Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Death of a Comedian: Fragments on 'Watchmen'

Watchmen is one of my favorite films. It's a good commentary on Americana and American social policy. After the Nolan Batman triology, it's my favorite superhero movie. It can be long and rambling at times, but I like the noir feel and pace of it. The uncut version has a lot of grotesque (but, as I'll discuss below, illuminating) nudity of the radioactive man-god Dr. Manhattan which is detestable. But here's a series of fragments on my commentary. I know it's not in line with Alan Moore's philosophy, and I'm not sure what the film's director intended; but I'm reading it off in my own way.

-Rorschach is the official narrator of the film, and Adrian/Ozymandias drives the story forward with his massive, and successful, conspiracy to rewrite the world script. But the real soul in the film is Silk Spectre II, even as she is relatively hollow character. Her hollowness is important because she represents the future of America. She is the America of the late 20th-early 21st century. She is a kind of shell and mirror for the other characters to project fantasies on, have relationships with, and, in do so, constitute their own symbolic character. She is the central object that multiple characters' plans intersect with. It's also for this reason that she is left out of the final confrontation between Night Owl II, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan. It's telling she's the only living super hero not present. It's because she's the central object of a plot that asks about the future of the US.

-If Silk Spectre II is the future of America, her mother, Silk Spectre I, is the America that is passing away. She is the early-mid 20th century US and represents a fleeting image (hence her obsession with always looking on the past). A repeated line, which becomes filled in throughout the plot, is that when Silk Spectre I looks back on the past, even the grimy parts get bright. She, of course, is referring to her near rape by the Comedian, and its consensual consummation later. Despite mom having a steady marriage to a banker/bureaucrat, her affair causes her to conceive. Now it's crucial that her husband, who is a kind of typical bankster type, can't impregnate her and the Comedian can. The Comedian, as it's clear from the film's typology, is an image of Fascism. He is a violent and brutal superhero who, after the masks are banned, becomes an agent of covert ops. The film even shows him being the second shooter on the grassy knoll, killing Kennedy. In symbolic terms, America is nearly raped by Fascism, but eagerly embraces him, conceiving the future, even as she remains married to a low-key financial establishment. Such reflects America's shift towards pro-fascist policies after World War 2, eagerly reinstalling those ex-fascists willing to fight the Communists. This policy is the gist of the US' interaction with Europe post-war, manifest in programs like Gladio. The America of the future is shaped, but not necessarily determined, by the US' fascistic turn in foreign policy. Neither the old nor the new America is fascist, but embraces it in an external way.

-Dr. Manhattan symbolically stands for the Nuclear Age. Silk Spectre II begins a love affair with him, even though she is, throughout the film, dissatisfied with his lack of attention. Dr. Manhattan gives her all the "loving" necessary, according to his calculations. But she wants his full attention. Dr. Manhattan, as the nuclear man-god he is, is mostly naked throughout the film. This represents the promise of raw power in the Atomic Age, where a kind of shallow scientism flowered. There was a kind of shock-and-awe sense throughout some sectors of the American academy and public that the modern age had finally dawned. After the Bomb there was no going back. Apocalypse was on the cusp, and there was even a psycho-social fascination with the end of all things. Hence there was the film boom in Sci-Fi apocalypse (e.g. Planet of the Apes, Space Odyssey 2000, Twilight Zone, etc.) However, the Nuclear Age did not have much room within it for particularities. The ideology envisioned Humanity, not Americans, as the future. At the film's end, Dr. Manhattan became handcuffed to Adrian's master plan, being linked to a series of explosions bearing his energy signature. Dr. Manhattan hates Adrian and what he has done, but confesses that, post-facto, following through is the best idea. He exiles himself from Earth, even as the whole world united together to oppose Dr. Manhattan. This self banishment represents the shift of the nuclear option, more or less, out of foreign policy. Atom bombs and nuclear energy dropped out of the public imagination. People were no longer intoxicated with the fear and delight of a scientific Armageddon.  Adrian's consolidation represented the excision of the nuclear option in his future world.

-Ozymandias has a fitting name because of his grandiose view of himself, which, in the poem, is immortal even as it is self-effacing. The statue remains, but the visible glory has been buried beneath the sands. Such was Adrian's plan, using the Dr. Manhattan bombs to unite the world against the man-god of Nuclear energy. Adrian represents, rather clearly, the neo-liberal globalism that rapidly engulfed the world through Anglo-American corporate interests. Adrian is a CEO of the world's largest corporation. His power and interests span multiple nations. He hopes, in subjugating the world to a faux-unity, he can direct them as a benevolent, corporate, overlord. Adrian depended upon the Comedian for awhile, but as his plan came together, he killed him and used his death to be a domino to set his plan in motion. According to the film's logic, neo-liberalism utilized fascism, and, when its networks were consolidated, buried it. There was no love-lost, but the corporate power required the use of unsavory means. The Comedian functioned as a hit man for Adrian after he lost his contracts on the government's payroll. And, per neo-liberalism's rather invisible role, Ozymandias has no direct hand in governing the globe; however the film gestures to his power in seeing that it is Adrian's company leading the way in repairing the damaged cities.

-When Adrian completes his plan, he allows Night Owl II to go home, where he rejoins Silk Spectre II. Night Owl represents an old school, moderate, liberalism, the kind of establishment platform between conservative New Dealers and east-coast Republicans. When we meet Night Owl I, he comes off as blue-collar working man, the kind of unionist who supported the New Deal Democrats. Night Owl II is more professional; it's not clear what he does, but it's not manual labor. He looks college educated and professional, the future of liberalism's base of support. While he has an off-and-on relationship with Silk Spectre II, she eventually chooses him against Dr. Manhattan's delusions of grandeur and self-absorption. As a kind of "husband" figure, he shows the formal wedding between the new America and this new liberalism. However, there's a catch. Night Owl only leaves his conflict with Adrian alive by agreeing to not talk about what happened. There's a silent complicity between neo-liberal globalism and the retired Night Owl II, who is the last gasp of liberalism. The Clinton presidency represented a traditional liberalism who is in the pocket of neo-liberal globalism, at least off the surface. The end of film is a phony home-sweet-home, the world squarely under Adrian's design, but where Night Owl II and Silk Spectre II can live happily ever after.

-This, of course, leaves us with Rorschach, who does not leave the conflict with Adrian. In fact, he dies by the hand of Dr. Manhattan. He knows he is going to die, but he refuses to back off of his commitment to the truth. While Rorschach comes off with brutally conservative morals (i.e. he comments, with disgust, on the whores and drugs that fill the city), he is not quite the Objectivist that Alan Moore designed him to be. He has a radical empirical streak in him, and he's jaded after being broken by confrontation with the vicious murder of a little girl. Rorschach, perhaps, stands in for American radicalism, an amalgamation of left and right concerns that rejects the establishment, both of the old and new America, and dies because he refuses to keep quiet about Adrian's plan. Rorschach misses the old America, in that he worked with Silk Spectre I. It's a sort of wistful commentary on the possibility of real reform back then, even if things were bad then too. Rorschach rails against "Tricky Dick", who, in the film's alternate history, has become president for the fifth time by winning the Vietnam war and reversing term limits. Nixon represents a fantasy of what MacArthur could've achieved through wanton nuclear diplomacy, but, more importantly, he is a figure for the whole establishment, melded into an aged liberal, but militant, Republican. Rorschach's death represents the obliteration of radical movements, but he left his diary of investigations for a small new organ. The film ends in a kind of quasi-optimism. Radicalism still lives on in the life of Rorschach which was preserved in his investigations, connecting the Comedian, Adrian, and Dr. Manhattan together before he perished.

I should say, for clarity, that this is how I'm reading the film's plot elements and characters. My analysis is not so much what I think, but what I think the film conveys. There is much of the analysis that is pretty revealing and true as regards America post-Cold War and pre-War on Terror. However, I don't agree with all the analyses and, now being in a different epoch of American geo-politics, it's not so much a powerful commentary, but an allegorical history of where things were at 9/11.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Augustine the Hinge: The Crossroads Between Fidelity and Infidelity

Augustine is clearly one of the most famous theologians among the churches of the West. His impact was titanic for the development of a distinctly Latin theology, as opposed to developments in the Greek and Syriac speaking East. Augustine shaped many questions that would continue, up to the Reformation and beyond. The Neo-Platonic mystical synthesis that one found among many university professors in the high Middle Ages was distinctly influenced by Augustine. Even the boom of scholasticism, in the Thomist resourcement of Aristotle or in the Franciscan attempt to reconstruct a number of theological questions, was deeply impacted by the African. Even those rejecting Augustine had to interact, they could not merely ignore him or avoid him. Augustine was the major figure on both sides of the Reformation. Even if it was not so much a question of Augustine's soteriology vs. Augustine's ecclesiology (as B.B. Warfield put it), he was a huge player in framing the issues. Even as theology dimmed in the public debates, Augustine the philosopher returned like a flash of lightening in the 20th century.

None of this should be surprising. But I want to frame a different kind of question. In a brief post, Leithart documented, according to a scholar, that it was less Augustine than his student that shaped the Middle Ages. Orosius studied under Augustine, becoming one of his most important disciples. He wrote The Seven Books of Histories, which he dedicated to his master and authored with his blessing. Augustine's quiet endorsement helped propel Orosius into fame among Medieval literati. He was just as popular as City of God, and even attracted an audience in the Caliph's court.

To put it generally, Orosius understood Augustinian political theology optimistically. Augustine's main project in City of God was to prove that the Roman imperial order was nothing special. Contrary to Eusebian odes, the Roman Empire's conversion was not the end of history, the telos of Christ's victory. Rather, Augustine expected many more empires to come and go. The Roman emperor was not a special viceroy among the nations. Now these sentiments can be taken in multiple directions. In a pessimistic vein, Augustine undercuts all nations' justifications for themselves, reducing them to passing phenomenon. In addition, Augustine shares a sense that such empires will try to co-opt the church for its own purposes. More optimistically, however, Augustine says that no empire is special, all can fulfill God's purposes for them in shielding and sheltering the truths of the Christian gospel. Obviously, the latter approach becomes the backbone for development of Christendom throughout the Middle Ages.

