Thursday, March 31, 2016

Against Happiness, or Why Christians Should Love Communism

In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper is trying to figure out how he is going to pitch his ad firm to Lucky Strike, a huge tobacco company. The problem confronting them is the Federal Government requiring all cigarettes to have hazardous logos on them. Draper speaks with a contracted psychiatrists who gives him a brief on Freud's concept of the death-drive. He dismisses this but his new-coming rival, Pete Cambell, jumps at what he thinks is a gold-mine. People want to die, so why not die styling, so Pete presents to the Tobacco men. They are horrified. Draper knew this, and, in a fit of creative genius, tells them the regulations are worthless. This is the best thing for them. They can say whatever they want. Everyone else's cigarettes are poisoned, Lucky Strikes are toasted.

Later that evening, Don Draper articulates a vision of life to his date. People don't know what they want, ad-men make those dreams for people and fulfill them. They want to drive through life, happy and free, without a bunch of rules being dropped on them, and fade into the sunset. The end.

Of course, that's not the end. Life doesn't end like a Hollywood movie. Don Draper knows that, but he can't accept it. Not really. The whole show is marked by his obsession with California, for a life he never had, for a kind of sublimation into his own horizon. Fittingly the show ends in the ultimate creative genius, the advertisement of his buddhistic state of Nirvana. The Coke commercial is what results.

When I first heard Don Draper in that first episode, that people are just looking for happiness, confused and lost, until someone can tell them what they need, I gave a horrified nod. I knew that the ad-men, in this scenario, was a kind of devil. However, I thought Don was right about happiness. That is, people just want to be happy, entered into a kind of conscious-forfetfulness, where nothing impinges upon their static state of inner tranquility. I would say that in a world of Ad-men, hucksters, shamans, priests, and witch-doctors, etc. the only solid answer is God. To quote famously: My heart is restless until it rests in you.

I don't repudiate that sentiment completely, but I seriously challenge it. I also challenge Don Draper. He's wrong. People don't want to be happy or static. Not really. Of course it's a constant temptation. In a world of fatigue, some of us get to the point of desiring the quiet of the grave. But it does not belong to Human nature to slumber eternally, whether in the shade of death, in the mythos of some kind of harp-adorned heaven, or in a beatific vision. For me that's a kind of hell(!), and why Origen, as bad as his answers are, at least addressed this. Origen tried to keep Eternity dynamic, even if it meant an eternal cycle of fall and redemption.

The Human is a dynamic creature, one that is alive in movement, being in becoming. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, since man is created by the Infinite God, than man's boundaries are whatever they are set by the Creator. Thus, man can be always moved towards infinity, never reaching, yet always expanding. Eternity is man situated towards the Infinite, namely the God is everywhere, and yet always beyond, present and distant.

What Happiness, conceptually, represents the culminating idea of Modernity, the Mainstream Enlightenment: Capitalism. This ideology believes in quantification as the universal measure. All real things are things that can be measured. This might sound strange if we're talking about happiness. Surely happiness is an intangible sensation. Yet it is quantified in its sense as satisfaction. You are either happy or unhappy, your gauge is either green or red. Happiness is a by-product, an invention, of Capitalism.

When I say Capitalism, what I'm saying is the Market ideology. Socialism, in many respects, is an alternate, ameliorated, Capitalism. It still reasons and functions with a Market ideology, albeit with different goals and desired measurements. It still views the problem as fundamentally market-oriented.

The reality is that nobody really wants happiness. No one really wants to arrive at their goal and stop. Now one could say this is because man's desire is infinite and nothing but an infinite God can satisfy this (vis. Augustine above). But this is false. Man's desire is not infinite, that would mean that we are God. And plenty of us are quite content with what CS Lewis would call "mud-pies".

The problem is how we think about this. It doesn't matter so much as what man wants, as what man has become in Jesus Christ. As the Second Adam, God incarnated, Christ represents the transfiguration of man. Jesus Christ is the Magnet that all Mankind is drawn towards, the erasure of all boundaries in His unquenchable glory. As He said, "When I am lifted up, I will draw all Men to Myself".

Yet most Christians are deluded into Capitalistic notions. Now obviously it is anachronistic in the most blunderous sense to seemingly equate Augustine as a nascent Capitalist. Far be it. My point is that Augustine has only muddied the waters in seeing through this, and discerning the hope in the midst of it. His anthropology has been a hindrance for Christians to get beyond this.

Capitalism, while abolishing many facets of previous evils, has become the demon-god of this era. It is a new religion that has many different sects and traditions, all worshiping Mammon in the most complete and systematic way.

