Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Church as a Kind of Family, a Kind of State

As I read through a quick summary of African slavery by Sean Stilwell, the clear demarcation between the many-times terribly abstract slavery and freedom is the issue of belonging. In all forms of African slavery, freedom meant a kind of substantial belonging to a larger social network. Slaves as outsiders had no kin networks and thus were completely powerless and totally beholden to their masters. Some forms of African slavery ameliorated this as slaves both were junior (the lowest) kin-members and also had paths for adoption into the kin-network.

However, the key component is that African slavery made the distinction the way it did. Slaves from further away were coveted more than those from nearer regions. Why? Because the further away from a slave's homeland, the less chance there would be claims of kinship. When one was utterly disconnected from kin-networks, he had no recourse to justice. Anyone from anywhere could subject him to violence.

In the modern Western world families do not function in the same capacity (with the exceptions of mafia). Families do not imply real social power, if any at all . The most one gets nowadays is that so-and-so knows your father and is willing to give you a job on account of it. But families are no longer social bodies that can make any claims for constituent members in the larger political world.

In Hannah Arendt's account of Totalitarianism, she describes the condition of the Modern, post-World War 1, world where belonging to a nation-state was the new standard for belonging. What the Nazis, and other Totalitarians did, was institute programs of making undesirables stateless. Nazi propaganda reinforced the stereo-type of the Wandering Jew, begging and scraping like a rodent, while, simultaneously, divesting Jews of their place within the German (and for the Nazis, this was the world) state, This led to a kind of fulfilling of the stereotype, only justifying the 'Final Solution' the propaganda demanded: they must be exterminated like bed bugs.

As Arendt has argued, we still live in a world where belonging to a state is what guarantees one a certain kind of just complaint. If you are stateless, violence against you is guaranteed as there will be no one to protect your or seek vengeance. While the UN was trying to produce a meta-state solution, it is largely toothless and used a legitimizing tool for its leading members (as the League of Nations before it). The Roma (gypsies) still suffer as they are stateless. They are abused by angry nationals who take out their frustrations upon immigrants who are known for theft and privacy.

In both of these examples, the family and the state are the enforcers or advocates for justice for its members. Without them, even the guilt, shame, or historical memory will be erased. For example, during the Armenian Genocide, the Turks were able to commit "legal" purges because the Armenians had no legitimate advocate, and thus they were easy prey to conquerors.   Thus the Armenian Genocide is largely swept away, besides some lobbyist groups that make a little noise that is mostly ignored. Yet with that weak voice, the Armenian nation (both in the nation-state) still speaks with a voice for the dead, and that is because it became the social-network necessary to do so.

The Apostles speak of the Church, that is the people adhering to Christ as Lord, in terms of both state (polis), family, but even other networks (e.g. koinonia was a kind of guild/professional-network/club). My contention is that the power of these metaphors is not in sentimentality or political strength, but in their abilities to create social networks.

For many early Christians, if one was abandoned by kin or by state for their Christian allegiance, or if they were already a marginalized member (e.g. slaves, women, non-Romans), they had no social network to find support in. The problem St. Paul saw in people dragging each other off to law-court was that they were abandoning their role and responsibility to take care of themselves within a new social network, one that operated by a different set of laws than the rest of the present age.

However, before I go further, the hope is not to build a rival family or a rival state. The Imperial Papacies of later years would confuse the Apostolic witness and commit all sorts of crimes, many in the best intention. For Thomas to say it is better to burn a twice-turned heretic for the greater good is both a logically consistent and yet wicked thing.

But it is only wicked if this whole model of an Imperial Church is wrong headed. The Church is not supposed to be a family or a state, but an analogy of those things. The purpose is to form an alternate society. But this society does not (and should not) separate from the ruling social network. Distinction does not imply opposition, nor does distinction require one for one replications. It's largely for this reason that some early Christian apologists described the Christians as a new race made out of peoples from all nations. It has nothing to do with bloodline.

Despite the pastoral uses of this doctrine in Sonship model, the concept of adoption is the logic behind claims to being a new social-network. We belong to one another because we have now become children of God the Father, the Creator and Judge of all, through Jesus Christ in the work of the Holy Spirit. The Son by Nature has made us all sons by grace.

Now, I believe the old dictum that the church catholic(universal) can be found in the local church. That is to say, we need not desire after some false universalism (like the claims of Rome) in order to see the universal Church in our own particular congregations. As an aside, I'm arguing for networks, that extend beyond denominational lines, but don't equate to congregational models. One can still maintain a kind of episcopacy even within this.

Thus, the local church can be this social network that labors on behalf of its constituents. Of course most church-communities in the United States are ignorant, and quite a few are actually committed to a cult of Americana and have departed from the Lord. But the ignorance is most pronounced amongst white Protestants. As chief beneficiaries of the super-state social-network, we suckle the tit and ignorantly pontificate (I'm not excluded). We don't see why other societies exist within the greater and seem at odds, or weary of it. It doesn't make sense to most why some black Americans would fear the police as much, if not more, than a local gang, and have alternative means to problem solving than simply calling 911.

This post could go on for much longer, but it's already gotten much to long. But I will add one more fact:

While the church-community's members will be a social matrix for one another, the Church of Christ is a social body that exists for the sake of others. This is not a call to heroism or a kind of savior complex. Rather, it's willing to come alongside the voiceless for the purposes of allowing the 'outsider' a place of protection and advocacy. It's being willing to be hated for being found among the most worthless in society. It's among the 'outsider' that Christ may in fact be found (Matt. 25). Again, this is not a liberal crusader mentality. It's not trying to save anyone, absorb them, or turn them into a cause. Rather, it's the willingness to simply be around those whose social-status will mar your reputation. You'll get no credit for it.

An example might be how Richard Wurmbrand describes the treatment of the former prison warden. After a Romanian regime change, the prison-warden found himself out of favor with the new Party elite and wound up being jailed. In his cell, most prisoners remembered his cruelty and viciousness and wanted to beat him to death. That'd be fitting. But this now social-outcast, this 'outsider', was protected by some Christians in the jail. They were willing to forgive him and seek his transformation away from such a life of violence. These Christians almost found themselves beat to death for willing to advocate on behalf of such a wicked enemy.