Frankly, I think Augustine inclined towards an Orosian political theology, even as he had learned enough to be wary of a clear-cut endorsement. Augustine never disputed the Theodosian establishment of the church. Augustine was very comfortably Roman, even if his conversion jostled him out of his decades long complacency. The son of a lower noble in a backwater province, Augustine soared into the limelight of high society, with his study of rhetoric, philosophy, and theology. He was in the court of Milan for a brief spell, he had many friends among the aristocrats. All of this is to say that Augustine was very much a Roman, and it's why he was very comfortable in calling down the guards upon recalcitrant Donatists. Augustine was no accidental agent of state, even if he was not a mouthpiece for imperial policy. He was a political operator who knew how to crush agitators and move popular opinion. Such was not uncommon for bishops at this time, though not all bishops acted with such trust in the imperial government (e.g. Cyril of Alexandria's use of Egyptian over Imperial networks).

In addition to all of this, Augustine was pretty indebted to Plotinian metaphysics. Augustine had become extremely attracted to Neo-Platonism through the preaching of Ambrose. The early days of Augustine's theological career reflected his desire to live as a philosopher, retired to a villa and surrounded with a group of fellow intellectual adventurers. He clearly desired the philosophical monasticism of a Plotinus or a Porphyry, which was less unique than a general mood that was rapidly spreading across the entire Roman world. Plotinian metaphysics stressed an essential balance, a chain of being, that connected the One to all things down the chain and, in the case of Humans who were endowed with reason, drawing them upwards to itself. The pattern of exitus-reditus, leaving and returning, unfolding and collapsing, was rather central to being. The lines of influence are confusing, as Origen and Clement of Alexandria may have left their mark on the Neo-Platonic synthesis, and Plotinus influenced many future Christians into the 4th and 5th centuries onward. Augustine, especially as he aged, was not an uncritical follower of Plotinus, and he gravitated out of the Christian Platonism that Ambrose preached. However, the philosophy and accompanying metaphysics never left Augustine, even if he modified them extremely.

Yet, still, Augustine remained aloof from the larger circuits of Christian Platonism, he was circumspect and wary about Romanitas, especially when conflated with the Christian faith, and he did not think the empire would last forever. Where did these concerns come from for someone well-fitted?

Generally, there are appeals to Augustine's special genius, his growing caution from Rome's sack in 410 to the Vandal invasion of Africa, even his consternation at the success of Pelagian theology. The former is fluff and doesn't explain anything because it can explain everything. And Augustine was simultaneously wary and vigorous, as he wrote City of God during the Donatist controversy. Inconsistency? But whence the inconsistent emphases?

I want to raise a figure who has often been forgotten, but was instrumental in Augustine's theology, especially as manifest in his On Christian Teaching. This man was Ticonius, a lay theologian in the Donatist church in Africa. Not much is known about the specifics of Ticonius' life. He wrote much, but all that survives is his Book of Rules and some fragments of his commentary on Revelation. The latter point, in itself, is interesting, especially since interest in the book declined as the Empire became Christendom. Eusebius wasn't even sure it was canonical, and while the book became established in canon through the 4th century, it was not always widely commented on.

Ticonius was not what one imagines as a Donatist. He did not think the church was necessarily pure, though purity was something which Christians should strive towards. But, to the contrary, Ticonius imagined that pure and impure would mix, and struggle would mark the church's constitution, within itself and with the Devil, until Christ returned. I'd claim, in a super generalized and unsubstantiated way, that Ticonius severely impacted Augustine's reading of Scripture and stained him with a healthy pessimism that he intermingled with his own optimistic assessments of the empire. Ticonius cast a shadow in Augustine's mind that loomed over events within the empire, leaving doubt about its significance. Regardless of whether this is, in fact, true, Ticonius opens the door on a different, and I'd say more biblical, political theology, one that became dormant within Augustine's corpus of work.

In the next few weeks, I'm going to be focusing on Ticonius' Book of Rules, giving summaries and evaluations for each section. Also, if you're interested, I have the whole thing (in Latin and English) on pdf; leave your email in a comment and I'll send it to you.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Being Proletariat in America: A Reflection on Class and Kingdom Ethics

https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/12/05/class-dismissed-identity-politics-without-the-identity/

The above article is an excellent summary of the current state of the working class in the US. It gives a fair explanation of the sort of thinking that motivated, and galvanized, widespread support for Donald Trump against his Republican contenders and boosted him over Hillary Clinton in a number of battle ground states. I don't want to summarize it; go read the article before reading the rest of this post.

The key insight in the essay is to emphasize how much "class-cluelessness" thrives in America. Talking about class is not the politics of resentment or attempting to divide. Rather, it is the division in most industrialized and/or capitalist nations. Race, in contrast, has been a tool to confuse and smokescreen real social issues. This isn't to say racism isn't real or doesn't function at various levels of society and in certain groups. It certainly does. But race is a false schema delployed that has taken up a life of its own. As a historical example: in the post-Reconstruction South, many tenant farmers and sharecroppers, both white and black, began to realize their joint interests. They even began to gain momentum through the nascent populist parties sprouting up in the late nineteenth century. Is it just coincidental that at the same time many elites of planter wealth began a heavy wave of propaganda, resurrecting many racial tropes about the black man's savagery? The collapse of populism's first wave coincided with a ready made framework to understand failure; blaming the black man as a lazy thief was a way to get white cracker farmers to back the Democratic party and help keep the South's old establishment functioning. Where their small farmers who believed in the racial tropes? Certainly. But at the same time, these ideas didn't pop out of the ground or become effective because these poor farmers had some sort of racial caste privilege. No, the idea of a united white brotherhood was never more than an ideal, only ever meaning anything when votes were at stake. I'm talking at a social whole level, not at individual interactions level. Those who had much in common were divided from one another.

On all the major points, the above essay is wholly correct in its analysis. Trump had the appeal, even though he had clearly made deals with many starved neo-cons looking for a relative return to power that they had in the first 4-6~ years of Bush II. But the far more dominant neo-liberal faction has taken to using race, gender, the whole of identity politics, to play the leftist, while propping up an order that is equally imperial, though very different in strategy and style, to their neo-con competitors. As a side note, I should say I'm using "neo-liberal" and "neo-con" as short-hand for a complex web of relationships and ideas, none of which is clear cut, and some of which overlap. On many more substantial issues, the two are wholly indistinguishable, representing what we might call an American deep-state.

As a Christian, reading and responding to the article, there is much to support. Christians ought to be among the "least of these", not seeking to straddle the imperial throne. Not pursuing glory and wealth, not hoarding up and creating dynasties, Christians ought to be found, more often than not, among such working-class people. In a memorable phrase, the Church of Christ is a "priesthood of the plebs", who receive their honor and glory from the meritorious work of Christ the Lord, the Divine Logos made flesh. Also, the essay's author makes better sense of the actual levers of oppression, and in speaking the truth, we ought to heed his voice.

But besides this, there are things to consider. The working-class values the essay describes do not overlap with the virtues of the Church. It's not necessarily a class commentary to say that many such working-class people lead wicked lives, are in love with worldliness, and sneer, scoff, and persecute righteousness. It can be a sign of a sort of idealistic infatuation to think that the poor are somehow more righteous by fact of their economic station. To say so is probably a sign you never actually spent any real time with poor folks or, in this case, live among the working-class. Rather, as Stringfellow eloquently put it, poverty is sacramental: it reveals the truth about reality which wealth can disguise and hide. To the point, living at working-class standards is probably being more in tune with real problems than the sort many professionals face. Making sure you pay your bills is more of a real problem than trying to make sure your investments are paying sufficiently high dividends for your retirement account. While I'm certainly more sympathetic to the more modest goals of working-class style middle-class, greed is still greed; the desire for a certain life-style can still eviscerate your soul.

In addition, the essay mentions the kind of moral code and religiosity the working-class has over the professional, white-collar, managerial class. But this might be worse, and only because the gospel becomes confused with social mores. Many evangelical churches are full of such people, who only care for worldly advancement. The doctrines of sola fide and once-saved-always-saved become the backbone for a myopic theology that immunizes them from the truth and Christ's Kingdom. Charismatic emphases exist, focusing on Pelagian-esque free will decision theology and a confusion of the gospel with a spiritualization of the mundane, in addition to a focus on the ecstatic. These only promote the rapid sort of individualism that not only rejects communal life for personal success in the work world, it also subjugates even Scripture to bizarre and idiosyncratic self-justifying interpretations. In addition, worship of the nation, the demonic doctrine of patriotism, becomes rather normative, fusing the military, a very much well-integrated institution (at least enlistment) among the working-class, to the Kingdom. All in all, working-class religion and values has little intrinsic merit. Trump's "evangelical" credential resonated with much of the above.

The essay is a good introduction, even as discerning Christians ought to be cautious, circumspect, and perhaps self-critical. I'm not trying to posit myself as a free-floating outsider, I was raised within a professional class household that, metaphorically, went down in flames, along with all sorts of other contingent quirks that make my background somewhat of an outlier. But, analytically speaking, the Gospel of Christ Jesus the Lord presents a vision of life that meets, and reorganizes, all lifestyles, class-values, and social mores. Both American working-class and professionals (whether white, black, or whatever; native or immigrant; even more generally the Western world) must be confronted with the vision of the Kingdom, whose authority and power do not function according to This Age. In such a way, whoever you are and wherever you come from, the Truth confronts and transforms.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"The love of many will grow cold": A Genealogy of Modernity

John Milbank published an essay on a collection critically interacting with David Bradshaw's Aristotle East and West, which analyzed how the essence-energy distinction formed in the East. Bradshaw's concluding essay interacted with his interlocutors, but his engagement with Milbank was frustrated as it was puzzled. As I've mentioned many places on this blog, I think Milbank is a fatheaded and bloated intellectual, a human embodiment of why Aristotle's Nous, where since it was perfect it only ever thought of itself, is truly disgusting. Bradshaw's claws come out when he remarks, "I regret that there is so little in Milbank's essay with which one can constructively engage, but that is the result when an author approaches history, as he does, in subservience to a preconceived idea." A true and accurate blow.