When Marx came on the scene, his criticism of Capitalism was based on market analysis and class-warfare, but it was not simply a kind of market revolution. It was an eschatological, apocalyptic overturning of an entire age. The Communist Utopia of Marx was a place where the Market had been eradicated. Now, most people do not believe his Left-Hegelian metaphysics or philosophy(theology) of history. But it's worth noting this as an important intellectual development, even for Christians.

Communists, both before and after Marx, offer a vision that destroys Capitalism and Market ideology. It is the ideology of the modern world that has the most sophisticated challenge to Capitalism, in its roots, as a battle against Mammon.

Sadly the Church, in most of its institutional forms, has operated as a chaplain to whatever national, corporate, or social body it has been attached to. Many times what we see is the Whore of Babylon. Christians, at least by what we can verify historically, have many times been the last to critique and first to defend. Capitalism becomes the new god they idolatrously christen as God.

I'm not saying Christians ought to be Communists. Rather, Christians should appreciate Communism, in Marxist and non-Marxist forms, has viciously assaulted the divine altar of Mammon and scratched it enough to show its fraudulent divinity. Of course, plenty of Christians ignore this. But they'd be fools to! Through Communism, God is at work in the world to make Christ shine in every corner.

And lest I am given stupid criticisms pointing to all the tin-pot dictators and the horrors of the Soviet Union and China who claim communism, it's not so simple. This is not a case of 'No-True-Scotsman', rather there are serious departures between ideology and its enactment. Leninism and Maoism were modified Marxist ideologies that were, in a sense, fraudulent alternatives built on a lust for power and control. But it's irrelevant if Communism actually works. It's what it accomplishes as an idea that is important.

What it does is destroy the power of the market. The Communist society and the Kingdom of Heaven share their erasure of the market from the center. Cost, efficiency, satisfaction, all of these things are meaningless before Paradise and its King.

But, some may say, what of pre-modern institutions? What of those who remained faithful to feudal monarchical thinking in light of the Enlightenment? The reason is that these lack any kind of utopian aspiration, no future or horizon worth directing oneself towards. In the static mire of an already-not yet, Feudal society baptized inequity as Christian and a so-called necessary part of life and social order.

But the Christian does not merely live in a time between times, but in a mode of hastening the day patiently. Or, as the Blumhardts put it, Waiting with Haste. The Christians is not to remain a conservative to the status quo, but offer a prophetic critique of all social evils, yet without the attempt to assume the power to eradicate them. The Christian must be quick to see the Bridegroom coming, to be awake for the thief in the night.

Happiness is a fiction of Capitalism, and Capitalism is the most potent head of the demon Mammon. If the Church is to continue her witness, we need to imagine a world without markets. That is the world Jesus Christ will usher in when He returns. Let us await that day of endless celebration, a dynamic abundance of life, joy towards more joy. Amen

The Confused Tale of Peter Leithart

I've read numerous works written by Peter Leithart and have followed his blog for a few years. I really enjoy some of his work, it has been inspirational, to put it strongly. However, Leithart, and others like him, suffer from a kind of schizophrenia in terms of theology and their placement in the affairs of the world. This is what I seek to outline without offering any explanation or solution.

Peter Leithart is a pastor attached to the PCA, though some might say nominally. He survived a witch hunt by the pathetic, ex-Reformed Jason Stellman. And I mean pathetic, it's a rather pitiable story that the staunch churchman loses his faith in the midst of an inquisition and becomes a Roman Catholic, the very thing charged against Leithart. But the law's the law, and Stellman was just following orders. It sounds like fiction. But I digress.

Leithart is intelligent and a rather gifted writer. He is able to make the rather bewildering and odd-ball theology of James Jordan digestible to a wider audience, a truly noble task. Despite my many disagreements with Jordan, it is truly a creative attempt to recover the Reformed tradition. Leithart has read wide and deep-ish. He presents many interesting takes that he incorporates into his thinking, or at least interacts with.

The most powerful (revolutionary?) concept Leithart has articulated is "evangelizing metaphysics". Now, I'm not sure whether this concept began with Leithart. In fact, I kind of doubt it. It's probably something he picked up in Eastern theology in the midst of the neo-Patristics movement. But regardless, he brought this concept to the fore among a Western theology audience (Roman Catholics & Protestants).