This is an extreme example, but loving your enemies tends to be the most thoroughly harrowing example of what it means to advocate for the outsider.

These are the ways the Church, found in all church-communities who still cling to Christ, uphold the Apostolic metaphors. It's this way that we can corporately love one-another. It's the way Christians are faithful to the command to be in the world, but not of it. This is part of the work of the gospel.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Vile Love Affair

I wrote a post a while back called St. Kateri and Incarnation, in which I discussed the Franco-Iroquois town of Kahnawake and the canonization of St. Kateri, a Mohawk girl who died of fever. In the post I praised how the gospel can allow cultural synthesis, in contrast to the Babyblonian approach the fearful New Englanders engaged in.

I still love and praise the beauty of cosmopolitan places. Multi-cultural coexistence is majestic. Unlike the banal and ugly attempt at New England monocultural imperium, Kahnawake exemplified how peoples can learn from one another. Whether it's Chang'An, Samarkhand, Rome, Constantinople, Paris, New York, Palmyra, Baghdad, Alexandria, Timbuktu, wherever, cosmopolitan ethos can defuse insane nationalism and allow humanity to shine through. It leads to strange, novel, creative, and ultimately beautiful, cultural syntheses to happen that otherwise would never occur.

Of course there are downsides too. The mix of cultures can create a heated environment. Crime and poverty tend to thrive in such an environment. It's a part of the cost of many differing peoples existing together where central authority is more about maintaining the peace rather than imposing any single vision of order. These tend to be places where the Gospel of Jesus Christ can thrive.

In fact, the gospel implies a relativizing of all cultures. It's not that all cultures are good in of themselves, some possess virtues others lack, others suffer from vices that can overwhelm and poison. Rather, the gospel does not promote a single culture as belonging to God. This was a part of Paul's mission to the Gentiles and his war against the Judaizing heresy among the Church in Galatia. The Jews are the first, who were given the oracles of God, but they are not absolutized.

The Church should work to promote a multi-cultural environment. However, there is cosmopolitanism and there is cosmopolitanism. A certain kind of relativizing of cultural absolutism by coexistance can happen anywhere among any kind of people. It does not imply a Church who advocates that, in Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile, Greek or Scythian.

In my prior post, I was allowed to be seduced by an accident of history for a theological program. The French and Iroquois mixing in Kahnawake was instituted by economic prerogatives. The French lacked the kind of anxiety the English had about their own identity, which, among Puritans, was only amplified by their separation from the motherland and their theological paradigm. The French in Canada were lesser nobility and peasants. They lacked the kind of nationalism that would result in the French Revolution, where Enlightenment discourse met a Francophile vision of the world. High philosophy and base cultural prejudice and bigotry embraced in a near apocalyptic cultural upheaval.

What this was not was something inherent in Roman Catholic theology. I am not throwing all the missionaries and Jesuits under the bus, but it was less a robust vision of the Kingdom rather than an imperial policy of forming alliances. The French did not feel the need to convert the Natives to French ways. This may be out of cultural relativity or racism against the savage.  Probably both existed in different degrees among merchants, farmers, missionaries and magistrates.

My original sympathy and reading were due, in no small part, to a growing love for Rome's cultural vision. I bought into the propaganda. I was tempted to believe that Rome may in fact be the Church, the tangible, visible hope in the World. I suffered with a kind of inadequacy, feeling separated from the brethren. But this was allowing my eyes to be dazzled by impressive ad campaigns to sweep away the evils of the past. This was the kind of historical phantasm I alluded to elsewhere. I wanted to believe in some neat and easy historical progression. I confess this because any writer, even on a stupid blog, ought to be responsible for his words.

I keep the old post up as a reminder, but also because I don't see any serious errors in it. By the grace of God, Holy Spirit prevented me from making obscene statements. I still affirm the good of cosmopolitan environments and the need for the Gospel to both relativize and enter into different cultural situations. However, Roman Catholic theology is no solution. In many ways, the Native American tribes saw the missionaries as connects to greater European contacts. Missionaries were weird, tolerated, emissaries of far-away princes.

Despite large failure, widespread bigotry, and many times weak theology, the widespread evangelism by Revivalist preachers brought Christ to Native Americans. It was not a large scale movement, it was still tied to English/American imperialism and land-theft, it was widely dysfunctional and rejected. However, American Indians did form church communities to worship Christ. It's this kind of Christianity that exists, in whatever form, in American Indian reservations. Roman Catholic theology did none of this, and largely disappeared in North America as the French and Spanish disappeared.

If one wants to see the fruits of Roman Catholic popular missions, observe Dia de los Muertos and the Mexican cult of Santa Muerta. Central and South America maintained adherence, even as Spain left, on account of the creole, mostly racially mixed, elite that dominated the new republics. But on the popular level, many pagan practices became synonymous with Roman Catholic practice. Thus, death can be worshiped. Church is the haunt of effeminate men and women in Latin culture.

I'm not saying that there is no good in Roman Catholic theology or practice. I can still appreciate the defiance of an Oscar Romero. However, in many cases, the hierarchy was only an aid to the status quo. One can read William Cavanaugh (a Roman Catholic scholar and ethicist that I deeply admire and respect) document and criticize the ecclesiastical silence during the despotic reign of Pinochet in Chile. Some have criticized the Roman Pontiff Francis for his relatively quiet activity in Argentina during the fascist-lite days of the Perons.

The Church is that woman in the desert who is hunted by the Dragon. The Church exists in the non-ostentatious life of Mary, who gave birth to God, and yet remains a relatively quiet figure, only lifting up her voice most prominently in the Magnificat. Perhaps, Mary should be remembered when we begin to look for an Imperial Church that can make or break princes or presidents. She is hidden and her sons are many times not obvious when one goes looking for historic titans That's a lesson I need to remember when I begin a vile love affair.