As I've written elsewhere, I find Milbank's political-theology a disturbing vision. However, it is not only a nightmare, but dependent on a wholly misguided perception of the historical record. Milbank's account begins with that striking line: "Once there was no secular." He weaves a narrative that explains how the participationist metaphysic, which Hans Boersma has fittingly called the "Christian-Platonic synthesis," was the root of Christendom. This metaphysic offered an ontology of peace, rather than the agonist origin of the world in pagan mythology. In Christendom, the natural hierarchy of society was integrated peacefully, the highest and lowest not in competition with one another, but mutually succored on the personal Good, which the Christians knew as the God of Jesus Christ. However, skeptics, starting with Duns Scotus and Occam in the West, began to hack at the cords of this synthesis. Nominalism posited disjuncture in the creation. God could give reservedly and with remainder; creation did not properly mediate the infinite. Creation only reflected the image of God through God's choice, His inscrutable will. In terms of social polity and constitution, these Scotists and Occamists introduced a radical pragmatism; states, governments, social organizations were no longer expect to mesh directly with a divine order of things. Scotist philosophy produced Machiavellian real politik, a world of masks and shadows, where the sovereign prince, like the deus absconditus, masked his true intentions. Such division introduced thick bifurcations between ruler and subject, public and private, church and state, and on and on. These division became the site of a zero-sum game of power, where one would subdue and strangle the other into submission and sublimation. The modern world was born in the midst of a divide, where strife ruled and Europe returned to the agonistic paganism of Apollo and Dionysus. This rift is the origin of the secular.

It's a compelling tale, full of historical grandeur and intoxicating master-narrative. It befits a Nietzsche, who, in the visage of his post-modern children and disciples, is the worthy opponent of this theory. Nietzsche says all narrative, whether scientific, theological, or otherwise, is myth, and may the best story-teller win. Given Milbank's reckless disregard for the historical, sometimes he doesn't seem too far off. Many concerned Christians, spurred by the West's twilight and spiral into incoherent power-mongering, have flocked to Milbank's banner to end the Modern period and return the West to a Red Toryism, a Christendom that properly meets the needs of the 21st century and its global economy. But, as I'll briefly discuss, Milbank's historical vision misunderstands why the secular order even came into existence.

The Renaissance and the Reformation form a two-step historical juncture that set up a near total social meltdown. The Renaissance is generally considered to start with Petrarch, who rediscovered classical art styles from the influx of Greek immigrants. As Byzantium collapsed, with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, many Greeks left Asia for the Italian peninsula. With them they brought a trove of books that had been lost to western Europe. The Renaissance exploded in a Medieval context hungry for learning. The battle cry of the Renaissance was ad fontes, to the sources. There was a sense where all things, whether politics, economics, even theology, could be addressed through careful study of past texts. There was a boom in a neo-Paganism of sorts, a self-conscious modeling of European society along classical lines. Machiavelli's lament that Roman religion was far superior for the city-state than Christianity ever could be was a part of this push. Hermeticism and textual Neo-Platonism was a part of it as well. But, along with this scholarly emphasis, was a turn to reading the Scriptures. Erasmus was, perhaps, the quintessential Renaissance figure in terms of Christian learning and a return to Scripture as the source of the Church's life.

This Renaissance boom mingled quite well with the Reformation explosion. Martin Luther was not really a Renaissance man, and was formed within the world of late Medieval philosophy and theology. But Melanchthon was, as was Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bullinger, Tyndale, Calvin and many others. The Reformation applied Renaissance Humanism, the high evaluation of the scholarly pursuit through a return to primary sources. This blast of fresh air blew through the universities, setting a thousand pens in motion. The papacy recoiled in horror, as this new schism threatened to undo a relatively recent period of stability. Moderate Romanists, like Cajetan and Erasmus, defended the Papal church, even as they were highly sympathetic with much of the Reformers' project. As differences expanded, and separations amplified, all sides pulled out their shovels and began a period of entrenchment.

The Reformation annihilated Roman consolidation and ended all dreams of an imperial papacy. As the divisions wore on, the polemics got nastier. A Humanist spirit not only brought back the positive work of Greco-Romans, but also the negative. Cicero made a revival as a programmatic theorist, but so did Pyrrho, the great skeptic. As Reformers utilized history to disprove papal accounts, Romanists used epistemic skepticism to eat away at their claims. As Papists claimed miracles and saintly devotion as proof of the Roman church's sanctity, Reformers applied skepticism to whether there was any way to know a miracle. The use of skeptic acid began to create a general mood of intellectual agnosticism, where it was not clear whether anyone could really know anything. The low days of this malaise was the zenith of a Pierre Bayle, who saw nothing as knowable.

In addition to the war of pens and the spilling of ink, there was also a war of swords and the spilling of blood. Political controversy heated up in the German lands between the Roman principalities and the emperor and the northern Lutheran principalities. Public policies of hostilities became normative. Both sides feared what the other would do if allowed to gain strength and acted preemptively. Protestants could look on the Spanish Inquisition as a normative model for Roman extirpation of the heretics. Bloody Mary in England already proved how a shift in monarch could reverse any changes at any moment. Dutch Protestants banded together to rebel against the Habsburg monarchy and were embroiled in a seemingly endless war for independence. At the same time the Ottoman Turks were locking down eastern Europe, even threatening the gates of Vienna. There was also the expansion of Iberian power across the globe, with Portuguese traders along the coast of Africa and Spanish conquerors gobbling up the Americas. Protestant princes sought defensive alliances and were forthcoming in contributions to imperial war coffers. Both sides grew in fearing and despising the other.

The power keg blew in the Thirty Years War, which turned Germany into bloodlands. Roman Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other in unprecedented masses, each proclaiming the other heretical and expecting an end of the age. Sweden's Gustaphus Adolphus was looked upon as a quasi-messianic figure, wading in to slay the Roman anti-christ. However this religious bloodbath was not merely a contest of true believers, but the dawn of the cynics. Mercenaries pillaged the lands, slaughtering random villages for gold and glory. Adolphus died in an anti-climax, with a bullet to the head. France, under the steady hand of the eternally cunning Richelieu, entered on the side of the Protestants to diminish Habsburg power in a game of geo-politics. The whole war seemed to lack any sense to those who participated in it.

The same sort of religious pretense leading nowhere infected many other conflicts in the age. The Wars of Religion in France ended with a wimper. A small, but entrenched, Huguenot minority gained official toleration when one of their own, Henri of Navarre, became king. But he did not do so as a Reformed. As he is (in)famously quoted, "Paris is worth a mass".  The Dutch war for independence dragged on for decades, where the confederation of city-states found common cause in naval supremacy and commerce. The diversity of its people, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, Anabaptist and Reformed, orthodox Dordtian and the Remonstrants, even Jews, required a tolerant government. England rapidly became embroiled in a series of civil wars, linking purification of the Church of England to the rule of the monarch. Presbyterians and Parliamentarians became interlinked into a factional bloodletting between those who supported Charles I and those who wanted to restrain him. Eventually the parliamentary faction broke down over the question of a republic. The execution of the king, the purge, and eventual dissolution of parliament, and the rise of Oliver Cromwell sent England into religious anarchy. In the course of a few years, England's established episcopal church was abolished and made illegal, and the proliferation of groups flooded the land under Cromwell's, the Independent-Congregationalist, policy of tolerance. He even invited the Jews backed to England.

The official end of the Thirty Years War in the Peace of Westphalia (1648) heralded a new change. Many thinkers across Europe searched for a new way to deal with a religiously diverse polity. The Dutch found a way to link nationalism to commerce in a corporate-state that could accommodate the coastal people. England eventually created a Protestant-Interest British nationalism which began with William III in the Glorious Revolution (1688) and found its full flowering with the succession of George III (1760). Both the Netherlands and Great Britain had established churches, but these were relativized to make room for a greater population to participate. This was the dawn of secularist liberalism, though in piecemeal ways. It did not all come at once, and certainly the nineteenth century saw its full fruition with the legacy of the French Revolution, which, for all its hostility to the Roman Catholic church, was keen to establish a secular civil religion that united the country around love of the nation and enlightenment thought. In places less aggressively anti-ecclesial, like Britain, a greater sense of Protestant, Christian, or religious unity was used to tie people together.

If it's not clear at this point, I'll put it in short: liberal secularism was intended to prevent the failure of Christian virtue. The Renaissance and Reformation ushered in a wave of optimism that studied debate and fierce conviction could overcome the intransigent and the stubborn. A breakdown in institutional unity rapidly led to a perceived endless bloodletting. This shift was not necessarily less violent than the Medieval period, though the violence was far more extreme. These were wars of total conquest and dominion for the whole soul of society, or at least envisioned as being as such. Liberal secularism was a tourniquet for Europe's open wound. Its architects considered  the search for a deeper common denominator as the only way to deal with diversity without extermination. While figures like Hobbes and Spinoza saw the possibility of establishing a basis in nature and Humanity, in wildly different directions, less radical thinkers tried to find denominators that could accommodate the most amount of people. It was an attempt to peace, a requisite for any polity.

Of course, this was not perfect nor beneficial to all. You can peruse the work of William Cavanaugh to see how the secular liberal state can be just as violent and bloodthirsty as a confessional state. As we all well know, peace and stability can be smokescreens for violent suppression of minorities and vocal opponents of the regime. But that's not really the point. The point is that liberal secularity was intended to solve a near total collapse of European societies across the continent into anarchic and mercenary bloodletting. And lest it be confused, it was a distinct caste of self-professed Christians who pursued this path way. States were to reform in such a way to prevent any particular faction from seizing control of the reigns. Certainly that is what Hobbes thought in the civil wars, where Presbyterians had been good machiavellians, worming their faction into key positions. While it was ambiguous of whether Hobbes was in fact a Christian, the restored Church of England generally took this tact, seeking a way to incorporate and tolerate a sufficient number of minorities to stave off another apocalyptic war.

Sadly, in the case of England, the Church rapidly became a political instrument within the metropole to clamp down on social agitation. The ineffectivity of the established Church slowly moved towards a greater embrace of many other non-conformist Protestants into a British imperial identity. As the long gamut of liberal history has shown, it doesn't work well for Christian witness to be deeply involved. A lowest common denominator faith became attached to social policy, watering down churches attached to the program. Those who were not, and were willing to bear scorn, flowered quickly. Methodists quickly made inroads all across England, even as they were harried as fanatics. Now I'm of the opinion that the Anglicans and the Methodists, in the end, needed each other, but there was an impossible bind. As long as the Church of England was an organ of liberal public policy, its doctrinal core and disciplinary structures rapidly deactivated.

