a chain reaction of nascent nationalisms across Europe. Germans rose against their Italian overlords; the English began to understand themselves as a nation apart; Gallicanism resurged within an emboldened, and distinctly French, hierarchy. This was not the national essentialism of 19th century Romantic revolution, but it began a new self-consciousness among people to secure themselves in a fragmented Europe.

As some might lament, such was the end of a unified Christian culture, and the rise of distinctly national cultures. There is some truth to this account. The Roman identity that was still currency through most of the Middle Ages was bloodless and amorphous; for a German chief reigning in Achan to declare himself King of the Romans was a strange joke to onlookers in Constantinople. To be Roman was to belong to a constellation of laws, social ideals, scholarly customs, and philosophical and theological patrimony. However, even this requisite strata can be, and was, suffocating. Occasional intellects raged against the dominance of school-men. The Reformation was, in this certain respect, a kind of alienation from Romanitas. The Renaissance Humanists that made up many of the early Reformers paved a way out of stultifying Roman culture. Luther cursing Aristotle as the devil was a-typical, and a gross oversimplification. But such an attitude was well-received among the Reformers, who were eager to return to Scripture fresh, and be willing to mix-and-match philosophers for their purposes. The break in so-called Christian Europe was freedom for those searching for truth and thirsting for God's word.

Though, as I said above, proto-nationalism began to quickly creep in. Folk traditions became normalized, as some monarchs sought a popular dictatorship through their rule. Henry VIII finished what his father started, consolidating power from the barons in his person. The burgeoning state-bureaucracy formed around powerful monarchs, creating a new engine for cultural production. A new form of solid national identity began to slowly eclipse the prior alienation. Lutheranism became a distinctly national phenomenon, but the Reformed retained an international flavor that began to erode over the 16th and 17th centuries. Churches became bound to national chains and state straitjackets.

It's in this vein that I have great admiration and appreciation for the Puritans as possessing a distinctly Christian mind, even if it was misapplied in some disastrous and grossly deformed ways. Puritanism was not any specific group, but an English socio-theological mood. These were Reformed men who wanted to continue to clean out the Church of error, which took many shapes. Some wanted to abolish bishops, some wanted to abolish the concept of a national church; some wanted ecclesiastical supremacy over the civil state, some wanted ecclesiastical separation. But Puritans were agreed that England had serious problems.

Now, while Puritan solutions were deeply linked, there was a shared sense that Scripture was authoritative in solving all of these problems. This mentality manifested itself even in something small, like naming conventions. Puritans introduced a host of Biblical, typically Hebraic/Israelite/Jewish, names into circulation. This point may seem small and generally insignificant, and it is, but it signals to a greater cultural mood of self-alienation from Englishness. Puritans saw themselves not merely as Englishmen in search of a purer nation, but as God's people who were involved in purifying this corner of God's Kingdom. They generally saw themselves in a greater, pan-European, struggle against the forces of anti-Christ.

Of course, the Puritan story has different angles. In England, Puritans lapsed into a form of religious nationalism: England had a special destiny as God's chosen people in the world theater. But, that was not the whole case. The Puritans who landed in what became New England carried a sense of cultural self-alienation. They were God's people, not in bondage to cultural customs, of which they would purge out of their lives. They rejected the use of maypoles and the theater as ungodly, even as it became a form of Englishness among the country folk. Puritans in America attempted to build a godly commonwealth, nothing of which depended upon Englishness and all of which emerged out of Scriptural conviction. Now, I'm aware that such a desire turned out to be foolhardy. The Puritans not only slipped much of their English conventions in, but mistook how they understood Scripture, creating a new kind of English-hybrid culture they sought to dominate with. The self-alienation quickly wore off. At the end of the Civil Wars, Puritanism was dead, and New England was already rapidly translating into a well adjusted English colony. The dawn of the eighteenth century saw a New England that had all the social structures of the past, but was otherwise indistinguishably English in much of its procedure and custom.

For someone like Zizek, the process of self-alienation is for the purposes of restructuring culture towards a more just social arrangement. But Christians ought to embrace a form of cultural self-alienation for the purposes of the making Christ known. The point is not a rejection of all cultural forms, but to empty them of any potency. What Western Liberalism, and its push for Globalism, has done is to pretend to a-cultural standing, when it is really an all-consuming obscenity. In Christ Jew and Greek are emptied of all significance, and become outward means for pursuing the life of repentance and faith.  The Christian is now free to abandon his past when it suits the purposes of the mission; he is not bound to any particular way of life, social arrangement, or philosophy. There are no sacred languages; translation becomes not only a possibility, but a virtue. Customs come and go; they are respected as a means of peace and truth. As Roger Williams explained, taking your hat off for superiors is stupid, but it is accepted custom, and ought to be done for peace's sake. It means nothing because it does not impinge upon the Gospel. It's why St. Paul was so flippant about circumcision and, simultaneously, vicious. It's only worth fighting against if others declare it holy doctrine.

Many Christian conservative cultural commentators lament Globalism's destruction of folk customs and ways of life. Such a posture is deeply mistaken. Globalism's expansion of McWorld culture has provided a counterweight for many to free themselves from foolish customs and traditions, gaining a realization of one's relativity. Trying to turn the clock back is to try and play make-pretend. Rather, instead of jumping on board with multiculturalism, which is hitching one's wagon to a perverse mutation of an Anglo-American imperial character, a veritable copy of Romanitas, we can find freedom is being what we are and holding it as nothing but sand. Or, perhaps more optimistically, it's a tool to make Christ's truth known. 

Self-alienation is not passivity, but a call to action, like the Puritans before. Relativizing all cultural patterns, the gospel of Christ frees His elect to conform to His image. Alienated from our selves, we can see in the mirror of the perfect law of liberty an image of what we are called to be. Societies have made a variety of sins, idols, and blasphemies culture, and we are freed to root such out of our lives. What is left is not sacrosanct, but it ebbs and flows with the times. We remain what we are, but are freed up to be as Christ would make us.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

What You Do, Do Quickly: Another Review of Scorsese's 'Silence'

I've already written a general review of the theological errors within the film Silence here. Before, I read a sufficient amount of reviews to get the gist. But I decided to go, and watch the movie for myself, having found a free viewing. My initial concerns were correct, but I think the film is actually a lot more powerful, and in ways, perhaps, beyond what Scorsese intended.