John Chrysostom, Manhood, and the Pastorate

A little over a year ago I read J.N.D. Kelly's biography on John Chrysostom. It's a very readable, even-handed account of one of the most interesting and fascinating (in my opinion) Christian preachers. I find Chrysostom to be a kind of Spurgeon. In the same mode, both were amazing orators and eloquent speakers. They both had a natural feel for a crowd. This can lead to a kind of base presumption of certain sophist practices. In layman's terms, this means both were given to emotional manipulation and justified themselves in doing it. It's nowhere near as bad as a figure like Finney, who made an evangelical replica of Barnum & Bailey's.

However, where John differed from Charles was that he was active in politics in a unique capacity. Some of this was due to circumstance. In John's time, there was only one Church which the Emperor was both beholden to and attempted to control. In some ways, Constantinople's bishop operated as a kind of imperial chaplain. In most cases this implied the negative connotation of the word: an authoritative, "religious" figure who sanctioned all sorts of murder and crime. Spurgeon lived in a day of many different divisions, where religious authority meant little politically. Besides that, Spurgeon acted as a non-conformist, against the state-sponsored Church of England. This would remove much influence.

However, Charles Spurgeon still had influence and applied the Gospel to social realities and the public square. One little known detail was that Spurgeon was a huge critic of Britain's imperial policies in China. This is the operations of neo-Imperialism, a kind of global conquest done by markets and trade. The British didn't have to overrun Asia with Redcoats. Rather, they dominated ports with cheap goods and, in China's case, crushed the population with a massive opium trade. The British predated the Cartel, and equaled them in brutality. Charles Spurgeon decried such a trade and all imperial ventures. Charles Spurgeon was an advocate against war and conquest, an proponent of non-violence.

John Chrysostom was also an advocate against imperial policies. The difference was in the nature of John's church community. Constantinople was a meeting place of both the "monastic" tradition and the imperial tradition that overshadowed many Church struggles in the East. I put the former in quotes because it's not exactly a monastic tradition. It's a kind of pessimism and moral rigor combined with Apostolic Christianity that demanded individual and personal discipleship. It could be abberant at times, but still maintained Biblical imperatives. The latter was the kind of hodgepodge scrambling when the Empire began to endorse Christianity. It was a religion for the masses that wiped away conditions for repentance, personal growth, discipline etc. The Church became an organ of the Empire, rather than an alien and prophetic community that maintained a tension. There was many times an internal tension and struggle in the Capital.

John represented someone who had lived in the desert, knowing well the costs of following the Lord Jesus, and yet eventually ended up in the heart of the Roman Empire. He was constantly beset with the anxiety of such a precarious position. And yet he took up his labors with effort and zeal. He tried to preach an uncompromised gospel to a people generally lackadaisical. Yet the beauty and power of his preaching drew crowds nonetheless.

I'm not saying John's theology is perfect. He many times seem to do whatever it took to whip his congregation into listening. But what I want to talk about is how his imperatives got him into trouble. John preached the life of the Christian to many who were in a deluge of nominal attachment. The court dabbled in all sorts of political sorcery, Machiavellian machinations, and general wickedness, yet John never was a political upstart. He did not call upon mobs, or try to create a utopia in old Byzantium. He was not a Savanarola.

Rather, he got in trouble by speaking the truth. He died in exile, hated by the emperor and the empress and the eunuchs in court. He was replaced by a more amenable ladder-climber. He was attacked by politicized bishops who used a theological controversy to blacken John's name and embroil him in heresy because of his kindness.

Why John is a hero is because he represents a kind of model for a masculine pastorate, one that should draw men to as a place of leadership, or to inspire those who work elsewhere. John preached hard things. Yet his hard things were both theologically rich (i.e. Christ trampling down Death by death) and socially meaningful (i.e. the implications of Christianity for homelife, wealth, etc.)

Many times the pastorate functions as guidance councilors, Oprah-esque spiritual uplifters, stern fear-mongerers, or just a strange kind of custodian for weird rites that no one really seems to understand. Yet John brought forth the truth of the Resurrection and Ascension of the Son of God and brought it to bear on those whom he lived amongst. He preached the dangers of wealth, the meaning of the marital vocation, the rigor of spiritual disciplines, the necessity of prayer.

He was political by being faithful, not faithless by being political. He engaged in no intrigue, but was attacked for his social concern. He was not trying to transform the world, but by preaching the truth, he turned the world upside down. This is a vocation for men and women, but in the context of the pastorate (which is intended for men) he represents what sober-minded, responsible male-leadership looks like. It isn't soft-handed and delicate. It isn't hard-nosed, bookish and cerebral. It isn't a 'bro' culture. It isn't the emotionless, stoic work ethic German. It's something bizarre and strange.

John Chrysostom ought to be searched out by any man who is interested in becoming an Episkopos or Presbyter of God's Church. He is a very Human, and flawed, model to give attention to. His life and his works reveal what preaching the Gospel might actually look like in a particular time and space.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Problem of Heaven

In a previous post, I wrote about how Beauty and the majesty of the eternal dwelling of God, men, and angels ought to be spoken of with radiating joy and hope. Poor conceptions of Heaven only encourage cynicism. This is in part because it 1) sounds like wish fulfillment 2) many preachers, out of a boring Heaven, turn to a terrible Hell. This comes off sounding like emotional manipulation. It's how insurance companies sell policies: fear of the unknown and anxiety of weakness.

In the comments section, Randy Alcorn's work was mentioned and a brief conversation occurred. I have not read Randy Alcorn. I have great respect for men like him and N.T. Wright who are trying to create a popular, and public, discussion about the Eschaton and what sort of hope Christians possess. I commend him for that alone. However, as I commented, many of his ideas sound like wish fulfillment and making Heaven rather creaturely.  Resurrection is a part of the Gospel's affirmation of creation's good. However, it is a stretch to say that resurrection means there will be baseball, reunion with lost (and talking!) pets, and theological debate.