Now, let me make this clear, I rejoice at the victory of liberal secularism. Its victory represented the destruction of Magisterial Protestantism and Gelasian Roman Catholicism, which believed in Christendom. As I mentioned in another post, while Eusebius was perhaps the architypal Erastian, seeing the victory of Christ in the church becoming an organ of state, Eusebius changed the entire dynamic of Christian witness. He formed the backbone of what became the Gelasian dyarchy, or, really, Luther's vision of Two-Kingdoms, which is better understood as a pessimistic Two-Governments. In this, the state and the church are the two hands of God governing a single society. Now, as I also want to make clear, I'm not a supporter of liberal secularity as a partisan. It is greedy to use the church as an instrument of social conformity and policing. But the difference is between the church as an active means of satanic violence, or becoming used up and trampled by the same forces. Christendom is the whore triumphant, bathing in the beds of the kings of the earth. Liberal secularity is the whore riding the beast. In the latter, she has a brief time in the sun, but eventually she is trampled and consumed with fire. All of this is God's judgement on infidelity and Human wickedness.

The truth is that the true Church, the elect of Christ's sovereign body, is the chaste woman fleeing into the wilderness. She is beautiful beyond compare, wearing a diadem of twelve stars and robed in glory. But a vicious dragon hunts for her, seeking to devour her and her offspring. But this is not to say that the whore is some alien figure; she is not those heretics out there. Rather, the Church is both the whore and the virgin bride; she is both true and false. Like Jacob and Esau in the womb of Rebekah, so too is the truth church intermingled with the false church. I don't mean to say this fatalistically, to the contrary Christians have a vocation to discern such historically, both in the past and in the present. St. Paul speaks to the congregation as one, even as he implores the mixed body to expunge the faithless brother when he stands defiantly unrepentant. When the whore was triumphant, there was a faithful virgin in hiding from her wrath. When the whore rode the beast, the saints waited patiently and celebrated when she fell.

Modernity is the rotten fruit of triumphant Christendom, who fell into disrepair like Babel at God's judgement. As Chrisitans, we ought to rejoice for an end of official persecution, though it's hardly a program to actively defend. Killing for the telephone company is irrational and insane, but at least not blasphemous as the crusaders who killed for Christ. Liberalism was a stop gap on sacralism, that is what makes it secular. It does not officially claim a total identity with destiny; it has no blessing from its gods. Quickly, liberalism shook under agitation from sacral nationalisms, fascism, communism, even political Islam in the 20th century. It can't last. I think I could make the case that Constantine's early reign was the first and only secular moment in Roman history. For a brief moment, there was no religious policy to the empire. But the deluge quickly came, as he became the new David, a christ figure of blasphemous proportions. This was the work of Eusebian political theology. This was the doctrine of anti-Christ.

The work of the churches is to learn to work within such diverse pluralism, taking advantage of the peace for the sake of the gospel. Sadly, liberalism becomes a cult of its own. An empty shrine of religious liberalism, flag and country, blood and soil, whatever it is, may Christians learn that such was possible through failure of the church to be the church. Seeking a return to Christendom, viz. Radical Orthodoxy's appeals, is only to eagerly desire ecclesiastical whoredom. May the Lord confound their projects, hurling them into the abyss.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Contra Yoder: Fragments on Behalf of Stanley Hauerwas

Awhile back, I commented on one of Proto's essays about Yoder and Hauerwas (the longer discussion, worthwhile beyond the contents of this post, is here). He made a coy gesture, and I went to town on it. I stated, unequivocally and without qualification, that Hauerwas was trash and, the kicker, anything good in Hauerwas you can find in Yoder. Well, as you might expect, I decided I wanted to list some reasons why Hauerwas is, in fact, superior to Yoder.

-The primary starting point is more of a framework issue. I'm of the opinion that the character of one's life is important to account in an assessment of one's work. They're not unrelated, and while hyper-scrupulosity and biographical nitpicking is one extreme, indifference is another. Yoder was a sexual predator, and a rampant one at that. He did not rape any of the women, though it's hard to gauge consent in a (celebrity)teacher-student in relationship. But he engaged in series of indecent, aggressive, and perverse relationships with dozens of his female students, admirers, and disciples. Yoder believed in the need to find a radical sexuality beyond "respectable" norms, but he kept all of his experiments a secret. When the floodgates broke in the early 90s, as more and more women brought forward accusations against Yoder, he remained defiant to the end. Some give him credit for submitting to church discipline, but that's as meritorious as an employee showing up for work. His whole life's work was on behalf of the local church and its ability to act. But it didn't much matter anyway. Mennonite disciplinary machinery was incapable of passing judgement on a celebrity academic. Yoder was able to bully his accusers from the stand. Even as the evidence was incontrovertible, he offered tepid apologies. Hauerwas has virtue for not having committed any disturbing and discreditable acts.*

-Yoder believed very much in the contemporary biblical criticism of his day. Rereading The Politics of Jesus I forgot how his argument fit wholly within the confines of established academic opinion. I don't fault Yoder, he was very much a man of his age and he made the Anabaptist tradition known to a wider public. Sadly, this desire for ecumenical respectability, lacking the foresight to see that the World Council of Churches was a generally worthless effort. Perhaps it's fair to say that contemporary Mennonites, now, essentially, a liberal mainline Protestant denomination, was his doing. Of course Yoder was against much of liberal theology, but his biblical witness was contaminated with the same rot. Hauerwas, on the other hand, had a very different approach to the Scripture. He was among the post-liberal stream of Lindbeck and Frei, who endeavored to take the text at its word. Unlike Yoder, who dabbled in, if not depended on, biblical criticism, looking for the truth behind the text, Hauerwas unabashedly read the text off the surface. Like post-liberals, he was interested in hermeneutics. Post-liberalism has its problems: it has a general agnosticism about the reality of the text and the community that forms around it, it has flimsy metaphysics that seem to glide with contemporary issues, and it's reluctant to assign any definite meaning. However, at the very least, it acts as cryofreeze for Scriptural research questions. It's a preservative move, a way of submerging beneath the wild fads of scholarship. Hauerwas' approach to Scripture, the local church, and Christian peace-making fails to give proper underpinnings, but it's not wrong either. At the very least, Hauerwas saved a remnant of mainline Protestants from the deluge of liberalism.

-Hauerwas adapted MacIntyrean Thomism and Virtue-Ethics to the rhythms of congregational life and peace witness. Yoder was a student of Barth, and he was rather comfortable with an apocalyptic sense of things. This approach allowed Yoder to deflect the bread-and-butter questions about how one was to actually go about living the Kingdom. Yoder's approach was externalized and collective; he almost spent no time on the individual and his inner life. The proper approach is to seeing how the community fosters the potential for the individual; it's not one or the other. Whether right or wrong, Virtue-Ethics was an attempt of situating moral psychology within the larger group. It was about how one trained up in the Kingdom. This was an approach which Yoder never broached. Hauerwas speculated that perhaps Yoder had a severely immature inner life, which led to anti-social behavior and a lack of empathy. What ever the reason, Yoder's project has little room for anything other than sheer ethics, which not only reflected Troelschian Social Gospel liberalism, but runs out of gas quickly. It has little room for prayer or for worship other than good works. Life without these things will be spiritually starved and deficient.

-Hauerwas lives, and continues to write, in a post-9/11 world. The War on Terror is a new phase in the American imperium, a rapid advancement and containment across the globe. This point is less about Yoder specifically, no one can fault him for writing during the heat of the Cold War and dying before the 21st century. However, the change in the times may require a different ethical analysis. Hauerwas continued the critiques of liberalism that Yoder offered, but has adapted them within a new context. It may, for this reason alone, be more useful. I'm not being a chronological snob here. The mid-late 20th century was an odd time when a triumphant and cancerous secularism dominated. It was the time when Harvey Cox could write The Secular City and the death-of-God movement could have its time in the sun. Modernity began to take on an image of the eschatological; man was finally coming to maturation. Fukuyama was able to say that the end of history began in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the solidification of America's neo-liberal empire of capital. It was a total misfire on grand proportions. The 21st century has seen all of these claims severely deflate, revealing a world that was, surprise, just the same as it had always been. The tech changed, but the Modern project turned out to be a fraud. Yoder was a critic of liberalism, but he was still deeply enmeshed within modernity. For that reason alone his advice was diluted with a false perception of history.

-Yoder had little place for repentance and sin. Perhaps it's a symptom of Anabaptist sectarian impulses, developed over centuries of persecution and enclaving; perhaps it's a symptom of polemic, where Mennonites, in contrast to Reformed and Roman just-warriors who touted the Fall and man's corruption, made a pendulum swing. Yoder despised Augustine and blamed him for the Constantinian Shift. Hauerwas, among other of Yoder's students, have realized that such an opinion is a gross error. Augustine was not only not an apologist for empire, but even if he were, it does not discredit his insights into Human psychology. Yoder seemed to chalk most of Human evil to systemic and structural corruption, the powers and principalities. Hauerwas followed Yoder, but ameliorated the claim with inner weakness, failure, and corruption. Yoder's project had a lot in common with Augustine, but the latter could have also made some substantial improvements on the former. Hauerwas is no great student of Augustine, perhaps to his detriment, but at the very least he does not reject him out of hand.

A month or so ago I came across some recent reflections from Hauerwas over Yoder's legacy (here). As much as Hauerwas was heartbroken, angry, and disgusted with John Howard Yoder, he could not give him up. Yoder was far too instrumental in Hauerwas' intellectual development. I sympathize with Hauerwas' dilemma, as befitting him, a student of the fallen master. Such is Hauerwas' conundrum, but for those unlike him, who are not saddled with such a personal legacy, but can appreciate the truth in Yoder's project, we ought to let the dead bury the dead. Let Yoder be forgotten as a theologian and be remembered as a dire warning, lest we too fall and turn away with an unrepentant heart. Contrary to my original comment, now I'd recommend Hauerwas over Yoder.

*A common rebuttal to attacking someone's work on account of their sins is to emphasize how we're all sinners. David raped Bathsheba and murdered her husband, and yet God did not abandon him. However, these accounts fail to mention that, at the parable of Nathan, David broke down in tears, turned back to God, and accepted judgement for his vile sins. A certain variety of sola fide seems to equate saving faith, along with God's graciousness, to an almost kumbaya moral indifference. We're all sinners, life's tough, forgive and forget. Of course, many complaints will be more evangelical, and reference Christ's atoning work on behalf of sinners as the grounds for such an attitude. But no where is this approach in the Apostolic witness. No where does Paul, the preacher of grace, seem uninterested in self-examination, virtue, and moral correction. The key element is repentance. It has little to do with merit, but maintaining fidelity to Christ. Peter and Judas both betrayed the Lord in His hour, but Peter returned whereas Judas did not. I'm not saying that Yoder was, in the end, a Judas. I am saying, however, that repentance is one of, if not the, primal fruit of the gospel.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Federalism as Feudalism: A Tale of American Political Theology

Recently, I breezed through Unruly Americans, an account of the U.S. Constitution's origins. The author, Woody Holton, lays down the typical story: the 1780s saw a total failure of the thirteen confederated states, which were subject to mob-rule and hyper-democratization. To save the republic, many of the Founders became the Framer to solve the political, social, and economic anarchy flooding America. The Founders were great in their ingenious political economy and the Constitution is a hallmark of successful democracy.