The main point of the film is not so much a question of faith, but of torture. And it's not just torture, but a question of how to break strong man. Contrary to almost every review I've seen, Rodrigues is not a weak man. Rather, because he is strong, because he is a man of refined tastes, intellectual vigor, a man in love with the world, he has a fatal weakness that the imperial inquisitor exploits perfectly. Silence is truly a story of Judas, and not in the sympathetic way we may expect. Rather, it's an exposition on what the Gospels might have meant when they refer to Satan entering Judas.

Early on, Rodrigues has a typical brashness about him in pursuing a mission to Japan. Most reviews cover this point. But it goes deeper. When Rodrigues and Garupe arrive in Japan their guide, an unsavory apostate Christian Kichijiro, runs off to the village. Neither priest knows what is happening. However, while Garupe prays, Rodrigues begins to say to himself: "What you do, do quickly". This is a quote from John's gospel, what Jesus says to Judas as he leaves the Supper. This statement is key to understanding Rodrigues' character. He is not just hungry for glory, but he believes that he himself is akin to Christ. Throughout the film Christ's words drop effortlessly from his mouth. In another scene he tells the suspicious acting Kichijiro, after having been fed a salty fish, "I thirst". Kichijiro notices that Rodrigues is quoting Jesus and remarks on it, to which Rodrigues has nothing to say. There are countless examples of Rodrigues intentionally trying to copycat Christ as a form of piety.

Now some other reviews point out how Rodrigues models an extreme within Roman Catholic sacerdotal ecclesiology, where the priest acts, and in office is, persona Christi. That's true, but the movie goes deeper than such a parallel. Rodrigues begins to equate himself to Christ. He sees an image of Christ as a reflection of his face. He speaks to God as His Son, who is being abandoned, asking why he must suffer. All of these other reviews highlight this point, but don't frame it fully within the context of the movie. These events happen in conjuncture with Rodrigues' magisterial commands. The inquisition suspects Christians in the village and takes four hostages. They will have to step on the fumie, an image of Christ.  When a Christian villager expresses doubt as to whether he should step on the image of Christ, Garupe says don't. Immediately, Rodrigues contradicts him and shouts, "Trample! Trample!". Garupe is taken back and dismayed as Rodrigues continues to advise and council the villagers who listen to him. Rodrigues puts the lives of Christians over fidelity.

Besides this point, Rodrigues also expresses refined cultural sensibilities that help channel his arrogance. Throughout the film, Rodrigues the priest never attempts to learn Japanese. He refers to the villagers in his prayers as living like beasts, but contents himself with the thought that God comes to the beggarly and lowly. Rodrigues is at home in a world where the Jesuit order is strong and luxurious, dwelling in the halls of the Vatican and the court of Braganza. While the film never says what Rodrigues' background is, he does not act as if he is lowborn man. Rather, he, like the apostate Ferreira he meets later, is a man concerned to make the world better and to achieve renown through it. All of these things the Inquisitor picks up on pretty quickly and targets Rodrigues for flipping.

Here a lot of reviewers seem to go astray. They get stuck in Rodrigues' frame of reference, which is all the film gives you after he and Garupe split up. They understand the film through his point of view and miss the bigger picture. After Kichijiro betrays Rodrigues and the inquisitor captures him, they begin a process of psychological molding and torture. It can be easy to miss that the Japanese do nothing to him the entire time, with the exception of handcuffing him and taking him to their compound. The whole film revolves around the Inquisitor warping Rodrigues arrogance, self-importance, and delusions of grandeur against him.

This torture is manifest in the translator the inquisitor supplies. He continues to narrate events that Rodrigues, and the viewer, see. One poignant scene is when he brings Rodrigues to watch Garupe and a bunch of Christians die. He tells Rodrigues that they told Garupe that his brother-priest had apostatized. The translator tells him that the Christians had all already recanted and that they would stop suffering if Garupe recanted. Again and again the translator, Inquisitor Inoue, and, eventually, Feirrera inform Rodrigues that none of the Japanese Christians hold any real belief. Christianity can't develop in Japan. They don't believe in Christ, they only believe in superstitious fetishes and in the priests themselves. They would continue to suffer, not because of their faith, of which they already recanted, but because of Rodrigues. In the last post, I already pointed out that the Japanese torturers set up false dilemmas; they were the ones doing the torturing, not Rodrigues. However, this point goes beyond that. The Inquisitor knows Rodrigues is a proud and vainglorious man, looking to save people. They know he will internalize their arguments and believe that he is the guilty one. If they can strip him of the idea that the faith he brings is even remotely genuine, then he has no reason to let these people suffer because of him and him alone.

The narration coming from the inquisitor's team is brilliant. There is no reason to suspect any of what they say is true. The Japanese Christians, generally, have a stronger and more direct sense of faith than he does. While Rodrigues shouts about impending death, a Japanese Christian girl informs him that they are not afraid of dying because God will give them "paraiso", a corrupt pronunciation of paradise. Both of these things are crucial, as Rodrigues is someone who wants to live in comfort and who looks down upon the peasants. To anyone who knows the remotest thing about Tokugawa Japan, the Shogunate had no problem killing peasants for reasons of state. Dozens of dead Japanese peasants was an easy price to pay for turning a Jesuit priest into the government's service. There is never a reason to suspect that the Japanese Christians ever betrayed their faith, except in the moment when Rodrigues had told them to. However, from Rodrigues' vantage, these dumb and brutish peasants were keen to do so, while the refined imperial officers were telling the truth. Hardship for Rodrigues only came on his terms, and when he lost control, he became clay in government hands. Even the debates he has with the Inquisitor are means of drawing him into a relationship with a reasonable and articulate opponent. Rodrigues is constantly batted between indulgence and scorn, respect and disdain; he is treated as a worthy opponent and as an idiot. The tactic is to destabilize him, and let his own arrogant aggregation of guilt undo him from the inside out.

The sad thing is that many film critics look at the last scene as definitive proof that Rodrigues, after apostatizing, remained faithful. As he is cremated in Buddhist fashion, the film shows us a little cross in his hand. Early on in the film, one of the Japanese Christians gives the cross to Rodrigues, it was the only piece of adornment that the community could make. However, there's no reason to think that Rodrigues expressed his faith in holding onto it. Rather, what's likely is that his wife, which he inherited after his apostasy and work for the imperial government, placed it in his hands. Again, some might look at her honoring her husband, but there is no sense that she had any affection for him. The scene reflects Rodrigues' ego and the ambiguity of the film's direction: the cross might merely represent the final destruction of Rodrigues, the burning away of the man who thought he was the Christ.