However, I want to push beyond this to a deeper critique. I recall a conversation I had in 9th grade. I was a fool and knew little. However, I was a part of a conversation where a boy in my class criticized any notion of Heaven. He admitted frankly that there is nothing in this world that is so enjoyable that he'd want to do it forever. After so much time of living, he'd desire a peaceful and quiet termination, a return to non-being. I was not a Christian, but I was Pagan enough to be disturbed by such notions. My soul thirsted for life everlasting ever since I became consciously aware of death.

However, my instinctual thirst was both true and naive. Yes, to this day, I desire some kind of life everlasting. The fear of termination, whether biologically or psychologically, lurks around every thought. But my classmate was right. Every quest I have ever put myself to has only resulted, when accomplished, in an eventual boredom or apathy. When you exercise vigorously, the only thing you will desire is to sit and rest. But once such is accomplished, desire passes onto something else. Man lives not by bread alone.

Therefore, the Randy Alcorns do right to rematerialize the destiny of Mankind. But, this does not make their answer sufficient. Popularized Platonism is kind of inane and foolish, but it derives its being from a very noble and serious thought. Plato did not imagine his vision of man's origin and destiny solely because he hated physical reality. The Athenian was trying to imagine an eternity that would push behind inevitable boredom found in the finite. Neo-Platonists would concretize this in the philosopher's lonely pursuit towards the Alone. This became altered and Christianized in the Beatific Vision. Where there was a notion of completion (Thomas' insistence that we will see God's essence), could only collapse to a popular piety of both abstract boredom and esoteric ecstasy. None of these convey well beyond academics and mystics.

Thus the necessity of Randy Alcorn to seriously contemplate what the confession of the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting actually means. However, the existential question is not answered. Why would we not get bored? Conceptually, eternity is impossible to fathom, and even when beginning to, we must ask whether we would exhaust the possibilities of Creation. Why wouldn't we ask for termination?

Thus, Plato's, and many Eastern religions, assertion that the Many will eventually return to the One. Our personal identity will maintain anxiety as long as we are separated. Thus paradise and death become mixed and intertwined. Our completion is our end.

Existential atheists argue that the above, despite any metaphysical dressing, is equivalent with a kind of death. This is both sad yet real. Our lives should be spent understanding this. The hope, therefore, is to break free from this in appreciating the authentic creativity of the finite, and fleeting, moment. Life may be a Sisyphusian struggle, but the joy can be found in accepting the struggle and defying it. Perhaps it's for this reason that John Zizoulas argues that for the materialist, the only possible free choice is suicide. Everything else is trapped in biologically determined necessity.

If you want to believe in resurrection and the life everlasting, you must ponder this critique. What can stop the anxiety and boredom of existence besides the Nihilistic option of Death and the Platonic answer of Absorption (which are not so far apart)?

Here, Gregory of Nyssa might actually be able to offer a semblance of hope. Two major things to consider are: 1) the Creator/creation distinction 2) the nature of the Infinite. For the first point, if God has created us, our finitude is all a matter of the Creator's will. God determines our boundaries. God can expand us not only to appreciate deeper and more beautiful levels of creation, but expand creation everlastingly in new and fresh ways. We can seek God forever in the contexts of created reality. However, does this not become a quest of the alone seeking the Alone? How do we stave off the possibility of anxiety and existential dread from never being able to reach our destination?

Here, the nature of the Infinite benefits us. If God is Infinite, there is no boundary line He cannot cross. By Nature (a knowingly deficient term to describe the Divine), God cannot be circumscribed. Therefore, God can uncircumscribably be circumscribed. The untouchable can be touched. This is the logic of the Incarnation. Therefore, even though we remain at infinite distance from God, God can meet us in the distance and be present. We can truthfully experience God's personal presence, and yet ever move forward.

This sort of insight gives weight to both the veiling/unveiling dialectic in Barthian tradtion, the presence/absence dialectic in Post-Modern philosophy, and also the Eastern insistence in the real distinction between God's essence and energies. I won't get into these discussions, though they may be helpful in continuing to work out these ideas.

However, this begins to answer the existential argument against any notion of Heaven. It opens the possibility beyond Hellenism and less sophisticated religious doctrines of the return to the One. Eternity can be creaturely, and yet ever spreading. Randy Alcorn may be doing the service of the conversation, but it must not end there. Otherwise, nothing will seriously change. Eternity must be both Human and Divine, Finite and Infinite. The Incarnation may indeed save the hope of Paradise.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Caged No More: A Non Review

I stumbled onto an ad for a new movie, Caged No More, that is an addition to the growing protest/awareness of sex-traffiking. It details the story of two girls who were "kidnapped" by their addict father and sold to traffikers in Greece to pay off his debts. The story follows the girls' grandmother working with their uncle and their ex-spec ops cousin who goes to lengths to retrieve them. The purpose of the movie is to continue to inform the American public on the existence of sex traffiking.

Now, the movie is not out. I have no intentions of ever seeing it. The trailer and the press releases speak loud enough. There are many red-flags. This is an Evangelical movie, from the same director who did God's Not Dead. This usually means two-dimensional characters, cliche plot developments, and preachy. The trailer was good enough to reflect that. Funny enough, Evangelicals, as a culture, ironically come off as those who understand Man and his world the best, and yet are mostly clueless.

Evangelical movies tend to be religiously saccharine, idealized 50's, versions of standard Americana. Liam Neeson's Taken came out a decade ago, dealing superficially with these issues, and yet this movie can only copy. The militarized cousin is able to punch, disarm, and brutalize his way through gangsters and foreign businessmen to find the girls. Again, Evangelicals are tasteless repetitions of American culture at large. All of our movies tell us with a good heart, we can bludgeon our way through any problems. Our mass killings are righteous because we mean well, so we can excuse possible faults.

So Evangelicalism only copies this without modern America's emphasis on the ambiguities. Liam Neeson's character is divorced because his work emotionally detached him from his wife and daughter. It takes an absurd crisis to reunite them. The Evangelical version doesn't even allow this small reflection on possible realities. The only problems are easily remedied with prayers, feel-good aphorisms, and deus-ex-machina non-sense. Everything fits together in the right way because that's how all stories end.