However, such wasn't the case. Instead, government bonds and war debt became a catalyst for political crisis. Many Americans, soldiers and otherwise, who acquired bonds sold them on the cheap for relief during the hard years. As the Paris Treaty was wrapping up, many speculators and investors eagerly bought up bonds, seeking to capitalize on interest rates. Bond owners rapidly became a minority of wealthy investors, and state governments rapidly attempted to find means to raise enough revenue to pay on the skyrocketing interest rates. Many small-time farmers were crushed under the weight of state taxes, and began to agitate for paper money in circulation. Many feared unchecked currency printing, and state governments generally resisted. Democratic agitation put state governments in a constant state of paralysis: they were unable to effectively collect taxes, even while tax rates remained burdensome. The Constitution was a means to aggregate the power of the states into a single body that could effectively collect. The Constitution was intentionally anti-democratic, maintaining an oligarchy, attracting foreign capital, and possessing military might to crush tax revolts or protests (namely, Shay's Rebellion and the Whisky Rebellion).

The interesting thing in the account was a comment in the epilogue. After commenting on how the best things about the Constitutions were all amendments that substantially altered the Founder-Framer's original intent, Holton mentions how the Constitution was deceptively democratic. It is an elected government, but one designed to have sufficiently large districts where the population size precluded actual accountability. The US republic moved more towards republican ideology, where elected representatives are not instruments of a popular will, but are virtuous, independent, individuals who votes as they see fit. However, on paper, such representatives can be recalled in the next voting cycle. The rebuttal against discontent will tell the voters that they should organize better, that they failed to get their opinion sufficiently voiced, that they were beat fair and square. The US, as it was originally designed, was a plutocratic oligarchy which sought to short-circuit popular unrest through a democratic cloak.

As a side note, I should register some skepticism over the widely held idiom of body-politic. In the mouth of Socrates, Plato compared medicine and politics: if we would desire an expert, a doctor or physician, to take care of our health, would we not also want an expert to take of the city? Such a description might beg the question of whether politics is really a question of expertise. Politics is not the same thing as government; policy adoption is not the same thing as policy enactment. Currently is an age of hyper-politicization, which is a condition for civil war, even as political machinery has slowly melted into depoliticized special interests. I'll return to this theme another time.

The key point of interest is how the ideological presentation of a system can attempt to induce people into finding fault with themselves. Inability to succeed may be more structural than individual, but the framework itself makes such recognition difficult. In the American system, the wealthy elite blamed farmers for overindulgence and laziness as the reasons for their economic woes. However, these same elites only became wealthy through favorable government policies that made their investment capital soar.  Today's not much different.

The point is not resentment, but seeing through the mist and cutting through the myth. Christians ought to be willing to live righteously, even if/when it puts them in a place of social disadvantage. But just knowing the truth and being willing to speak it can be like nails down a chalkboard. The game only works if everyone accepts the rules and is incentivized to play. 

The American system is just one example of how political theology functions. As Schmitt defined it, political theology is when theological terms become secularized and applied to a political structure. In this case, the American system is akin to the Medieval Feudal theological vision. Here, God ordained the three-tier society, made up of priests, nobles, and peasants. The first estate prays, the second fights and governs, and the third toils. They all support one another. As many Medieval peasants attested, with grievances, petitions, and rebellions, the system was not favorable to them; while bishops and princes built palaces, peasants lived in squalor. 

Chelcicky is representative of a Christian approach to confronting the system. The Feudal system was a devilish lie maintained to keep the peasants trapped and to justify the domination of two whales, the pope and the emperor. However, Chelcicky did not call for open rebellion, rather the deadliest blow Christian peasants can deal is non-compliance. Christ revealed a different kingdom, and belonging to such, the Feudal system was nothing but a lie. If princes wish to dominate, they cannot hide behind pious fraud as they do so. As revealed in Christ, God did not ordain the Feudal system, and being nothing but the conniving of men, it is naught but a myth. Peasants did not need to accept the functional caste system, they could look beyond it to the crucified Lord. Obedience to Christ and His body of elect, the Church, was more important than the moral filth of Christendom.

Conceptually, political theology is the process of how similar theological systems have disguised themselves in secular garb. The sad thing is that many American churches of the Harlot divinized this same system. However, even without church approval, the system has set up a deceptive logic, luring many normal people into thinking they effectively contribute to how the country's government is constituted. The same logic goes into effective job security and advancement, and that's without bringing morals into it. For most folks, the fiscal policy is rigged to make upward mobility extremely difficult. The Tea Partiers represent the same phenomenon within the middling-upper middle 10-20% class that was getting dusted by the astronomical 1-3%. Wealth disparities are growing ever wider, and the idea of the American Dream is becoming more and more silly. The WASP vision of university education as building the ideal citizen-leader, now democratized, is collapsing under its own weight of faulty credentialing, self-interested preservation, as well a solid and clear-cut purpose. The American system is shuddering, and is running on full-steam more now than ever before. Perhaps it's why Obama was such a salve: he rejuvenated the mythology sufficiently to buy time.

For Christians here and now, we ought to labor quietly, which is becoming more and more strange among chicken-hawk loud-mouths, flooding the internet with meme logic and grotesque displays of propaganda instinct. The point is to see behind the curtain: the American oligarchy continues to aggregate wealth, squabble with itself, consolidate into an establishment ruling caste. This includes the racial ideology, which identity politics fuels with its infinite fragmentation of human life into all sorts of bizarre "cultures". As always, Evangelicals are becoming just as banal and inane, perhaps even more, than the faux-left. The best step is to see myth for myth, and to not buy in. But myth is so much wedded to almost every corner of Americana, to reject it is to feel crazy. I'm sure many peasants entertained doubts that maybe God did make them to be the scum estate; everything seemed to confirm such a belief. But, looking back, the ideology disappeared in a puff of smoke. Christ gives us the strength to bear the present, for one day it will be the same for us.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Blood Drunk Whore: Eusebianism and the Theological Heritage of the Magisterial Reformation

Leithart's educational-research-seminary-institution, the Theopolis Institute, recently posted an article about the flag controversy. It was a mediocre in content, but the interesting thing was that a guest commentator posted it. The author left a link, and, by following it, one learns that the man was ex-military intelligence, credentialed in Korean, and a university professor of political and international studies. Now, one might observe, quickly, that Theopolis has made two quick and clever moves: 1) the author is black (when tokenism rages in the Reformed world, due to many seeking to escape racism attached to many Reformed institutions and subsequent theology) and 2) the author is an academic with a legitimate post (when post of Theopolis' cadre works on the academic fringe).

However, underneath such is a larger and more insidious phenomenon, and that is the desire for respectability and power within elite circles. It is yet to be seen whether Leithart's attempt to build a base for the sort of Auburn Ave theology that he and James Jordan promote will last. It could very easily go the way of Mercersburg, and I think Leithart is aware of such a fate. However, I recall one comment that James Jordan made about the strengths of diverse forms of Protestants in the US, where he complemented the Episcopalians for having access to culture shaping power-brokers. I'm not trying to be cynical, but sometimes it seems as if Leithart is waiting for the knight to adopt the Theopolis banner and ride it into the center of elite establishments. Legitimacy is the goal, and proper social networking, promotion, and ingratiation are the keys to success.

None of this is surprising since Jordan and Leithart are both open post-mil dominionists. But it's interesting to think about how their efforts at a more catholic Reformed tradition follows the Magisterial tradition. Now, I should say that I like a lot of Leithart's work, especially his studies on the Levitical priesthood, the Torah's prescriptions for worship, and generally how he is sensitive to the literary patterns in the OT. However, his understanding of the OT's relation to the NT, as well as the role of the Church in the World, is very much lacking and, at times, radically opposed to Christ's continuing work. However, in doing so, Leithart is being a faithful expositor of the Magisterial tradition.

As some amateur historians ask, why did Luther succeed when Hus and others did not? In fact, why did Hus and Wycliffe even successfully stir up enough dirt to be excommunicated? It had to do with influence in elite circles. Wycliffe had John of Gaunt's ear, third son of the king, but he never gained success with most barons in England, let alone the king himself. Hus stirred up enough agitation among Czechs who were frustrated with a growing German domination of Bohemia, though Hus had little actual connection with elite power circles. Luther, however, gained an audience as court-teacher/preacher to Frederick the Wise, becoming the superstar of his new university in Wittenberg. It had to do with princely power that the movement succeeded. Organization at the lower rungs was generally disregarded, if not intentionally relegated to a process in trickle-down.

The question at the heart of all this is whether proper backing from a political/social/economic/etc. elite is crucial to the gospel's furtherance or a transient, and perhaps tempting, blessing? I want to reframe a phrase I've used often, and that is too common anymore. The problem is not Constantine, but Eusebius of Caesarea. I think it's fair to say that the rule of Constantine was, generally, a blessing to Christians, given the end of persecution and official toleration, and his otherwise good management of the empire. The problem is what Constantine represents. Is he a blip, a momentary reprieve to thank God for, or is he a model, a way of the future? As much as many on all sides were uncomfortable with Eusebius gratuitous fawning and quasi-messianic odes to the emperor, his opinion became the paradigmatic shift for the Church. There would be no Theodosian politicization of religion if the empire had not been reimaged as Christ's greatest conquest. This is not to say Constantine's policies were all good: his lavishing upon the Roman churches caused suffering in the Persian church, as Sassanian emperors feared Christians as Roman 5th column.

Eusebianism is the real rot in Christ's body, the theology of anti-Christ. And Eusebianism was completely embraced within the Magisterial Reformation. It's no wonder that the first Lutheran "saint" is John the Steadfast, a German prince who stood against the Habsburg emperor's trenchant commitment to Rome. It should be no surprise that Calvin lauded Edward VI as a new Josiah for his godly reign. Princes were the bastion of Christian power. And even though Hobbes was ever reviled, he was only maximalizing his Eusebian Leviathan when he considered the king a sacred office. The sovereign was capable of deciding doctrine, staffing the church, even celebrating the sacrament. Hobbesian was a common slur among English ecclesiastics, but his radical political theory merely obscured the level to which most English churchmen were committed to a Eusebian polity. As sovereignty functionally moved from the monarch to king-in-parliament to parliament alone so did the Church's adherence. Post-Trent Catholicism followed many similar traits, especially in France where a constant streak of Gallicanism pushed against papal supremacy. As Ellul noted for almost all churches in France, they were monarchist under the monarchy, republican under the republic, socialist under socialism, and so on.