The story of Fr. Rodrigues is a story of a man who thought himself a servant of God and, through his own evil desires and arrogance, became an instrument of the Devil. When Rodrigues finally steps on the fumie, he hears the voice of Christ, which confirms what Rodrigues had wanted to do from the beginning. He merges with his own inner demons and becomes a persecutor of the righteous. He can finally become the hero he has always wanted to be through the negation of the faith he proclaimed. The film is an exploration into two questions that remain unexplained in the Gospels: 1) What does it mean for Satan to enter Judas?; 2) Why was Christ silent before His accusers? Rodrigues is an example of not only a failed missionary, but of how someone bearing the image of an angel of light becomes an instrument of darkness. Rather than the Jesus he wanted to be, he became the wicked disciple who betrayed the Lord of Glory.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Infinitum Finiti Capax: A Kenotic Reflection on the Incarnation

P.T. Forsyth carved out a space in early 20th theology, arguing against liberal tendencies as well as problematizing orthodoxy affirmations. He agreed with liberal theology that the Human Jesus is vitally important to the faith. But, he had problems with their quasi-historical Christ, which in its hyper focus on scientific historicism, what he called "Comtean", was not historical. Their realism was not realistic. Only a Christ who was pre-existence, the eternal Word of the Father, could save and be worthy of worship. Otherwise Christ is as the Unitarians or Arians say, and that has no truck with the Apostolic testimony.

However, Forsyth wanted to take seriously Christ's humanity. The Gospels tell us Christ was ignorant of His own return, He suffered weakness, He desired to live but submitted to the will of the Father, etc. How was this possible? Unlike his contemporary kenoticists, Forsyth did not want to say that Christ voided the divine attributes or had a heavenly "black out" for the period of his life. Rather, Forsyth claimed that the incarnation was a condensation of Christ's divine nature. The attributes we ascribe to the divine nature did not go away, but they became compact and folded into themselves. Thus, Christ reveals the divine nature's omnipotence in the fact that He remained silent, bore the brunt of sin's wrath, refused to return vengeance for evil for the sake of the mission. The ultimate strength was in that He restrained Himself.

In Forsyth's telling, Christ was only worthy of worship because He was the divine Word, that's what made His weakness, His condescension, even His suffering and death on a cross, so significant. The Apostles were shocked to the core because the Messiah, who was none other than the Word of the Lord, willingly underwent such horrible things on behalf of man. Christ's impotence was, due to who He really is, the highest form of power, holding His might so as to destroyed Satan's reign utterly and free the cosmos from the reign of sin and death.

Forsyth is oft forgotten, but his insights are crucial for properly articulating an orthodox Christology that keeps Christ's very Humanity front and center. I think it is very easy to vacillate between the language of some Patristics that seem to void Christ's humanity to defend His deity and liberalizing tendencies that overemphasize His humanity. Trying to find a right way to talk about it can be difficult; Christ is far enough to be outside of our chains, but close enough to break them. He joins us in prison, but has the means to spring the whole lot of us. He is tempted in all ways, but never sins.

Thus, on a day that many in the world vaguely honor as Christ's birthday, one should not melt with saccharine piety, but shudder with dread and awe. Christ the King was born, drawing wise kings to bend the knee and offer Him gifts. And these gifts were not only fit for a king, but they were fit for the Messiah who was to die and, by dying, trample death. The angels who appeared to shepherds, to even Mary and Joseph, were not effete hermaphrodites, but terrifying otherworldly warriors. The proclamation of "peace on earth and good will to all men" is better read as "peace on earth to all men of good will". The announcement was not an end to warfare, but the heraldry of an invading army. Mary's Magnificat was a cry for the God of Armies to crush the unjust who have accumulated wealth and power. When she "treasured all of these things in her heart", it was not gooey sentiments, but receiving an answer to her pray for a sword to strike the earth.

The Child in the manger was a warrior king ready to set fire to the earth, causing a rising and falling of many souls. That little baby was a declaration that the finite, the creaturely, and the sinful was no obstacle for the infinite and righteous judge to take up residence. Infinitum Finiti Capax: the infinite could make Himself known among the finite. Righteous power burned with white hot intensity in the cries of a babe. As St. Paul would reflect more generally, the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of men. God's power became weakness, demonstrating His ultimate power. He snapped Satan's neck without damaging a single thing in His created order. Gentle precision vanquished all the schemes of wicked men.

Kiss the Son lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, When His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Wages Cry Out: Socialism, Private Property, and a Series of False Equivocations

In light of a recent post, I was requested to interact with a recent post from a Reformed Confessionalist about property, ownership, and sin. I will say, upfront, that the author of the post, a seminary professor, has confused multiple issues, distorts the history, and makes many logical connections that are simply untrue. I have no idea whether it's sheer ignorance or willful dishonesty, but I will respond to the post block by block:


One of the assumptions underlying the eight commandment is that there are things that are not mine. Those things belong to others. If I take them without permission or without buying them (by trading money, goods, or services for them), then I am a thief. In other words, unless there is such a thing as private property, theft is impossible. Theft exists, ergo private property exists. If everything belongs to everyone, then theft is impossible. How can one steal what is his already? The same reasoning applies to the 10th commandment. One cannot envy what is his. He envies what belongs to others. He is dissatisfied with the Lord has provided to him and wants what the Lord has provided to someone else. Here we are not talking about purchasing a good or service (though we might be guilty of envying in that instance too) but we are thinking about ungodly desires for the goods of others. Private property is assumed in both commandments.



Here there is a sleight of hand in definition. Yes, theft and envy presuppose an 'other', a person or an object that does not belong to you. But that necessarily means that the Mosaic Law acknowledged private property. This is not what private property generally refers to. Rather, it's a question of juridical ownership in sliding scales. It's a question of levels of ownership, who has the right over this or that in a way that triumphs over another. No state upholds an absolute doctrine of private property, not even the United States, for the federal and state governments can seize land, for example, on grounds of eminent domain, though it comes with monetary compensation. The point is that reasons of state can trump an individual's desire, the state has rights to the property that override individual ownership.

Now the U.S. is one of the foremost defenders of private property, and eminent domain is an exception that proves the rule. The basic sense of private property is not really a question of meum et tuum, but much more about how such a right of property is constituted. When I own land it is because I own a title, and that title is a piece of paper that a government will recognize and support, with force if necessary. There's already an early equivocation between ownership, private property, and envy. Private property only exists if there is a legal order that will back it, otherwise a title is just a piece of paper. There's no reason to assume, unequivocally, that rejecting private property is, in fact, a form of envy. Both attacking private property and defending private property can be a form of theft and envy. Consider the case of English colonists "buying" land from many Indian nations, and running to the government to force the Indians off. Many times the Indians did not understand the English idea of private property. Many times either the Indians didn't understand what the Europeans were asking for, or they had no right to actually sell the land since they, as individuals, did not own it (I'll come back to this point later). The accusation of envy can go both ways.