Of course, I was perplexed why the junkie father would take his girls out of the States to Greece, but it really isn't a brain-twister. The real factor is that the main girl is a pretty, thin, white girl, complete with the trappings of innocence. This is the tragedy of the film. I suppose it could be screen-writer's cynicism (i.e. an American audience will only care about sex-traffic if it's a cute American white girl). But, given what I said about Evangelical movies, it's probably an unintentional move, based out of the movement's prime constituency. It's just a natural fit, it doesn't take any additional forethought.

I'm sure there will be conversions, the bad guys will go to jail, die, or repent, or slink off to the shadows to link their wounds. There will be some end trauma about all those still left behind, and what you as a lazy, fat, well-off, viewer can do about it, now that you're inspired to by Rambo-esque displays of power. Maybe all the fight scenes will show the insufficiency of violence. Even so, it's a naive demonstration of what a Western audience will take away. You can decry violence until your blue in the face, we all know that's what's required, and we love it. We Americans love to worship death.

It's why Taken really isn't about sex-traffiking, it's just another secret-agent thriller. That movie was at least aware of what it is and what it isn't. Evangelicals generally have no idea. They're too busy worrying about being relevant.

I write all of this as someone who is not unfamiliar with agencies started to end sex-traffiking. They do some good work, but they tend to have an overinflated view of their efforts. It's as if they believe that only if they could get all the legislature, then there'd be some seismic change. I'm more pessimistic, though I don't think their efforts are worthless. The reason why legislature doesn't happen is, in part, that law-makers and authorities benefit in some part from it. But it doesn't stop the occasional white-collar, emasculated middle-aged man to want to get worked up over some cause celebre so he can go kick some ass. It's kind of sad.

When I see this movie, not only do I see a bad piece of  art, but a moralizing attempt that fails to understand mankind and the kind of stakes. It always ends with good ol' USA, without perhaps contemplating that our way of life, our capitalism, our democracy, our values, contribute to the perpetuation of these systemic sins. Our corporate individualism makes us blind to our group-think and how our piety is saccharine and ignorant.

On the latter point is most relevant, Evangelical piety states and restates a certain kind of flawed-hero, very common in the popular anti-hero. It allows us to be flawed, mistaken, but ultimately one of the good guys. We confess we are sinners to hide our sins. This isn't even a criticism, just an observation. It's a weird kind of cuddly self-flagellation so we can feel content with our actions and our lives. We do superficial self-criticism so we don't have to go much deeper, or allow others to have a voice.

All in all, I say all of this as someone who exists, broadly, as an Evangelical. Movies like this only reveal the sick, devil-warped state of American evangelicalism. Most are so blind that they are unaware that they are in love with nation-worship, love of violence, lust of the eyes, and all sorts of bigotry, whether of race, class, or culture. It's not evil or malicious. It's rather just delusional and pathetic. Caged No More is a message of the old guard trying to keep up with the new social-justice, activist Evangelical Millenials. Instead of deep insight or wisdom, Caged No More will probably be an exercise in missing the point.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

50 Shades of Pelagius

This is one of the most important things I wrote. Fundamentally, this is connecting the bad anthropology and Christology of Pelagius to the resultant political theology of the modern Christianized nation-state. I updated parts where new learning improved the overall argument. I am not as reliant on Augustinian thinking, while still appreciating the bishop's work, and his paradigm of 'two-kingdoms'. He certainly understood the biblical tension more than others throughout history.


In his later years, Augustine spent a majority of his time trying to combat teaching from a British Monk. While he spent more time wrangling with mutations from the monk’s disciples (i.e. Julian of Eclanum), Pelagius has gone down in much history of the church of Jesus Christ as a villain. His deficient anthropology and christology led him to some deeply flawed views. Of course, I’m not given to simple black/white characteristics, and I’m sure there were good points that he made.

Pelagius came to Rome from his monastery somewhere on the British Isle and was terrified by the moral laxity. Followers of Jesus Christ were engaged in Pagan-like lives with little love. He believed this sprung from the recent popularity of Augustine and his many writings, one of which, The Confessions, had a line that irritated him the most. Augustine wrote: “Give what you command, and command what you will”.

While I find nothing wrong with this statement (it properly makes God the beginning, middle, and end of salvation), Pelagius interpreted this as rank fatalism, a return to the Manichaeans, and left people as they are with no encouragement to seek after the path of life. It was this frustration that started Pelagius’ campaign to have Augustine refuted, rebuked, and challenged. While Pelagius was rather successful when he had died, and his disciples had carried on his work, he never officially received recognition in the West or East. However even though his memory is generally condemned, his spirit lives on in manifold ways.

Pelagius taught that while man had stumbled in the Garden, it did nothing to humankind deep-down. Adam had set a horrible example and men have followed in his wake ever since. So the Lord would shed His grace and return a people back to Himself. What this meant was that God would provide another example, and by doing such, men would choose to turn away. Thus the Mosaic Law, and ultimately, the Evangelical Law (what Christ taught and did) would be the example for men to find their way back to paradise. This framework would condition his use of apostolic phrases (i.e. grace, faith, atonement).

While there are many implications to this brief, and incomplete, summary, the major premise is that regarding the Fall. Where Augustine would explore, and lament, the radicalism (that is how thorough-going) of the Fall, Pelagius did not believe in its totality. Pelagian teaching certainly accommodated for corruptibility and in no-wise denied the presence of evil. Such would misunderstand Pelagius to some kind of Pollyanna-esque creature. He certainly witnessed wickedness, but saw it as lapse instead of slavery. Man could be good with enough motivation, enough focus, and enough planning. There was no fundamental evil state that Man existed in. This is perhaps more disturbing. Why would man turn to sin so vilely if man only needed a corrective example? The implications could be staggering.

There isn't much truth in Pelagius' teaching. He didn’t understand Paul’s cry in Romans 7 about the thorough going fallenness that was present within him. Death attacked the Apostle; his soul and body tore themselves apart, being conflicted by confused loves and wants. What Pelagius missed was that only the Lord of Life could turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.  Here Augustine was correct in challenging such teachings as not only contrary to the witness of Scripture, but the witness of reality. The love of God poured out is no mere law-giving, but law-inscribing. It is transformative.