Eusebianism provides a mythology for the socio-political apparatus in power. It is a means to properly sanctify, in the literal sense, certain socio-political machinery and firmly ground its legitimacy and its power. The sovereign becomes a mortal god, and the bureaucracy around it becomes a host of angelic servants. Eusebianism is a Christianized version of a fallen Human temptation to divinize the flesh. It is to make another messiah, a counterfeit. It is for that reason anti-Christ.

But wait, didn't Protestantism secularize the world? Here, I agree with Brad Gregory's analysis of the Unintended Reformation, where two sacral visions collided in the Wars of Religion. The result was groups of elite that sought to escape the bloodletting by other means, a wave of secularization, which became an ultimacy in itself. However, such divinized a new order, but one which could encompass the plurality of different Christians and others. The Dutch embraced the gilder as the telos of Human society. Hobbes, as a part of this secular elite backlash, divinized the state to prevent radicals seeking to seize the reigns of government (e.g. Presbyterians). Secularization was a broader and less aggressive sacralization. Nation-states and trade-networks, even natural rights, became the locus of the holy, a civil religion of sorts. As I will discuss more in another post, this movement was not anti-Christian, but many times was led by Christians. It was a way to put a stop on the pressure cooker of apocalyptic war, perhaps more a perceived threat than an actual one.

As Gregory explicates, Luther and Calvin did not intend the birth of liberalism or the modern. They were invested in their own sacred polities. Luther was personally suspicious of princes and also taught a doctrine that evacuated holiness from the socio-political. The sacred only existed in the ephemerally glittering promises of the gospel, found in the sacrament and in the preaching of the word. Calvin had more of a focus on the Church, to his everlasting credit, and was suspicious of the Genevan council, as well as placing holiness in the word and sacrament of the Church. However, both accepted Eusebian notions of alliance between the Church with the state. The latter will build up the former, completing it in a sense, even as the former is the engine for the latter's design and philosophy. Both radically underestimated that such a unity results in a joint divinization. The state becomes holy and the sovereign, whether a prince or a council or anything else, will assume sacral power. In some sense, the Imperial Papacy understood this conundrum, and attempted to dominate secular governments and aggregate political sovereignty. The Investiture Controversy taught ambitious popes a lesson in political sacralization.

Leithart possesses the same Pelagian naivety about political power as his predecessors. He signals wariness and caution, decrying idolatry of the nation, the state, or whatever else. But such is empty as long as he holds tight to his dominonist theology. He will continue to be a Eusebian and promote, in effect if not in theory, a blood-drunk whore who eagerly fornicates with all the kings of men.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Republic of Despots: Reflections on the American Political-Economy

In a recent article on slavery and capitalism, John Majewski attempts to address the question of why the US North was opposed to slavery. As it has been demonstrated in a swathe of recent literature, Southern slavery was bound to continue on for quite sometime; it was nowhere close to extinction in 1860. And it was not only profitable for Southerners, but also many Northerners as well. Northern farmers helped stock Southern farms with supplies, Northern banks and investment firms insured slaves as a form of capital, established Southern banks that would provide funds for mortgaging slaves, and Norther industries that utilized Southern raw material, namely cotton. So, if the North was so complicit, why did the North so virulently reject slavery? Why did the capitalist Republican party declare an ultimatum if slavery was such a boon to Northern capitalists?

The upper South was home to a region that urbanized, possessed a diversified economy, and had a growing population. Regions in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee made it clear that the free North (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois) was, geographically speaking, amenable to slavery. The soil provided the means for a stabilized, and thriving, society. Contrary to Republican and anti-slavery critics, the South was booming.

However, despite the similarities, Majewski posits education as the major fissure between the free and slave states. Northern states invested in a growing public education network, which spread learning to a great population of people, greatly surpassing the South and anywhere in Europe. But, unlike the North's growing public education complex, the South shied away from widespread, state-sponsored, education. Instead, the South invested in schools that reflected European private academies. The state would sponsor training an educated elite, the planter class, who would manage all facets of Southern society. The effects of this training would trickle down, as the best graduates would reenter the field of education and maintain the system, slowly growing downwards. Of course, there's a distinction in idealized form and the design. It's very possible that such a school system would never trickle-down, and only regenerate itself for new generations of Southern elite. Northerners, fearing that the spread of slavery would cripple a thriving political economy of popular education and, thus, popular innovation, drew a line in the sand.

The main point of recapitulating this article is to highlight the educational differences as political arrangements. It was the South's political economy that not only won out in the end, but it has been the hallmark of American political life since the beginning. The radical edge of the Republican party quickly evaporated. Lincoln's political economy quickly dried up. The North followed the South to the degree that the waves of immigrants became the uneducated masses. They were herded and prodded to support a well-heeled elite, what would become the WASP class of the later 19th, and most of the 20th century. While in the early 19th century, we see the same in the Southern planter elite, the same comes true in the industrial elite, the robber barons, of the late 19th century. It is the mass of laborers, whether slave or "free", which provide the material means for the liberal demeanor of the ruling class.

This political form is republicanism. The idea is that the government is constituted through a free-born natural elite, the people most talented, moral, and just, with the necessary financial arrangement to make them independent. Republican government is rule by the virtuous, whether constituted as a tangible class, such as Patrician Rome, or as an invisible class, as it is in the contemporary US. The popular notion is that a ruling class is anathema to the US, but such has always been the case since the nation's inception. The illusion is that our leaders are nothing of the sort. Instead, they posture themselves as our representatives, exercising an independent judgement to best meet all of our needs. It's a kindly elitism, which has consistently co-opted any democratic impulse into its visage. Of course, as it is for any political class, they constitute and regenerate themselves. The elite are not the best from among the whole, but rather have become a separate group, a top-tier of an informal hierarchy. Some "conservative" Americans like to brag that the US is a republic, not a democracy. That's true, and it's why things are so corrupt and exploitative. The idea of a republic is an illusion.

It's for such reasons that there is no genuine Left in the United States. Most "liberal" and "left-wing" figures and groups are usually anything but. They only want to reform the plutocracy to make it a diverse elite. The WASP class becomes multi-racial, religiously plural, female as well as male, and queer. The oligarchy includes a wider set of fresh of blood, rejuvenating it as well as strengthening its hold. It's all silly joke, but so completely serious and solidified through control of media, which sets the narrative and exercises incredible soft-power. I don't think it will be long until we see a general like Elgabalus or a president like Hadrian, well-beloved, successful, and a total degenerate, male lover and all. As one acquintaince has suggested, if Goebbels saw what the US propaganda machine was capable of, he'd lay down prostrate before it.

While my sympathies are, politically and economically, left, I am first  a Christian. What I mean by that is to say, simply, we live under the god of this age, who still clings to his dominion, and as little Christs, our conquest is in martyrdom, not seizing the means of political power. And yet, even as we continue to submit to Caesar, it's not out of bounds to recognize, and discern, more and less just arrangements. While republicanism is vile and a theologically naive, either pagan to the core or Pelagian in its idiocy, there are indeed worse arrangements. I plan to substantiate the claim more thoroughly in another post, but I will merely claim that American constitutional secularism has been a mild blessing for the Body of Christ, even as it foments an equally dangerous evil.

Having said that, I would not weep a moment if the American oligarchy, not to mention its global empire of capital and corporate police called the armed forces, were to be destroyed in the fires of judgement. Contrary to the myth, Rome was not free when she was without a king. What difference was it to the plebs whether they had one master or hundreds of them? My only admonition is thus: Christians ought not to cheerlead or support a morally bankrupt system, and should rather expose falsehood and tell the truth.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Crucified with Christ: The Dynamic of Christian Life

I got around to reading Leithart's quasi-opus, Delivered From the Elements of the World, which attempts to wade into the whole structure of the Bible, in both testaments, answer a variety of theological questions, and paint a picture for contemporary issues and action. As a whole, the book has a breathtaking sweep, but is mediocre. Part I is brilliant, which I will shortly begin to discuss. Part II is lackluster. Part III involves typical Leithart bluster, attempting to solve the justification issue, ignoring a lot of nuance on all sides, while at the same time giving a fantastic exposition of the whole issue. I generally agree with Leithart against the Protestant old-guard; his biblicism is a breath of fresh air over and against stale dogmatics. Part IV is not only lame, but it is wildly misguided. I'll return to this further on.

In Part I, Leithart sets up the problem the Bible presents. When he writes about the Old Testament, the priesthood, the temple, and the fast times in Israel, I endlessly thank God for the man. The key issue is how he understands the creation of man, the Garden, Adam's destiny, and his fall. Leithart takes a cue from Irenaeus who understood the creation of Adam to be one of immaturity. Man was good, but he was not yet perfect. Man had the image of God, but he was not yet fully like God, he was not yet glorified. The way Leithart understands this is that Adam was created flesh, but intended for the spirit. The former is fleeting, weak, frail, and temporary. The flesh was temporary for Adam, it was a time of maturation. Adam, as yet a child, was not yet ready to join God's council. Leithart doesn't mention it, but there's a sense where man's work was a recapitulation of God's creative labor. As God created, man was to do so as well. If the Heavens and Earth function as God's macrocosmic temple, man's destiny to cultivate Eden, spread it, and build it into a garden-city was a microcosmic temple.

Yet when Adam took from the tree, he was seizing what was not yet his. God cursed Adam and all of creation, guarding Eden with flaming cherubim, and turned him over to his flesh. The problem was now sinful flesh, which was flesh-for-itself, a glorying in immaturity, a perfection of the imperfect. It's the meaning of 666, a parody of the divine project. Flesh for itself, turning inward, turned weakness into strength. The frailty, limitation, and impotency of flesh was now to become vaulted through a functional vampirism. Flesh lived off other flesh in a bid for divine mastery. Leithart spends time talking about how phallo-centrism became a domain of the flesh. This might be seen as a hat-time to feminists, but it's not. It has more to do with man's quest to conquer, consume, and crush. Babel is a vulgar attempt to penetrate Heaven, in both a political and sexual sense. As Leithart repeats again and again, God's work now appears as a war against flesh, and yet the Lord has not abandoned His creation. It is through sinful flesh that all flesh will be redeemed, and yet redemption involves the destruction of flesh. The original temporary sense of flesh now, under wrath, appears in conflict and struggle. Flesh does not merely give way to spirit, but must be put to death.