There are Christian traditions, however, that oppose private property and there seem to be a fair number of late-modern evangelicals who are suspicious of private property. Whence this suspicion? The French Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) hated the idea of private property. He argued that, in a state of nature, there were no fences. In the state of nature, everything belonged to everyone. Ergo, as we seek to return to the state of nature, fences (private property) should be abolished. This, of course, was nothing but self-justification for his Narcissistic self-indulgence. Rousseau was the first hippy and, like the hippies of the 1960s, he made a mess of his life and abandoned his children to the care of the people of Geneva. Granting his dubious and speculative assertion (that the state of nature was a worker’s paradise) what Rousseau neglected to mention, in his (cultural) appropriation of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works, was that we do not now live “in the state of nature” after the fall. The fall brought with it corruption and death. There will be no restoration of the “state of nature” in this life until the New Heavens and the New Earth.


This is not only rank ad hominem, but historically confused. No, Rousseau did not invent the abolition of private property. In fact, it originated among Christians that struggled with militarized and violent maintenance of things. Some peasant revolts in the Middle Ages attacked the justification of Feudalism that the land the peasants worked didn't belong to them and that they had to pay onerous burdens to a case of lords that didn't hold up their end of the bargain. The peasants rejected the logic that the lords were entitled to the fruits of peasant labor just because they received the land from the king. Now, none of this would have been explicitly spoken of in terms of private property, the Medieval Scholastics knew the old distinction between meum et tuum (mine and yours). The question is: did the crops belong to the peasants who toiled in labor, or did they own to the lord who claimed the land, and graciously allowed the peasants to keep some of it? Who was stealing from who?

Clark uses Rousseau is a red-herring for this entire discussion. His personal life is generally irrelevant, and his lazy historical equivocation between him and the hippies is just that. Is he trying to stir up some foggy historical resentment in his readers? Rousseau never claimed that the state of nature was a workers' paradise. In fact, Rousseau's major philosophical contribution was in distinguishing between the General Will and the Will of All. The latter is the aggregate of all individual desires, while the former is the whole, the nation's spirit, if you will, the desire for the actual good. While Rousseau was critical of noble pretensions, he would've equally been critical of workers' rights or workers' strikes. In both cases, it was groups of individuals acting for themselves, and not thinking about the whole.

Yes, Marx appropriated elements of Rousseau, as did other utopian Leftists, but that's not all. Many French nobles (including Marie Antoinette), before the Revolution, read Rousseau with vigor. Not all supported the initial stages of the Revolution. The Abbe Sieyes, a revolutionary priest and delegate for the Third Estate, utilized Rousseau to argue for the abolition of the Estates General, as it detracted from the General Will into three classes of societies. Clark is lazy here in how he understands the French Revolution. While some nobles who read Rousseau opposed the Revolution, many nobles who did supported it. The Third Estate was not merely the poor masses or the liberal literati agitators. These were thorough middle-class, bourgeois, elite who were heavily engaged in foreign commerce, civil law, and property ownership. They desired a society that did not operate along class distinction; there were only citizens and the king who was a father of their country. The king could represent the general will, fatherly guiding his people towards their good, and carefully considering the legislation the Third Estate, which became the National Assembly, proposed.

All of this is to say that no, Rousseau is actually irrelevant to larger discussion of how critiques of private property have proceeded. If Rousseau advocated for the abolition of private property, and I'm not sure he did, it was in the context of citizens being willing to allow the General Will, and the good of the whole, to override their own selfish desires. Rousseau was a degenerate reprobate; I don't care and it has no bearing on the point. Clark is just offering a lazy and garbage intellectual history as proof for his set up.

Still, Rousseau’s ethic of envy (ressentiment) has had a powerful effect in the modern world. It fueled not only the French Revolution but the Communist revolutions in Russia, China, and elsewhere. In the 20th century alone, class envy led to the slaughter of millions of people. Today, American school children are catechized in class envy in their textbooks and few parents seem to care. Christians are influenced by the ethos of the French Revolution. I was. In university I was taught by some of my professors that some version of socialism was the most just social arrangement. Over time, however, I learned that what I had been taught was not true and that my professors did not really believe what they were telling me. After all, they made a voluntary agreement with the university to trade their skill and labor for a fair-market wage. They formed no commune. They went home to decent houses in middle- or even upper-class neighborhoods in private cars. They talked about a workers paradise but they did not live in one. They lived in a nice college-town largely created by entrepreneurial capitalists, who paid the taxes to pave the roads and build the bridges over which the socialists in town drove. Socialism is institutionalized envy.

First, why does Clark put a French version of resentment in a bracket? What's the context for the phrase? What document does it even come from? But besides this point, the account of Rousseau is bad intellectual history. Ideas don't float through the air and zap people, unless Clark is some kind of hyper-Platonist. Adoption of Rousseau was not just among the Communists, he was popular across the board. Intellectual historians have debunked the theory that Rousseau was a crypto-totalitarian, though any appeal to the whole can be a cover to suppress certain groups of people. This happened not only in France, Russia, and China, but also in the United States and Great Britain. The nation, humanity, any totalizing category can be utilized as a blanket cover for a particular group who has grabbed the wheels of power. It's beyond a doubt that Rousseau influenced Romanticism and the rise of Nationalism across Europe and North America, but that's besides the point. The Russian and Chinese Revolutions can swept up in a single category of evil without little thought or concern. Does Clark know that the Russian Revolution is different than the Bolshevik take over? Does he know that Chang Kaishek was no great hero when compared to Mao Tsetung? It's a lot more complicated than "class envy" to say that many peasants in China supported government claimants who would protect them from the Japanese and Nationalist armies from pillaging their farms.

I'm not trying to justify anyone in this argument. All I'm saying is that by Clark's logic, the American Revolution was "class envy", a group of liberal elites (some of them even read Rousseau!) who didn't like giving up their property and were envious of not being able to participate in Parliament. I don't see Clark complaining that far more children are catechized in the virtue of this theft and envy. Again, I'm not trying to justify anyone here, but requesting decency in how these lazy analogies are drawn.

Clark's analysis of his own experiences is not only basically irrelevant, but, again, deploying confused categories. Arguing against private property does not mean living on a commune. Here I'll explain the distinction of private property in more detail. The problem that many socialists had was with landlordism. Here, I work the land, I harvest the crops, I maintain the equipment, but, at the end of the day, because a guy has a piece of paper that says he owns it, backed by the government, I have to give him however much percentage he requests, and many times it was exorbitant. So, the landlord says, if you don't like it, leave and do something else. This is the moral equivalent of telling me that if I don't like what I'm doing, I can always just kill myself. There's nothing unjust about making me either live in squalor or uproot my family in the quest to go somewhere else and do something else, which may involve starvation, even death, in the process?