So I stand with the bishop against Pelagius, and against the reincarnations of the monk in this battle. Another was between Erasmus and Luther on the place of the will. Erasmus believed the personal use of will remained free and untainted, but in need of correction and learning to be properly good. Luther rejoined that the will is not a free-floating agent but inextricably tied up with the human heart. It is either maintained by the love of God which is from Christ or not which is of the devil. Luther's anthropology may be in need of correction, but he reacted against a Humanist infatuation with the possibilities of mankind. Both sides of this debate highlight interesting deficiencies in the reigning theological paradigms of the day. However, Luther's rebuttal highlights a diminished view of the Fall.

 Here, Luther might seem a compatriot here. However, I want to apply this Fall more deeply. I want to bring the implications deeper beyond the Human heart, and explore what it might mean for a wider definition of 'Creation.  Mankind was corrupted, but so was the rest of the world-order. This includes societal structuring and the spirits in the things man makes. I do not believe that fallen angels are only extra-human forces that we call societies, cultures, cities. However, we'd be fool to neglect that they are well engaged in them. There is a transcendent presence in collectives. The State, the corporation, the institution, all of these are more than the mere sum of their parts. They are, in part, what Paul refers to as ‘Powers and Principalities’, and they too are fallen.

A true prophet I’ve lately appreciated has been William Stringfellow. Here’s an excerpt from his work An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land:

American pietism- both in the social gospel and in evangelicalism- is entranced with a notion that the Fall means the consequences of mere human sin, without significant reference to the fallen estate of the rest of Creation.

In my own words, much of American Protestantism has not plumbed the depths of the Fall enough and is insufficiently aware of the effects of human sin. They limit it to the actions of humans without considering the intoxicating and overwhelming deluge of power present in the Powers around us. I wonder if that is how many Christians can speak of their sinfulness, or confess the redemption found in Christ, and then proceed, without a second-thought, to engage in systematic wickedness.

Partially, I suppose that’s the beauty of the mechanized, Model-T society that we live in. Everyone does their own small, seemingly inconsequential part, and the whole conveyor belt moves along. So John Doe only creates metallic casings, which are used to house bombs, which are sold to a military, which are used to murder. John goes home without a second thought, never considering he is participating in conquest and murder. He is told society doesn't exist, he is a monadic individual that has no shared responsibility with the repercussions of his activity.

This interconnectivity of events would drive anyone insane. But it's an interconnectivity we are called to discern and thoroughly meditate on. I’m calling for discernment in a world of white noise and mind-numbing images. So, many American Christians may confess Jesus Christ, but be drunk on the spirits of Americana. How many have subjected the King’s love-command to maintaining the American Dream? This is not mere ignorance or incompetence, but calls for an understanding that the forces which stand over men are also a part of a Fallen World. It was a Roman State and a Jewish Temple establishment that put the Messiah on the Cross. It was not mere men working, but the darkened powers, and behind that the Serpent himself. Thanks be to God that even such potent malevolencies are beneath His hand! Even these were a part of the victory of Life.

This naive and anthro-centric view of the Fall has plagued Protestantism from the gate. It is a great delusion that many sacral christianities dabble in. In thinking they can control Caesar's throne, they’ve misunderstood the root-nature of a Fallen world awaiting redemption. In fact, it would be my contention that, in this regard, many Anabaptists are more thoroughly biblical than the Magisterial Protestants. Not all, especially those who create little enclaves of self-righteousness in their cultural ordinances, but some. However, the Anabaptist tradition has done more than most in perceiving the possibility of corruption in power, especially when with the best intentions.

In fact, I’d go as far to say that in regards to the Powers, much of Lutheranism is fatalistic and Manichaean and much of the Reformed are thorough going Pelagians.

The former view accepts, on its face, the natural order as it is. Now this might manifest in outright hostility to Nature as useless for telling of God, but that is Lutheranism's fringe (and now Barthian) wings. Rather, it is usually taken as proscriptive for the Kingdom of Men. Thus, a dualism is created in as much as you do your duty to God and your duty to the State. This is an abuse of “rendering unto Caesar…”, and creates a secular sacralism. When Paul’s social commands (i.e. to husbands, wives, slaves, masters etc.) are understood as merely validating social conventions, they have a confused Christology. This is the bread-and-butter of creating Sunday Christians, and a vast and pervasive nominalism. In this vein, Nazism was able to command as it did with little resistance from the majority of Christians.

The latter view is probably the most pervasive in America due to the much stronger legacy of the Reformed on this continent. The idea is that institutions can be used for good, and, with Romans 13 misunderstood as paradigmatic and prescriptive,  can be put to task for maintaining the Kingdom of God.

Without getting into my own understanding of Romans 13, let two things be said. This passage is not cut off from the rest of the letter or the canon. 1) It must be understood in light of Romans 12 and its call to mercy and returning good for evil. 2) It must also be seen under the light of the demonic images in Revelation 13 and the prophetic testimony throughout the OT against the corruptions of the institutions of Israel.

What ends up being done is evil, all in the name of good. The Pelagian concept of the Powers takes manifold forms, some that come to mind are: Temperance Movement, Social Gospel, White Man’s Burden, Moral Majority, Ku Klux Klan etc. It is the same spirit that drove the Puritans to build a new Israel in New England, and the Boers to build a new Israel in South Africa. It led Oliver Cromwell to butcher the Irish Papists at Drogheda. Cromwell planned to create a pure, protestant society, but left a bloodbath. The intentions are good, and like Pelagius, are capable of making good observations and critiques. But it ignores the radical corruption present in Creation. Thus, a man-made Heavenly City becomes another Babel project. Many times these intentional projects become twice, at least, as evil as the parent they separated from. Elizabethan England was a paradise in comparison to the political rigidity of New England.