Here, Leithart understands the sacrifice system of the temple, circumcision, and numerous other aspects of Israel's socio-politico-cultic apparatus, as a war against flesh. All of these actions were pedagogy, and effective in a sense that they intended to put flesh to death. Circumcision was the wound inflicted upon man's source of strength and generative capability. Israel was intended to bless the nations, but also was intended to remain ever at war against the nations' gods. These idols were manifestations of what St. Paul refers to as the elements of the world. It's physico-social arrangement, the how and why societies are formed. In a world of flesh, now turned in towards itself, all society seems arraigned for self-aggrandizement, conquest, and exploitation. Cooperation has limitation, and must be directed to survival and expansion.

The key to Israel's victory is the promise of flesh into spirit is through the sacrifice system. The basic procedure is in the animal's death, division, and burning. Animals throughout the Scripture highlight man in symbolic fashion. Israel's priesthood blessed and invested the animal with representation for the nation. The animal dies, the fate of all flesh, it is separated, and then it is burned into a cloud of smoke before the Lord. Israel too was to suffer division in its move towards spiritualization. Leithart wavers and fumbles over this point, trying to highlight how Israel's division was not like the divisiveness of the pagans, who obsessed with ritual purity and cleanliness to protect superior flesh. I'll come back to it more later, and much more extensively in another post, but for now let's say that division is a distinctive move not in Israel's purity, but in its overcoming the curse. Then, the kicker, the animal turns into smoke. The Spirit comes as a cloud, and the smoke of sacrifice is a process of spiritualization. The animal literally becomes spirit in burning. The smoke passes before the Tabernacle, which was engraved with two cherbic warriors. For Leithart, the animal passes back through the fiery gate of Eden. The sacrifice is what Leithart calls "anti-sarkic pedagogy", an instruction in the path Israel must take to eventually reach maturation.

I'm not worried whether Leithart gets all the details right about the cult. The major point is that the flesh-for-itself builds itself into satanic imperium, which God obliterates through warfare, and yet this battle takes place in the world of flesh. Weak and frail flesh huddles to itself and swaggers as strong and everlasting. God's people and commandments emphasize the weakness of flesh, and, in so doing, becomes a conduit for infinite divine power. It is the circumcised Abraham who gets a son through Sarah. For St. Paul, this was nothing less than a resurrection of the dead. Putting flesh to death is the very means through which the flesh is glorified into spirit. Lest one think Leithart is giving a gnostic spin, we should note that Scripture refers to Jesus, the second Adam, as a life-giving spirit. The question is less about material composition, but the arrangement of the physical world. The resurrection will give us spiritual bodies, but in no way did the Apostle intend to convey something immaterial. Rather, it's a question of the corruptible giving way to the incorruptible, the temporary for the eternal, the good for the perfect.

Of course, as I said above, when Leithart shifts into Part II, the account stalls in its power. Christ's work appears hollow, and the disjunction between the Old and New Covenant vanishes quickly from sight. Leithart highlights how Israel had turned Torah into a fleshly device, but there's not much as to why this was all a part of the plan. And it's not clear how Jesus, as the final destroyer of the elements of this world, has actually done anything. Leithart likes to say that good theology involves good sociology. He is certainly an advocate for the role of the Church in the life of the Christian. But his postmillenialism leaves him blind and groping. Christ wins an ultimate victory, opening the Church to become the place where the victory is realized and spread. Through the Church the nations become disciplined, transformed before the cross, and baptized.

Of course, the whole project seemed to fall apart pretty quickly. Leithart plays pretty fast and loose with Church history. He gives examples of fully elemental religions, quasi-elemental religions which has siphoned strength from the Church, and Galatianism. The third term refers to societies that have turned their back on Christ's victory, going back to rule under the elements. Leithart blames the modern era for a highly sophisticated Galatianism which is ascendant. In the mean time, the Church needs to hunker down, continue to witness against elemental domination, and be ready to offer another direction when Western society inevitably crumbles from its own contradictions and depravity.

Leithart doesn't make any specific claims for a Christianized society, though he makes references to his work on Constantine. The reason for it is that there are hardly any examples of what Leithart envisions. There are a few blips. He lightly praises the Middle Ages, and gives off-handed support for 16th century Scotland and Geneva. But, to the contrary, I'd argue that those places are hardly havens for the godly. Though the Renaissance was an age of high pagan esoterica, it was right to posit the past as the Dark Ages. It was not for lack of learning, but spiritual depravity which was slowly enveloping Europe. Things were not so bad in the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries. But as time wore on, with the imperial papacy hitting its stride, the Holy Roman Empire consolidating Europe, and the fusion of the two into a highly unstable Christian Empire, things were incredibly difficult for the faithful. Ecclesiastical reform was not only emerging from those disgusted with corruption, but among those who sought to improve revenues, police dissidents, and expand political influence. Whether or not the Crusades were intentional imperialism is irrelevant; it's clear that an increasing muscular "West" sought to strong arm the Greeks and carve out a Frankish dominion in the Levant.

And besides all of this, Leithart's breathtaking account runs out of gas when it steps off the pages of the Bible. I'm tired of reading grand narratives of Scripture that seem to say next to nothing for today, despite claims to the contrary. Looking over the carnage of history, perpetrated as much by so-called Christians as heathens, should sober you up if you're inclined to believe in post-millenial insanity. They'd make more sense if they claimed to be a hawkish variety of Open Theism or process theology. Clearly God's war against flesh, if it's to result in a new kind of imperium, is a general failure. If Galatianism is in fact a possibility, it's sort of a head-scratcher as to why the need for a Messianic coming in the first place. The promised maturity is sorely lacking in just about everywhere, and the promise of a vague future is the only grounds post-millenialists stand on. Gone are the days of the Social Gospel's triumphalism.

However, what if the path to glory is not extrinsic from Christ's own work for us His people?*

What if the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection are not only historical events that set the stage for the Church? The Person and Work of Christ is prototypical for the life of mankind today. The only possible social polity for the Church is the crucified Christ, which has a potency in weakness as Leithart described. However, such a fact deflates the state-building that is common Christendom. The Church is the remnant, the afflicted, the suffering and broken body of the Lord who, through His trial, conquers all rebels and ascends His throne. The life of Christians is nothing else than filling up on the sufferings of Christ, as St. Paul put it. The pedagogy of the sacrificed animals ends when the Man enters back into Eden and builds His Garden-City there. But the way is through the curse, not around it. And when we are in Christ, it's not a vicarious victory in the sense that we wave Him on as He does the work for us. Christ accomplishes the work, and as the Head passes through, so does the Body. The Holy Spirit, He who was always with Christ, dwells among His people as well. The Spirit passes over us and conforms us to the image. Thus, the Spirit shone so brightly in the aptly named martyrs, who were witnesses in their very deaths, the strongest manifestation of power in the exact moment of helplessness and doom.

As Christ recapitulated not only all of Israel's history, but the entire creation, so we, Christians, His people, His heavenly Congregation and Body, will recapitulate His life in our flesh. In so doing we become spiritual, a conformity of imperfection towards perfection. It's why St. Paul can never stop talking about the cross of Christ, even as he never once intends to slight, distance, or neglect the resurrection. Both go together, but the former establishes the potency for the latter. While the cross is meaningless without resurrection, the resurrection is impossible without the cross. Or, in other words, the animal sacrifice is meaningless without it being offered as smoke before the Tabernacle, but the latter is impossible without the former. As Apostles teach, time and again, the Christian, the little Christ, is to live a life as a living sacrifice, whose prayer is constant smoke before the heavenly altar. We are crucified with Christ.

Since this post has gone on long enough, I'll conclude with some thoughts on Job.** When Satan appears before God, the Lord offers Job as a challenge. Job was not just some guy, but represents a kingly figure, one who leads and represents his people. Job's friends were not his buddies, but were royal councilors. They were double-dealers, seeking to delegitimize Job's reign. They are the call of the flesh. And yet Job suffered and suffered, and, in the final moment, becomes glorified, receiving a bounty beyond what he possessed before. God tested Job not as an endurance contest, but as a very means of maturation. Satan, against his designs, became an instrument on a cursed Earth for man to become as he was intended to be. Except, instead of a smooth transition, the move from flesh to spirit is now a war to the death. Job became the priest-king he was intended to be through his suffering. For this reason we see Job not only as a premonition of Christ, but a distinctly Solomonic one. Some posit that Solomon wrote the book of Job, along with the rest of the Wisdom literature. It's certainly possible to see in the Job story an account, reflected through the failure of Solomon's kingship, what the right path forward really was. Rather than making a deal with death, which Solomon did with his marriage alliance to Egypt, Job entered the realm of the dead and cast his life and rotten flesh before the Lord.

The life of the Church is the life of its crucified Lord. We are struck down, but not destroyed. As the devils swirl about this world, building a counterfeit temple for the god of this age, and his antichrist parody, the Church overcomes through the same trap the Messiah used to smash the dragon's head. Thanks be to God.

* Ephraim Radner has shaped a lot of my thinking in this regard. His work, generally, is a healthy corrective to the directions the Jordan-Leithart crowd tend towards.

**I take these insights from Kabane, who has a video on his youtube page (Kabane the Christian).

Monday, November 20, 2017

Christ the Stumbling Block: Thoughts on the Order of Theology

One thing in Church history I like to explain is the importance of the sixth ecumenical council. At Constantinople III, as it's called, the Church ruled on whether Christ had one or two wills, deciding for the latter. It also condemned a Roman pope, Honorius, as a heretic, which is interesting in its own right. But the thing I focus on is why the debate even happened, and why it matters. In the contemporary moment, vigorous debate over the number of wills in Christ would seem inane at best, but as the brilliant work of St. Maximus shows, it was hardly such.

The question of the two wills is really a multi-pronged question. It asks how God and man relate, what human nature is, what the difference is between nature and person, what it meant for Christ to be human, how human psychology works, and quite a few others. However, before the doctrinal question floats off the text, it's important to focus on the site of this debate. Monothelites (one-will) and Dyothelites (two-wills) argued over what exactly happened in the Garden of Gethsemene. If Christ is the divine Son, then what is happening when He says, "Take this cup from me [...] not mywill, but yours, be done" and so submits to the Father? Can God be divided against Himself? Some monothelites hand-waived the episode as a didactic prayer for the disciples. Christ didn't really mean it, He was merely showing how to overcome fear and panic. Other monothelites, who wanted to engage with the text, posited that one sees here the divine will overriding human concerns.