Clark advocates a totally negative view of liberty which was infamously upheld in the late 19th century America. It was, hey if you don't like working here, go find a job somewhere else. Well, if everywhere else is exactly the same, and the fact that I don't like it gets me marked down and circulated among companies, what was called "blacklisting", what am I suppose to do? It was the "socialist" FDR who pushed through legislation that created safety nets so that the government would help, theoretically, keep people from dying in their pursuit of work. I'm not going to get into the question of whether this worked, or, more generally, the idea of a welfare state. But, Clark should know that many evangelical Christians supported the Labor party in Britain trying to legislate legal reforms to cut down on the hours companies could require, set minimum wages, improve factory conditions, and create a government network of benefits to keep people from total squalor.

What does this have to do with private property? Well, aren't those laborers just being envious, demanding that the factory owners have a responsibility to do the right thing with what they own? Even more so, why does the factory owner get to decide everything about the factory, since he is not the one using the machinery, creating the objects, regulating work schedules, etc.? He is just the one who collects at the end of the day. While some owners were good and productive and others were lazy, callous, and cold-blooded, the logic of socialist was that no one person should be able to own such "means of production", the ground-thing that labor is mixed with and produces other things. It was not all about state ownership or creating communes. Some advocated that the workers should own the means of production, and vote on policies through democratically elected councils.

None of this has to do with what has been called use-ownership. There's a difference between saying you own the small plot of land you labor on, and saying you own tracts of land you've never even seen, let alone use. The Socialist Hippy Commune butcher is an incredibly grotesque strawman, but I suppose even seminary professors are subject to the noetic effects of sin. Yes, I made my own ad hominem.

And one last note on this point: why do the wealthy capitalists pay taxes for the roads? Who owns the roads? Why do they pay? Is it voluntary? Should it be? If you can answer these questions, you understand why something shouldn't be owned by one person, and socialists only apply this same logic to other economic realities, not always saying that it should be the state that is the rightful owner. If Clark can blanket statement that Socialism is institutionalized envy, it's easy to argue that the basic doctrine of private property (again, primarily referring to means of production) is institutionalized theft.

Even before university I had heard grown ups grumble about how “those businessmen” got their wealth unjustly, by “stealing” it from others. Those grumblers never explained how this process worked. I do not remember a store owner once pointing a firearm at me and demanding my money. I do not remember anyone forcing me to walk into their business. Did the grocery store owner charge exorbitant prices? If so, why did we not go to another grocer? There were several in the neighborhood? In fact, these claims about “those greedy businessmen” could not stand scrutiny. Those complaints were nothing but envy disguised as righteous indignation. We know it is envy and not truth when we see business people, who evidently believe in charging a fair market price for their goods and services, complaining about “evil” businesses. Really? It is just for you to charge a fair-market price (what the market will bear) for your goods and services but the other business person is “evil” for doing the same? How is that not just envy?

This analogy of a shotgun-wielding shop-owner is incredibly puzzling for a Calvinist. Is Clark saying that there are never choices where all available options are bad? Isn't that the logic of being in bondage to sin, and of total depravity? Yes, I know there's a distinction between two kinds of righteousness, but unless he wants to bifurcate between being a horizon Pelagian and a vertical monergist, I don't understand how he is even confused. Does he deny larger structures that shape individual relations? Is every decision really just one individual acting with another individual, at the level of some kind of Kantian vacuum? There are plenty decisions where both options are ugly.

Plenty of industries have created standards that are unjust and disgusting, and many conscientious people agree, but they have no choice unless they want to go under. Take the meat industry for example. As plenty of documentaries, news exposes, and personal testimony have shown, what big meat does to the animals in order to mass produce them for consumers is terrible for the animals. Cows are locked up, pumped full of hormones, and forced to eat corn, the cheapest staple, which cows can't digest and are given anti-biotics to offset the deleterious diet. Some business owners dislike what they are doing. However, if they don't do it, their competitors will, and they won't be able to keep the prices competitive. The option is sink or swim, and many prefer to stay afloat, even if they don't like it. This example does not take in account corporate boards and major stockholders who drive companies forward based on profit margins, which only rarely take a backseat to other interests.

Again, as in all of these examples, I'm not justifying owners in the cow-industry. But it's perfectly reasonable to understand that business-owners can complain about other sectors of industries that take advantage of others, or put them in an impossible bind. Yes, not everyone is consistent, and people justify their own actions and condemn the others. It may very well be envy, especially as some sectors of the economy are in the tank and others are soaring. But it's not necessarily so.

Anyone old not enough to remember how the hippy communes actually worked need only to watch Forrest Gump for a briefly tutorial. None forms of socialism (the public ownership of the means of production, the state-enforced community of property) with which I am familiar have ever produced anything like Rousseau’s state of nature. They have produced misery and death from many fled and many more died trying. My millennial readers are too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall but that wall existed literally to keep people from fleeing the “socialist paradise” of the Soviet Union. Socialism was so wonderful that those who tried to leave were shot in the back by guards in towers. Socialism was so glorious that when the Soviet Union collapsed, those who lived behind what Churchill called “the Iron Curtain” danced in the street and top of the wall even as it crumbled. Robin Williams’ 1984 film Moscow on the Hudsoncaptures some of the reality of socialism in practice. One of the books that most convicted me of my envious heart was Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction. The 2nd edition (1993) contains a foreword by Robert Bork.


I assume the blogpost is for a relatively uneducated readership, so I won't ride him for pointing to Hollywood as proof of how bad socialism really is. Here, he defines socialism, but he fails to define any of his terms. Public ownership...what public? The state? The laborers who work on said means of production? The nation? The community? One of the major blows to English rural life in the 17th century was the process of enclosure, where property owners blocked off their land from many Englishmen who made a living shepherding sheep. This destruction of the commons helped fuel the tensions building in what became the English Civil Wars. Because of a desire to repurpose land that they had by title, lords effectively destroyed shepherding as a profession, as these commons were now gobbled up and closed off. This move, by several individuals all acting for their own self-interest, destroyed England's woolens industry, sending many into the city looking for work and, in the process, suffering and filling London with an urban population of riffraff. Many complained that the government's role in permitting this to happen was unjust, the king failing to protect his subjects. The question is far more complicated than labeling them all envious; the commons was traditionally something that landowners could not transform at a whim.