Now, it would be easy to rebuke me and call me too thoroughly cynical. The recognition of corruption does not speak to the thing being inherently evil; rather it speaks to its original goodness. You can’t call something broken if that’s how it was supposed to function. Powers, like men, were meant for something more.
Thus we don’t see a rejection of kings in Scripture, but reassigning it to an Eternal Prince who would sit on His father David’s throne. We don’t see communities denied, but constantly called to reform. The Lord Jesus speaks of the spirits of communities in the first chapters of Revelation. Even the churches of Christ could lose their candlestick, how much more institutions that are bound to the slavery of death, and are awaiting judgment to be destroyed with the Devil.

So, just as the disciples are in the world, and love other people, even though they are fallen, we are to interact with Powers. It’s not an exact correlation, so don’t read it that way. My point is that the call isn’t to quietism, it’s walking with eyes wide open. It means rejecting the allure of power. It is discernment on how intoxicating the thought of fixing the world through such means can be. Consider that God’s condescension is most mysterious and awe-inspiring because He is Lord of all. He is Almighty became weak, and in such exercised the true power.

Now I don’t deny that, as we see in Daniel, that someone might be placed in a position of power, and such is a terrible blessing. Thankfully he persevered by the grace of God, but Daniel did not seek out this position, nor did he revel or glory in it. He trembled, for power is a helluva drug. The luxuriousness of Babylon was a constant thorn. Daniel is a true saint who spoke truth to power.

The Powers around us are fallen; we must not be fooled to think otherwise. To do so would be to give into the naivety of Pelagius. Instead, we rely, every step, on the Spirit of Jesus Christ. We are pilgrims in a world of Babylons, called to speak truth in an age of Babel

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Predestined for Beauty

"It was not only in Saint Hildegar's visions but in many others that hell's vivid chambers of horrors became so much more interesting than the bland delights of heaven" -Daniel J. Boorstin

This post, continuing along with the last, is part dogmatic and part autobiographical.

I suppose I've never been seriously bothered by the idea of "life everlasting". Occasionally, I've considered certain prospects that have horrified me (e.g. being in a Hillsong United concert forever)  and have laughed at prospects that the ill-informed will sustain (e.g. Heaven is full of clouds, where men in white lazily pluck away at harps). My wife is occasionally disturbed by the idea. She can't begin to fathom what an "endless" life would actually be like. It scares her when it comes up in conversation.

I think she has her finger on the pulse of something. Now, perhaps because I've never been infected with certain views of Paradise, I take the Bible at face-value when it talks about the Feast of the Lamb. Maybe God had mercy on me and preserved me from a certain kind of exhaustion for good things and kept philosophically sterile ideas away from me. Even when I was a Pagan I hoped for some kind of Elysium Fields, a place for heroes to rest and play. Of course, this kind of view is fantastical and empty, but grant the staying power it provides as we delve deeper.

I must confess that I have reconsidered some of my earlier opinions of St. Augustine.

I am still what someone might consider a predestinarian, but not in the same way that St. Augustine would articulate it. For me, if the Lord has created all things, holds all things in His hands, then He is the one who called my name from the depths. He stirred my heart to seek Him. His Spirit came upon me and turned my eyes to Him, standing at the Right of the Father, directing me to the Fount of all Good and Blessing.

However, this does not erase my will or cause conflict, necessarily, between my Humanity and His divinity. He poured His love upon me so I might work with Him. It's not a contest. Merit has no place in this at all. I am in no place to merit anything, even if I thought I was. Rather, by God's good pleasure, He made mankind in His Image and set before him a wonderful destiny. Not even Adam's failure would prevent God from coming in the flesh and restoring what was lost.

With  Augustine, there still lingers a Platonic sense that as long as I exist separately from the One, in any way, shape, or form, there is something amiss. The integrity of my person begins to dissolve in the interest of being preserved from sin. Is that all there is in Man's happiness? I may as well be a rock. Augustine speaks of everlasting peace, but is more interested in providing details for the pains of Hell. It seems at times that all St. Augustine can imagine is a freedom from all our vices, since our personhood only produces these problems. For us to seek is for God to seek, for us to reject is us rejecting alone. The distinctives and uniqueness of every Human life is swallowed up for tranquility.

Now, Augustine contradicts himself in places, but I praise God I never took him seriously. The only tangible description for the lives of the saints in paradise is that they will be able to observe the torment of those in Hell! One does not need to reject Augustine's emphasis on the active and personal nature of God's grace, against the Pelagians, to reject the ways he bolsters and defends his argument. Predestination and grace are not exclusively Christian concepts, and when left christologically untransformed, they become stumbling blocks.

Perhaps it is for such reasons that many have always found Hell more interesting. Of course, pouring one's imagination into creating such horrifying and excruciating details might be considered an aid to the faithful. This is the Devil's logic. Why? Because imagination is the life-blood of Human reason. Even when portrayed dreadfully, Hell becomes attractive. It takes a stern Puritan like John Milton to write a Satan who is attractive in his anti-heroic rebellion. Hell becomes the abode of the losers and discontent. It's the Pharasaic model turned on its head. I can see why Billy Joel would sing he'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.

Yes, these are confused and poisoned thoughts. But it is because of poor theologizing and allowing monistic, Pagan philosophy to dictate ideas that Heaven becomes only a Paradise for the wearied philosopher who is so tired of differentiation. The fullness of the Human is rejected for a return to the Abyss. Achilles coming from Hades to say it is better to be a living slave than to be the king of the underworld is the honest Pagan stumbling in the dark. Death is a terror, and we so desperately want to live. Not only biologically, but in our souls, in our minds, in our emotions, and in our spirits. The Devil lures us with Plato, but we cry out for something so much more.

God has called us by beauty and for beauty. The Lord promises Paradise, a homeland for the Good. But this is not only an erasure of all pursuits. There is an eternal rest and eternal play, but one founded by the unbounded Creator, and not constrained by our own weak desires and pitiful imaginations. God will set all good things before us, we will be ordered to love God through all of them. There is an open aesthetic appeal, formed by God and God alone. It's for this reason the Biblical authors (yea, Author!) present such a sensual display of hope. There will be a golden city that outshines anything we've ever seen. There will be a banquet that will inflame our tastes. Our religion will be the Lamb of God alone, who's deep light casts out all shadows and causes us to see and to celebrate.