The problem with the latter approach is it construes God-human relations as overriding. One becomes more godly the less one acts, and the human element must diminish as God's will takes over. There is, it seems, a fundamental incongruity between the divine and the human, a radical disjuncture rooted in a version of the Creator-creature distinction. The human will appears to be a problem, a symptom of a sinful world. It seems also to suggest that the creaturely is a problem to overcome. Humans are in the way of God's work, and humans qua humans are impotent. This theological opinion runs rampant in doctrines of salvation which emphasize that God, and God alone, is involved in the salvation process, and man just takes a backseat, lays down dead, is erased before the omnipotent benevolence.

Maximus, on the other hand, argued that the two wills is the only way to make sense of how Jesus acted in the garden. Christ's trembling and submission were both distinctly human actions, not a process where the human is effaced before divine power. However, if we say that these are human actions, we cannot say that the will belongs to the person. Maximus argues vigorously that the will is a faculty, a natural capability, like sight or thought, which belongs to nature, even as individual persons must instantiate and activate it for themselves. And the will cannot be personal because, if so, we either deny Christ is the Word of God made flesh or that God behaves creaturely (i.e. desiring to be alive, fearing death). Thus, if Christ is to have properly prayed as a fully human being in Gethsemane, then it follows that the will is natural, and thus since Christ is divine and human, two natures, in the single Son of God, one person, than there must be two wills.

There is a plethora of doctrinal wealth underneath the doctrine of two wills. But the key point is that figuring out whether Christ had one or two wills had to do with assessing the Scriptural data. Here, preserved in the Apostolic deposit, we see Christ praying in a very specific way, with very specific requests, left to His people to read, ruminate, and reflect upon. The event provided the raw material that later speculation depended upon. Despite interesting gains for theology, anthropology, soteriology, etc. etc., none of this matters if not grounded upon a firm bedrock. Christ did these things, we must say, what do they mean?

In a book on Medieval metaphysics, a section addressed William Occam and his infamous Razor. The simplest account is the preferred. The logic cuts, and it is powerful. But logic only functions on the bedrock of reality. Contrary to modern optometry, Occam thought the idea that the retina inverts light to produce an image that is right-side-up was extraneous and silly. Much better, he said, to posit that the light simply goes right into the eye. Occam's reasoning was sound, but it was not according to reality. No matter how much his simplified process seems to deal better with the empirical data about sight, medical investigation has proved him foolishly mistaken. Occam's logic only ever can deal with things that are real. The brute fact of the eye's design contradicts logical attempts at simplification.

The problem is that abstract reasoning is only ever useful if fully grounded and tethered to real phenomena. However, theology as a scholastic discipline many times seems to float off the pages of Scripture. By this I don't mean that Scripture isn't cited, chapter and verse. What I mean is that the arrangement of the data easily slips off and away from the real, the brute facts of Scripture. It's not that there isn't more to the brute facts, but that many times they're too quickly swept away in the pursuit of the truth.

I'm not intending to strawman, and I cringe somewhat in saying this, but I see a certain kind of Platonic methodology going on. Please, I'm not talking so much about metaphysics, though that's included, and I'm not talking about questions of spirit, rationality, etc. All I mean is in sense that Plato held an extreme distrust and disinterest in phenomena. History was irrelevant, and experience was more likely to deceive than enlighten. The allegory of the cave is intended to communicate the difference between dependence on experience and unfettering the mind/soul to seek a truth beyond. People trapped in the cave are the ones focusing on the day-to-day, the tangible, and the sensible. Reason expanded beyond the mortal frame, reaching through to a veil of timelessness and changelessness, where perfection dwells without the illusion of time and space. For Plato, truth is truth, time is irrelevant.

This method posits rationality as a faculty capable of extending beyond time and place, the intellect a means to decontextualize. If Aristotle did anything to serve God, it was attempting to burst Plato's bubble, and show how he had gotten everything backwards. I'm not advocating Aristotelian philosophy, only that he had provided a counter-point to check a spiral into esoterica, which is what Platonic philosophy became(!) as it blended with elite cults and magic. Plato was not alone, but was among a cadre of philosophers who devalued the sensible and the phenomenal. Kant was a good Platonist when he severed the realm of ultimate rationality from phenomenal investigation in order to save it. Kant realized reason could not broach Plato's world, so we had to assert the necessary truths to make sense of all subsequent phenomenal experience. The latter couldn't give us the meaning of it, and so we must find a way to get around the impasse.

This methodological move is common enough within Christian theology, which depends upon an almost Kantian synthetic a priori, which we call world-view thinking. There is a mistake of revelation for doctrine. However, when the confusion is made, the Bible becomes a frustration and must be cleaned up through clear, explicit, preferably numbered, propositions that form the doctrinal core. Creeds become a list of necessary beliefs, easily becoming detached. and bolstered up with the proof-texts. Arguments over doctrine focus on claims of who God is and not so much who God has revealed Himself to, in fact, be.

Again, I'm not trying to strawman, but it's a subtle difference. The truths of the Gospel strike us not as a system at war with other systems. If this was so, then not only would it be somewhat arbitrary, depending upon persuasion-as-coherence, and it would also require a certain appeal to an individual or group's socio-intellectual framework. Hence, for those who use the above methodology, it's easy to see rapid shifts in theological formulae, depended upon people's mental and emotional needs. You go about presenting Jesus as a friend, a wounded healer, a might savior, the solution to death, time, plurality, and so on. Jesus becomes a one-size fits all glove; He can be whoever you need Him to be. Not only is this profaning the Name, it comes off as a used-car salesman tactic.

Rather, when St. Paul preached, he focused not on "contextualizing" Jesus, but presenting Him as fact. The Apostle lays out the reality, a series of facts with a rather mild interpretive framework. The major point is always the same: the man Jesus was Israel's Messiah, proved by His death and resurrection, overcoming God's enemies as the very Son of God, now reigning, and coming to judge the living and the dead. It's not that Paul's doctrine was undeveloped or lacking, it was that it was densely packed into the very reality of the experience. It's not that St. Paul doesn't have doctrine, but he orders properly: first the reality, and then what it means. 

Whether or not the Trinity solves any philosophical problems is irrelevant and, perhaps many times, profane. Rather, the only reason we have a doctrine of the Trinity is to explain the data of Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who, as such, calls His disciples to baptize in His name, the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine is important, it's crucial shorthand for the meaning of several brute facts of Scripture, properly arranged and explained. It would be absolutely foolish and rebellious to jettison the doctrine. And yet, we must boldly say that the doctrine is only ever second hand, derivative, from the brute facts of revelation. The Christians of the first two centuries were not deficient for lacking the term, and the Church of the first three centuries did not lack before Nicaea. The doctrinal grammar was not there, but the truth of it was still present anywhere the Scripture was being faithfully read and God rightly worshiped.

Another example is in how the Lord Supper is celebrated and understood. The Scriptural data, contrary to some, does not focus on the elements, but in the supping. The act was not in the bread becoming the body, but in the disciples eating it. Attention to the brute facts (i.e. they broke bread and shared wine) frames the question better than asking whether or not bread can become Christ's flesh and what exactly this means and how it happens. The latter question may tangentially reference Scripture, but has at its heart a question about philosophical relations. These questions are only important in as much as they stay grounded in the revealed fact. And from thence comes the meaning, which the Apostolic teaching provides us for, both explicitly and, in their method for Scriptural interpretation, implicitly. 

Without a firm bottom, philosophy is an interesting tool of coherence forming and nothing more. It can paint a beautiful or horrible vision, but that's all that it is. I have no affection for Nietzsche, but he was a good critic. He claimed that all attempts at meaning were fables, and man's goal should be to tell the best ones, ones that form us into the people we want to be. Claims of reality are obfuscation, a smokescreen in a power game. Thus many Nietzschean philosophers and theologians postulate on the kind of world that they think is good and beneficial to the most. Thus, there are many atheists in the garb of Christian, and they do it self-consciously. For them, whether Christianity is real is a red-herring, a false-starter, a missing of the point. The question is whether the faith, and its subsequent and diverse traditions, can uplift humanity. It's not that it's a total rejection of reality, but a rejection of an ultimate level to reality. There is a radical agnosticism about beginnings and ends, and what any of that means. Per Zizek's iconic reversal, theology can be the puppet playing chess, controlled by the dwarf of historical materialism.

The scandal of Christ is not what He said in regards to homosexuals, private property, ethics, or the nature of God. The scandal is the sheer fact of historical reality. It's the sheer fact that a man who claimed to be Messiah, fulfilling the nation of Israel's history and destiny, died on the cross and, on the third day, rose from the grave in an incorruptible body, appearing to His disciples, a crowd of 5000, and ascended to His throne. Many a modern man would scoff at a number of those claims, and may be willing to accept an ethic of forgiveness or peaceableness before that. The power of that event continues to reverberate, where the Spirit of Christ converts sinners and empowers them to walk a different path. But no matter what its effects, the Christ event must have happened first. There was no pouring out of the Spirit before Christ's work, and then even so, the pouring out of the Spirit is not so much a doctrine, as it is an event. The tongues of fire are not incidental, but the coming of reality in a startling and prophetic form.

Of course, as I've said again and again, doctrine comes from these events and is, subsequently, important. Some doctrine is contained explicitly in Scripture, and some of it is implicit. But the facts must come first. Otherwise doctrine is looked upon as vain speculation, which many times it is. But when the distinction and proper order come together, it may help many folks who don't see much use in considering doctrine. Adhering to the doctrine of the Trinity is not just a helpful guide for intellectual/emotional/social problems, but is the only way to account for a variety of Scriptural data. Lest one want to try and reinvent the wheel, to deny the Trinity is to deny the very revelation of Scripture, willfully ignoring God's appearance.

As St. Paul says, if Christ did not raise then our faith is in vain. The primary facts of Scripture anchor the truths of the faith. They are not ephemera, even though methodological considerations easily make them as such. Without a strong claim that Christ is risen is a brute, objective, fact, then the faith is nothing more than an ideology, instantiated as a religion in a variety of social programs and institutions. Such is the work of anti-Christ, and may it be anathema from our lives.