I'm not saying the shepherds were socialists, but that the question of who can own the means of production goes farther back than anyone who self-consciously labeled himself a socialist. And the thing about the Berlin Wall is kind of silly. Yes, the Soviet Union, as a particular flavor of Marxist Communism, claimed to be Socialist; but, well, so did West Germany. Social Democrats dominated politics post-WW2; these parties originated from the conservative wing of socialists, believing that labor standards could be changed and settled through democratic parliamentary elections. Parliament could vote people's property out of their hands into the state's when it was considered a public issue (e.g. water, healthcare, electric, gas). So, in Clark's terms, people fled from one socialist government to another socialist government. To put it that way is to be an obscurantist.

And, as a brief aside, I find the attraction to the Winston Churchill myth among Americans really disturbing. He is remembered as the great hero, the stalwart who lead Little England against the Nazi Death Machine. Well, England was still the largest empire in the globe, and encircled Germany economically as well as militarily. Churchill was a part of spreading the Empire, with rather typical racist presumptions about African inferiority and doing his part in subjugating the people of the Sudan. He is also forgotten for being a political hack, jumping ship from the Tories to the Liberals to win a cabinet under David Lloyd George. From there he sent thousands of Englishmen to their deaths in one of the worst executed invasions, and one of England's greatest military disasters, at Gallipoli. Churchill was also rather favorable to Hitler in the early 30s, as he saw in him a possible means to check the Communists, though he disliked Hitler's lack of aristocratic bearing and his populist, frothing at the mouth, tactics. But, yes, he became a legend because he wouldn't negotiate with Hitler, even though he was fine with his own set of atrocities (i.e. it's pretty hard to justify the fire bombing of Dresden). But I digress.

The gospel is good news for thieves and for the covetous. Christ obeyed and died in our place. He was raised from the dead, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he shall return to set everything right and to judge the living and the dead. All who trust him shall be saved. All the saved seek to obey his moral law, among which are the eighth and tenth commandments.

I agree with the entire paragraph, but its context makes the entire thing a sick joke. All of it is true, and yet, he's deploying it as a tu quoque fallacy to undercut any valid criticism of immoral practices. Yes, obey the 8th and 10th commandments, but that means not writing hack pieces and displaying a false sense of intelligence. So, maybe one should throw in the 9th commandment as well. Nothing in this piece has sufficiently made the argument that private property is somehow naturally just, and nothing has proved that socialism, across the board, prima facia, is "institutionalized envy".

I'll end with two thoughts, one dovetailing into the other. Clark mentions, at the beginning, that the Israelites had private property, namely the land, which the commandments applied to. However, this land was allotted to families, for each to own and work, enjoying the fruits of their labor. In the event that inequity reigned, the Jubilee was a means to return all land to its original owners. How did the original owners lose it? As the history of Israel bears out, it was through conniving that one family sold property to another, beginning an institutionalization of landlordship across the Land. Some became exorbitantly wealthy and others became destitute. Jubliee was intended to rectify the inequity, overriding even the "fair" acquisition of private property through buying it up and squeezing laborers to produce enough. God divided the land and God could redivide it, it was His dominion.

John Wycliffe, of proto-Protestant renown, applied such thought to English civil affairs. No one owned the land of England, only God owned it, and He handed it out as He saw fit. Wycliffe went as far to say that all such things, because they belong to God, only belong to us through grace. In radically Donatistic fashion, if said property owner showed sufficient sign of not being in such grace, such a person has no right to the property he claimed. Not even the English crown was guaranteed primogeniture, for if the son was profligate and debauched, he forfeited such crown, for it belonged not to a royal family, but to God and the people He established in England. Wycliffe's teaching was not well received in the royal house, but it did stir up Lollards, providing the intellectual backbone in both the Peasant Revolt of 1381 and Oldcastle Revolt (1414). For more on Wycliffe's political theology, Oliver O'Donovan has written about it in a few of his books.

I like John Wycliffe, but not for the above reasons. I'm not saying Israel's land practices ground any political doctrine. The division of the Land, the Jubilee, even the Land itself are prophetic signs testifying to Christ. However, what all of this does mean is that defaulting to private property as somehow the natural order is not only confused, but circumventing the evangelical command to share. You are not your own, but Christ's, and hiding behind property laws will not save you from the judgement. Yes, ours is not to lead a revolution and tear up signs that say "Mine, Mine, Mine!", but it means also not celebrating such a system. Lots of people claim things for themselves that do not belong to them, and God will judge them on the last day. For us, as I've said repeatedly elsewhere, we must not collude, even as we patiently wait for Christ's reckoning. When possible, seek justice in the city, but know that the wicked, those who fatten themselves on gobbling up the earth and poor, will be tossed into the fires of destruction. I conclude with St. James:

1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! 2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. 4 Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. 5 You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.

7 Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. 8 You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 
9 Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! 10 My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. 11 Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Paralyzing Babel: A Primer on Politics for Pilgrims

I recently finished Teresa Bejan's book Mere Civility, in which she seeks to explain our current uncivil and tempestuous war of words and partisanship through the early modern period. First, she sets the problem. Like today, the Reformation saw the fragmentation of society and shattering of Christendom. Like today, many early modern theorists sought a way to rebuild Christendom. One option was persecution, driving out the heretics and crushing them socio-politically. The other option was eirenicism, which sought to win back heretics through formal toleration aimed towards conversion. Erasmus was the model for the latter approach, eschewing violence not so much out of principle but out of effectiveness; pummeling and killing your opponent won't win him over to a genuine conversion. Both sides sought to rebuild Christendom's unity. However, as the violence and the frustration wore on, other theorists sought an alternative to Christendom

Bejan covers Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. Hobbes advocated a politically induced silence on controversial topics, allowing for people to privately hold to their opinions as long as they kept them from the public. Locke advocated for a low-bar charity, and general acceptance for a variety of beliefs, but one that required a genuine sincerity for others. However, as Bejan explores, it's not clear what the criteria for this sincerity really was. Locke maintained a gentlemanly ethic that proscribed those considered hypocritical (Roman Catholics due to Jesuit casuistry and atheists). For Bejan, while Hobbes created a political environment that might silence dissidents, but allow them their personal beliefs, Locke is the real villain. Locke's approach demanded a kind of internal policing, requiring people not only to hold their tongue, but offer actual sympathy for opposing beliefs.