I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Demon Phantasm of Historical Idealism

Maybe you are a person like this, maybe you know a person like this: There is some moment in the past, whether lived, reminisced, or learned, that contains a kind of fullness of time. There is a moment when all the right players, all the right ideas, all the right forms, all the right circumstances had come together to create something great. In that moment, there was a sense of completeness. It might not have been devoid of conflict, it might have contained some form of hardship, there might have been challenges afoot. Yet there was a grandeur in the perfection of an ideal that one holds near and dear.

This sounds horridly abstract, but it's quite common. This is the sort of narrative when Conservatives reflect on the 50's or the Reagan years. Typically it is for someone backwards looking, but even for self-identified liberals and progressives, there are moments where a dream was on track. People look at the 60's as a time of cultural change that was eventually derailed by reactionary induced fear and Red-hysteria.

And of course, both sides in the American spectrum look back to 1776 as a time where a monumental, earth-shattering change occurred. One side looks at an event where a God-ordained republican government was established upon common sense, free-trade, love of God, country, and family. One side looks at an event where free-thinking, and a sense of the individual, were able to overcome oppressive superstitions, outmoded forms of governance and economics, and look to the future. These are stereo-types of common positions, so forgive me the brevity. But they reflect a sense there was some moment where things were right.

This is the trap of a kind of historical idealism, that there was ever a moment that reflects the characteristics that we impute back on top of it. Sometimes it doesn't take too long for those looking back to inject a triumphalism upon a narrative. The prophetic is always something that looks forward, but it is surely a recipe for self-deception when we read back providence onto things that have already occurred.  Forward-looking is a kind of trial upon any idea, premonition, or prediction. But when backwards-looking, the narrative can become whatever we want of it. It is putty in our hands.

Nationally, this is essentially what runs the narratives between what are commonly called "Left" and "Right". America may be mostly hostile towards history, but it doesn't mean Americans don't enjoy history. Rather, it's that the more away from actual history that history becomes, the more it becomes cartoonish. I wouldn't be surprised if there are people out there that think Reagan actually destroyed the Berlin Wall. But it is reaching that level. It is quite fascinating how Trump has channeled the spirit of Reagan in his campaign slogan "Make America Great Again". It's in the same light how Reagan turned a Puritan "City on a Hill" snippet into a slogan campaign for an American Destiny.

But this sort of demon rears its head in some high-minded spaces. Ecclesially, there is a popular trend towards reforming a kind of Christendom in America. This kind of thing found itself in movements like the Moral Majority or Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Now a days, this kind of thinking has been dealt some serious losses and harsh blows. It now appears in Rod Dreher's appeal to a "Benedict Option", that is to separate and protect notions of the West as "Civilization" rots away. Well, maybe more poignantly put: civilization is lost as the barbarous gays, muslims, multiculturalists, liberal socialists, moral libertines etc. have ransacked Rome and sit upon its throne and run its hallowed institutions. Obergefell is the new Odoacer.

Of course, not everyone is going to agree with Dreher, and time will tell whether his influence will remain or there will be a conservative resurgence. Clearly, theonomist reconstructionists have already sought out this strategy, laying await in small agragrian farmsteads, raising an army of children, seeking to reclaim and reconquer a lost birth-right in a neo-Confederate sort of way.

But what all these movements reveal is a kind of claim on history. Now most in these movements will point to some golden years of America. There are, of course, in the thickets of these movements the intellectuals who call into question the whole American project in the first place. Their hearts are in some Medieval model where prince and pope were the body and soul of the society. These are both the most intellectually astute members of these groups and yet the most delusional. There is some weird, historically idealized sense that if we can just reverse some idea or some thought that somehow peace could come about. For them, this neo-Benedict Option represents a kind of chiliasm, a collapse of the modern West opens the door for a complete restructuring.

In a sense, these people are the most harmless and yet the most dangerous. If such a collapse ever happened, these would be the theologians and philosophers on horseback behind whatever generalissimo or conqueror would exert his will over the chaos. But until then, they are cranks and discontents, dreaming of a world that never was.

I must admit that this mode of thinking is very intoxicating. I have fallen for it, and the temptation will always remain. The lure of Roman Catholicism exists in the same way: join the changeless institution that can survive the batterings. Except that this is itself an illusion. Unless one wants to admit that the Magisterium can rewrite history and its own role in it (and it attempts this with some vigor), then the only thing that remain is institutional form. But there is theological rational for why this alone is compelling. I have felt this lure, I have entertained it, I have suffered over it. It is a false comfort.

History remains different than historical idealism. History attempts to make sense out of what was on terms that shed the most light. History is a discipline and practice to represent and reflect reality. It is complex and, to our vision, messy and confused.

This is not to say that history is useless, rather, it is a discipline to be engaged in. Reviewing the past is an aid to not only understanding the present, but to situate yourself in the present. Your problems are not their problems, and their answers are not your answers. History is not a deposit to merely mine for convenient solutions. History is not a seed-bed of truths to be merely reconstructed in a fit of power. If Fouccault did anything blessed, it was revealing the sheer ugliness of these things. Genealogies show how often our father can be the Devil.

As these ecclesiastic high-minds reveal, the most erudite of their language devolves down to support for psuedo-fascists like Ted Cruz, "pro-life" lobbies*, and Conservative platform issues. They live conventional lives and merely feed upon psychic anxiety and pressure. Their writings only preach to the choir. They make cottage industries out of hackneyed ideas and concepts.

Yet, the Spirit of God, the Lord of spirits, remains present as He has when He descended on Pentecost. He frustrates the building of every Babel. He will dispel every historical phantasm, even as some cling to them as they are banished into the Abyss.

O Lord, come and grant us clear eyes.

*I am not for abortion, but many pro-life advocates are ignorantly inconsistent. For many, issues of life only revolve around conception and birth. The politics of this become a way to feel self-righteous and 'political', without actually being righteous and alive in the fullest sense of the word.