What "Evangelizing Metaphysics" introduces is the rather relativity of all metaphysics, and how the Christian gospel can invade these worlds and reassemble their pieces to better articulate the truth. One sees this in treatments of the Cappadocians. Rather than the old Harnackian thesis that Christianity became corrupted with Hellenistic forms, people are now seeing the creative reappropriation done by many Church fathers. Instead of captivity, these theologians mixed and matched Stoic, Platonic, Aristotelian etc. categories in order to present the Gospel in a particular milieu. This was creative appropriation.

The reason for explicating this term is that this concept, in a nutshell, sums up the positive of Leithart's work. He has written extensively about how the Gospel overturns the world, relativizes all attempts to assert a kind of divine society by man. However, this is not the only current within Leithart's project.

In fact, in someways it's contrary. Peter Leithart is also a reactionary conservative, given over to all the paranoia of the rhetoric. One can see this in two recent articles arguing (well, quoting, by quoting with affirmation) that Gay Marriage is hiding beneath it a Gender Totaliarianism and the eradicating of heterosexual marriage by erasing childbirth from definitions of marriage.

What does this have to do with the above? Because on the same day (3/31) Leithart can cite an author who spoke of Christians over turning the Roman social order by non-conformity to the Pantheon, and yet also quote an article that draws heavily on Natural law to support a social identity. It becomes a kind of exercise in incoherence.

Now, I'm not saying that Leithart wouldn't defend the two articles as making a singular argument. But it's kind of silly. One cannot become paranoid of social unrest as one celebrates social unrest. One cannot fault the persecution of a seemingly negligent minority when one implies the same. And of course, Leithart can hide these implications under free-speech, but please. What a government does not codify or enforce can equally become the law of the land through its silent condoning of behavior (namely abuse of homosexuals).

Leithart doesn't seem to see that the same Roman State that was overturned grounded itself in the kind of Natural theology that he relied upon. The reason certain Roman senators wanted to divorce/kill their Christian wives was because they refused to bear children. They were toppling the social order by doing so. Thus, if you want an argument for why marriage is a particular way, one cannot have their cake and eat it too.

Leithart seems to revel in a kind of post-modernism, liberal modernism, and a pre-modern Christendom all at the same time. It makes no sense, and the strands pull at each other. Of course, one can try to paint that vision, but it lacks all credibility. He just becomes the eccentric one alongside the "remnant" that is the Neushausist grumps that is First Things and their Benedict Option.

The reality is that I have no idea who Leithart is. Sometimes he sounds like an opportunist, doing what he can to get his name out there and leave a legacy, even if it requires seemingly talking out both sides of your mouth. Sometimes he sounds like a true visionary. But with his connections, and subsequent distancing, with Doug Wilson, and his mostly dishonest association with the PCA, I'm many more times inclined to the first. I don't blame him, it's hard to get your name out anymore.

I hope Leithart leaves a cadre of followers who reject much of his work and can carrying on the work of reform. This is my hope for many in what is deigned Reformed Orthodoxy, which is a strange combination of openness to listening to other intellectual traditions and reactionary fantasy of a Christendom that never was. I hope the former flourishes more and more, and the latter withers. But we do no know what the future holds. Many times vulgar politics triumphs. Many a sophisticated theology or philosophy has led to support for Republican or Democrat, and nothing more.

That's my hope for both Leithart and his disciples.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Against Augustine

**See my Reassessment: Here**

After stumbling around, somewhat aimlessly, through various quotes and minor tributaries of traditions, I came face to face with Augustine. I discovered him in his Confessions and the work became an instant classic in my heart. I treasured all the insights he offered. I began to devour parts of Augustine, making his City of God a summer project, reading his minor works, reading multiple biographic accounts. I proceeded to even read additional uses of his legacies in interesting ways, from politics to philosophical concerns. He led me to understand biblical hermeneutics, Human psychology, predestination, sacramentology, ecclesiology, church politics etc etc. Augustine was a dear friend and my champion.

But of course, I was not a completely slavish follower. I found his treatment of the Donatists a shameful episode. I was embarrassed at his letter to Vicentius (I believe), where he convinced the conscience-racked soldier-magistrate to keep his governing position instead of fleeing to the desert as a monk. I was always a bit confused about Augustine's sex ethics, though I overwhelming affirmed his attention to the psychological aspect of sexuality.

All of this has led me through the years, but a nagging question of Augustine's popularity has attended me. Not that popularity, in itself, is a bad thing. Rather, it's the fact that Augustine is considered the fountainhead of Western Christianity, both Roman and Reformed. Of course there's heavy disagreement over who has stood true to his legacy, or which side has corrected deficiencies within Augustine's writings. Like any intellect, it's not exactly what he said but the structures, forms, paradigms that he deployed, and how to utilize them and redeploy them.