Roger Williams' approach, which Bejan labels 'mere civility', set a low bar. Unlike Hobbes or Locke, Williams maintained a strict division between the civil and the spiritual domain. He recognized that while pagans, papists, and even atheists, could be reprobate and working for the kingdom of darkness and, yet, remain decent in civil conduct. American Indians may be pagans or devil worshipers, but they too could build towns, keep order, and maintain a general sense of justice. Williams advocated an unrestrained free-speech that was grounded in his desire to have open space to convert the enemies of the gospel, even as the free-speech was not a means to reconstruct a social order. Williams believed there was a way to keep civil life generally peaceful, allowing for an exchange of harsh and condemnatory words without leading to social breakdown and murder. All speech, even really offensive and mean speech, was permitted as long as it didn't undermine the very medium of exchange. It was on this shared agonistic battleground of public disputation between groups that society's bonds could be maintained, and even strengthened, as all sides had an interest in preventing others squelching them.

Being as this work is mostly a foray into historical-political theory, it only touches lightly upon Williams' spiritual/civil divide. But such a divide is absolutely key for making sense of how Christians ought to discern fruitful political arrangements. Williams had no desire to perfect civil life, in fact all he did was restrain it from pursuing perfection, and, instead, it ordered society in ways that did not involve ultimate claims. Even though Williams thought the custom of removing one's hat before one's social superior was stupid and vain, he kept it. Such was the civil demand of order among Englishmen. But when he was required, as he was in Massachusetts Bay Colony, to pay homage to the English flag in worship, to tithe, or to withhold his tongue from preaching, he refused to obey the state authority and denounced it a whore of Babylon. He'd pay respect to Caesar, but he would not give his soul to him. Such was the proper conditions for Williams to engage in his teaching, preaching, and evangelism.

Now, I think Williams is a disastrous churchman, with his endlessly schismatic and fissiparous disposition. But, Bejan glides over the fact that he had properly rejected the social confusion between church and society manifest in Christendom. Perhaps at first glance, figures like Erasmus seem to be sane and virtuous defenders of unity. However, the major point of confusion, and this is crucial, is that he elides the unity of the Church with the unity of Christian society. The two go together for him. Roger Williams rejected this arrangement, and Bejan praises him for it, because he knew that it was a set-up for persecution. Whether it was with kid gloves or with an iron fist, efforts to rebuild Christendom would use state authority, whether in tax dollar support or in police violence. And in a figure like Jeremy Taylor, who flipped from Erasmian tolerationist under Cromwell to persecutor under the Restoration, a dark-side haunted all such talk. As Bejan repeatedly asks, who decides the standards, who decides which church is the church?

There are many episodes in church history where such a question is hardly clear. Elsewhere I've mentioned a multitude of examples, but I'll offer up one here that I've yet to talk about. In 431, the Council of Ephesus decided against Nestorius, condemning him, and supporting the phrase Theotokos as orthodox and biblical. John McGuckin, an eminent orthodox historical theologian and expert on Cyril of Alexandria, explains that Nestorius was not a heresiarch, but a really bad and arrogant churchman. Nestorius was highly elitist, using his scholastic education to draw a line between orthodox opinion and common piety. He was confusing and confused in his grammar, and no one was ever sure what he was arguing, but he refused to explain himself, owing to his chief position as patriarch of Constantinople. However, Cyril's position was not exactly air-tight either. After Ephesus, Cyril spent the rest of his writing career trying to correct errors that were being associated with his position. These conflicts were not resolved and came to a head in 451, with the council of Chalcedon. In it Cyril's writing was officially interpreted against the monophysites and radical monophysites (Eutychians), and supplemented with Leo's Tome. Alexandria shrieked that Chalcedon was the revenge of the Nestorians, and communion broke between them.

In addition, before the Egyptians left, many Syrian bishops broke communion, unwilling to officially condemn Nestorius. The patriarch had come from the Syrian church, and the Syrians had been slighted by not officially participating in the Council of Ephesus. They had been delayed, and it's not clear whether it was genuine or a political tactic to either run out the clock on the council, or save face and not condemn one of their own.

Now, in any case, which church was the true church the empire ought to side with? Just because a council had decided in such-and-such a way was not decisive. The "Robber Council" of Ephesus, in 449, appeared to be ecumenical in much of its form, and it had ruled on behalf of a Eutychian monophysitism. In addition, it is not clear what the point of divergences were, actually, on. It has been documented that Syriac and Greek grammar did not match up perfectly. Many Syrians of the now "Nestorian Church" of the East thought the Orthodox Church taught monophysitism. On the other side, Cyril's language bordered on the monophysite, even if its content differed significantly. The Monophysite church of Egypt considered Orthodoxy as revanchist Nestorianism, especially with Leo's Tome which firmly delimited distinction between the natures.

My point is not to build a case for agnosticism or some flattened version of doctrinal minimalism. Chalcedon was solid, and Leo's Tome a good explication of it. However, I am asking: How Nestorian was the so-called Nestorian Syriac Church? How Monophysite was Egypt? Where was there real difference and where was there grammatical confusion? And yet the imperial sword solved such a question, backing the Orthodox council, and harassing the now severed communions. The Egyptian church persevered, especially after falling out of the Byzantine orbit in the Arab invasions. The Copts were a second-class citizen population now, but they maintained their church under Islamic rule. The Nestorian Syrians spread throughout the Persian empire, and, following trade routes, flourished. Nestorian Syrian Christians evangelized throughout Northern India, Central Asia, and even reached the imperial capital of China, Chang'An. In the last case, the Tang dynasty tolerated a diversity of groups, and the Christians thrived.

Rather than imperial backed assertion, Christians thrived, spread, and flourished under regimes that permitted toleration. Whether it was a Christian himself governing, as it was the case with Roger Williams in Rhode Island, or whether it was a Pagan (a Chinese Buddhist to be precise), as it was in Tang dynasty China, in both cases the church succeeded. Christendom was not required for proclaiming the gospel, growth in numbers, a vibrant faith, and an intellectually vigorous leadership. In fact, as it is now becoming clearer in ecumenical dialogues between Orthodox, Nestorian Syrians, and Egyptians, the use of the sword prolonged ecclesiastical separation and reinforced misunderstands, politicizing dogma to the point of rending Christ's body afresh.

What does all of this mean? I contend that it shapes a vision of Christian political action. However, this form of politics is not exactly what most mean by politics. We might call it the politics of secularization, but that word is far too loaded to do much good. What I mean by calling it secular is that the governing authorities, the political apparatus, is diminished through a kind of self-restraint. It does not totalize, it does not become Heaven on Earth; in a word, it is paralyzed from becoming Babel. The civil realm is revealed as a temporary and contingent order; Christ has cast Satan down, and the throne of earth should remain empty until Christ rightly rests His feet upon it as His footstool.