But as I've stumbled around with Augustine as my companion, I've realized that, as it stands, Augustine has been a bad guide and has left a legacy full of doom and dread over Western Christianity. That seems like a radically unstable complaint and I begin to sound like hyperbolic Anabaptists or Eastern Orthodox who repudiate Augustine as hesiarch and blame him for all ills. But despite their nasally whines, they are on to something despite their ignorance of the one they blame.

This is not to say Augustine is wholly in error, or that he is a hesiarch, or that he is a blackhat riding into town. While you may not know me, dear reader, I hope that my readings do not show me as petulant or as wildly uneducated in my assertions. I will continue with my frustration with Augustine and the Augustinian lineage unhindered by compliment.

But before that, let me lay out a general praise. Augustine was a flawed man, but strove to be a man for his people in Hippo. He was not a greedy ecclesiastic, suckling on the tit of the powers-that-be for wealth and glory. He tried to be a good pastor, as far as I know. He also had a very shrewd perspective on politics and his genealogy of Rome's pagan past, while misappropriated by the Radical Orthodox crowd to make fools of themselves, is genius.

Having said that, Augustine has also left a dark cloud. His reading of Romans 5, and the creation of a doctrine of Original Sin that is alien to the Bible has left the West in a confused and vicious circle of ignorance. This is not his fault, per se. He can't be blamed for having a faulty translation, though I am frustrated with his stubbornness in not learning Greek. This is not his fault, but his successors, who utilized Augustine's reading as an anti-Greek polemic, is such a thinly veiled power politics it should disgust any Christian of Latin inheritance.

Augustine's view of sex has left a crater of insanity, though thankfully this left most people alone. However it remained the religious standard of the West, which did not cause hypocrisy and depravity, only added fuel to the fire as making the "Christian" view the non-sensical and warped one. In full disclosure, I am more aware of his thought rather than how his view of sex successfully transferred. I do not think it was as influential as modern feminists and critics would make it. I used to find Augustine's view as psychologically compelling, even if disturbing, but as I've given more thought, meditation, and experience, Augustine is simply neurotic. Quite simply, the Scriptural witness rejects Augustine's Human psychology as one mutated from Manichaean sentiments, and the particular pressures of glory-hungry family (pace Monica) and the expectation of up and coming patricians.

Personally, without getting into details, Augustine's views of sex and sexuality have caused pain and frustration and left me swimming in a pool of my own filth. I don't mean to sound dramatic, but I really did try to take his insights seriously and it left me bereft. It's a view that needs not be recovered, and can be ejected for the immaturity that it contained. I have no more time to entertain it.

Augustine's views of predestination has left mass carnage through history, as faction rose up to dethrone the other as being insufficiently "Augustinian". But I can confidently say that the whole paradigm is fundamentally flawed from the get-go, and the question Augustine tried to address is a non-starter, rooted in neo-Platonic assumptions and a confusion between person and nature. Yes, Augustine was right to oppose Pelagius, but Augustine's solution was not much better in the long run. Predestination is not an singularly Christian doctrine, it requires no Christ, no grace, and can be a font of immoral moralism and absurd legalities.

And while the Confessions remains an interesting piece of literature, it's not something I'd recommend anymore. I don't care if it's enshrined in the Western literary/theological canon as something "must-read". Honestly, its perplexing form is enough to confuse most average readers. It's certainly not a "testimony" of conversion. Augustine's pear theft is no longer intriguing, irregardless of how many people point out parallels to a particular theology of Genesis. Augustine is a pussy for refusing to name the poor woman who served as his concubine, bearing him a son no-less, before he drops her over peer/mother-pressure. The three books of Genesis commentary serve to mystify and little more. I am being hostile in my evaluation, and I am not saying the Confessions is worthless by any stretch. However, what I am saying is that it no longer ranks as some pressing classic for all would be Christians. And this comes from someone who has bought multiple copies, researched translation, and has given them to friends as gifts.

Augustine has left a strong legacy, and for that alone it's perhaps worth investigating. But he is no hero or champion of the faith. His shadow looms large and causes all sorts of mayhem. Despite ignorant, anti-Western polemicals, the East has been wise to generally ignore him in doing confessional theology.

Consider these the words of a jaded ex-lover, so be it. These are not the only criticisms I could offer, I have more, but decided to leave off . Augustine's legacy has interesting points of intersection, most importantly in the politics of City of God, but he ought to be laid to rest. May Christians in the West find themselves free of his paradigms and move on.