The problem with Christendom is that, in its pursuit to claim the throne of Earth on behalf of Christ, it ends up becoming a movement of Satan. This is a legacy of the Magisterial Reformed, which, as Proto has explicated here, had pushed Rome's monistic impulse to a new level. In seeking to totally integrate the church into society, the former becomes a synagogue of satan and together they attempt the Babel project. We know that pagans will continue such efforts, worshiping whatever gods that come their way and placing them into the pantheon of the state. Such is the heart and soul of nationalism, which seeks to create a core identity which motivates and galvanizes. Christian nationalism is not anti-christ like Christendom, but it is a form of Paganism glossed with Christian terms. In these terms, we may distinguish Erasmus, as a velvet-gloved apologist for Christendom, from John Locke, who is a type of Christian nationalist. In Locke's case, it is a very low bar, we might call it a liberal nationalism, but one that seeks to guide, shape, and mold civil society in such a way as to control its character.

Again, who is the one who is deciding what this low bar of Christian civility is? The whole project is about control and border policing. It not only damages the witness of the church as a class of the oppressed becomes trampled down under her banner, but it, inevitably, puts the saints under a reign of persecutory violence. American Christian nationalism is the same motor driving the concerns under hate-speech law and identity politics. It will only be just, if not sad, when the same method becomes turned upon its architects.

I've mentioned elsewhere before that I hold left political opinions*, and my Christian convictions drive them. However, while I appreciate Marxist eschatology and critique as a means to make sure Christians don't forget their own, I have no truck with statists. My politics is more or less concerned with all of the above which I've outlined, as a means to distinguish the civil from the spiritual, or, perhaps more precisely, the ecclesial. Christian politics ought to be concerned with the jamming the machine of Earth's throne. This politics is manifest not in taking power, or attacking those in power, but in the simple advice the Apostles offer. We pay taxes and pay respect, and nothing more. St. Peter even conflates the respect one offers to the king as one offers to all men; it is a general civic respect, a recognition of the established hierarchy and doffing the proverbial hat. It bleeds out any claim of sacral authority, which all powers possess, even if they hide it from direct view. The civil must be clearly marked out and kept within its own limited and fleeting boundary.

This is why the global capital regime of Neo-Liberalism is so disastrous, and Libertarians are generally useful idiots in this regard. The problem is not that Neo-Liberalism evacuates all politics for the purposes of the economic, the problem is that that's what the ideology claims even as it does nothing of the sort. The Anglo-American Neo-Liberal global order operates through larger, multi-national firms, but it requires co-optation of states and state apparati to be effective. More times than not, giant corporations gain dominance not from ingenuity or from "free markets", but from beneficial state policies and laws, which, to be policies or laws, are backed with military and police violence. Neo-Liberalism collapses politics into economics, not to dissolve the former, but to so totally hide it that it becomes unassailable.

The original socialist battle-cry, which I agree with whole heartedly, was that property is theft. They weren't talking about ownership qua ownership. They weren't again people owning the homes they lived in, the personal objects in their possession, etc. Rather, what they meant was that the means of production can't be owned and maintained except through coercive force. Something like land would seem to naturally fall to those who actually use it and produce fruits from it. It is only through violence that an abstract claim to ownership, manifest in written title which has its power, not in itself, but through consensual force. What the original socialists picked up on was that this legitimacy could very well be a clever rouse. Just as nobility did not come from a mythical bloodline, but through wars of conquest and service to the victorious conqueror, so too does the idea of private capital appear from violent appropriation. It is not so much natural, but an arrangement through violence that received justification after the fact.

The means of production can only be owned if they are coordinated with governments willing to enforce certain peoples' claims to them. The nation-state can be one form of governing authority; others might appear in the guise of the mafia, the cartels, or just corporate police and company towns that assume the totality of life. Government didn't disappear into the market, but has been totally disguised as mere market forces. American political authorities and American corporate authorities have been so fused together, it becomes unclear where one begins and the other ends. Whether it's Bush II's financial package and legal protection for the Koch Brothers or Clinton's leaked donor talks to Goldman Sachs, red and blue share a united establishment based. The "golden straight-jacket" of Thomas Friedman is really a clever consolidation of political power towards domination. It is very subtle form of sacralization.

The point is not so much that Christians are anti-government; we're not and we're not seeking to destroy it. Rather, the point is to demythologize it, to reveal it for what it is. It is the civil, and the secular, realm and nothing more. If possible we should pray and rejoice in regimes which suspend the machine of Babel building. Our hope is in a New Heavens and a New Earth, and not in trying to save This Age or make it into something other than it is. The first Adam is dying and fading away, while the second Adam is raised forevermore. A low-level peace is all that is hoped for, so we may go about quietly, working with our hands, and reaping the harvest God has set before us. Things like free-speech, freedom to assemble, protection for minorities, a lack of cultural assimilation pressure, among others, are goods that are to the advantage of Christ's Body. May the Lord Jesus Christ, our God and Savior, bless such a reality and have mercy upon us. Amen.

*My leftist opinions approach Proudhon, and other Socialists, who vehemently rejected Marx and others seeking to use the State to further their liberating goals. Unlike them, however, I have no utopian aspirations and find them as distasteful as they are delusional. In this anti-statist streak, I have a lot in common with Burkean style Conservatives, who seek a reduced government for the mediating institutions of custom and local life. I too support localism over large and sweeping visions, and would choose "natural" hierarchies over anything intentionally constructed. But, I have two concerns with Burkean Conservatism.

First, I think labor is a more egalitarian form of social relation than custom and culture. Working together can show a more natural form of hierarchy, as people go about completing their tasks and sharing in the fruits of their labor. This is not to deny the importance of shared language and custom, but I don't think such should be self-consciously imputed an organizing and structuring power. Per my above comment, this kind of "natural" and local hiearchy is far more manageable than other realities. But, having said such, work itself can set the most limited forms of what is needed to negotiate with others for mutual support and benefit. Which follows into,

Secondly, I am wary of imputing any more social power to culture than is already there. Not that labor can't be divinized in weird ways, as is seen in Soviet propaganda, but it has a far smaller rap sheet than culture and custom. Empowering culture and custom may set up rival poles of authority for Christians, who begin to take their contingencies far too seriously. It's in this vein that Burkean Conservatism can become a gateway drug to a form of nationalism, which inevitably moves towards synthesis between the faith and a set of ethnic procedures and behaviors. If custom and culture can be evacuate even further of their power over the lives of Christian, labor becomes the last remaining residue for the foundation of the civil, allowing us a convenient space to conduct our missions.