Saturday, October 14, 2017

Son of the Resurrection: A Review of 'Blade Runner 2049'

I recently saw the new film Blade Runner 2049 and thought I'd provide commentary on a rather powerful and disturbing film. Spoilers will follow:

The new Blade Runner film is a deeply political exposition of  Humanity: what is it and how is it oriented? The story starts with an update from the last story. Replicants, cloned pseudo-humans, have become legal on Earth, but only because a new CEO, Niander Wallace, has perfected Tyrell's original design. The name of this new CEO is an interesting combination, drawing from both the Neander valley, which gave name to the humanoid Neanderthal, and Alfred Wallace, an evolutionary theorist, occult spiritualist, and contemporary of Charles Darwin. Wallace completes Tyrell's original intent to make a docile replicant through the implantation of false memories. In the first film, Tyrell speculated that possessing memories would make replicants more pliable, more comfortable with their state of slavery. As an engineer of memories states baldly, memories are comforting for the hard lives of the replicants. They are, and will always be, slaves, but at least they can reflect on a past that was not always so.The tension, really war, between past and future becomes a central driving point in the movie.

The main character, a top-of-the-line replicant blade runner named K, hunts down the remnant of a failed replicant model. It seems Tyrell failed to create the docile workforce he strove for, and these replicants struggled for revolution. K uncovers the deep secret of Tyrell's design that directs the story: the possibility of replicants giving birth. The revolutionaries desire to be freed from slavery and Human overlordship, in a desire to become Human. Wallace also seeks the secret of birth, but for a cryptic purpose of Human perfection. He intends to make the perfect slave race that will become the means of Human ascendancy. In a series of enigmatic monologues, he blends gnostic Kabbalah with evolutionary scientism. He is the father of millions, and he only makes good angels. With an army of slaves, Wallace hopes to "storm Eden," to fulfill Humanity's destiny of colonizing the universe. The key to all is the knowledge of beginnings, of birth.

The fixation on protology also drives our protagonist. As K investigates, searching for the child of Rachael and Deckard, he begins to suspect that he is said child. His memory of a toy horse turns out to be real. K is prodded on wards by his pseudo-wife, an AI named Joi, who lavishes him with compassion, understanding, and affection. K loves, and is loved by, Joi, his only companion in an impoverished world that despises him for being a replicant. She even names him, calling him Joe, seeking to Humanize him. Birth becomes the marker of Human identity. When his chief gives him the assignment to "retire" the child for fear of Human-replicant civil war, K hesitates. He remarks that he had never retired someone who was born before, equating birth, rather than being manufactured, with Humanity. As K begins to believe he is the lost son of a replicant mother, his predictive programming begins to falter, he embraces his human name more and more, and burns with a sense of destiny.

Of course, it's not to be. After K discovered Deckard, who is subsequently kidnapped by Wallace's replicants who tracked him, K is picked up by the revolutionaries, who also tracked him. Meeting the leader, Freysa, K discovers that he is not the child. His memory was real, but it was an implant, given to him from the true daughter, who had been hiding in plain sight as a memory engineer. The leader then tasks K to kill Deckard before he reveals the location of the revolutionaries and the miracle child, the hope for a free replicant world. Freysa is one eyed; her name draws a link to the Norse goddess Freya, who had a potent and terrifying look, as well as the Greek one-eyed Fates, who could see the future, though not determine it. She tells K that one is most Human in dying for a noble cause.

The final breaking point for K is when he meets a giant advertisement version of Joi. In the kidnap of Deckard, Joi had perished, dying with love on her lips. However, as the giant VR advertisement pitches herself to K, he realizes that all his affection for Joi was a fraud. The advertisement calls him Joe; he realizes that all the things he felt, not only with his memory, but his love, was fraudulent. Here the film draws the final line.

K goes to rescue Deckard, and he battles Wallace's right-hand replicant, a woman named Luv, in the waves of the sea's edge. Earlier in the film, K met with Gaff, Deckard's "partner", who folded K an origami. The shape was a sheep. K humanizes in becoming the sheep Gaff had seen; he kills Luv and rescues Deckard, suffering a mortal wound to bring him to his daughter. K becomes the sacrificial lamb. The waters are heavily symbolic. In them, Luv, who seeks to win affection from her master for being the best, drowns. K strangles her underneath the waves, in a baptism of judgement, or a kind of reverse birth, being cast back into the birthing waters, rather than being drawn from them. Deckard, on the other hand, passes through the judgement; he is allowed to die, and thus go free to see his daughter. As Deckard goes inside the facility, K stares up at the heavens, amidst white snow, and dies in peace.

As I said earlier, the major rupture in the film, over the question of Humanity, is a question of the past or the future. Wallace's main quest is to gain reentry to paradise. There is certainly parallels to the sons of God mixing with the daughters of men. Highly modified himself, Wallace seeks to perfect Humanity through a blending of qualities with replicants, making a perfect slave population that can scour the galaxy and pave the way for Human's to reach the Heavenlies. His watery pyramid/ziggauraut corporate headquarters draws a parallel to Babel. Wallace exerts control through knowledge of beginnings, controlling replicants through their manufacture, and ultimately gaining ultimate control through birth. Per the ancient gnostics, protology, a knowledge of the beginning, is the secret to salvation.

However, the revolutionaries proffer an alternative, which K embraces, namely that the future is what humanizes. Throughout the film, K becomes more obsessive about his origins, which follows from his programming. A search for the past directs K's activities, pressed on by his Wallace Corp made AI mate. Joi acts like a Homeric Athena, or a gnostic Sophia, a feminine principle that guides the journey inward. K believes the secret to his own redemption is in his very special origin. But when K embraces his lack of uniqueness, his very much replicant origin, he opens up the possibility of the future. K becomes Human in pursuing an end, giving himself to the cause of replicant freedom and the love between Deckard and his daughter. In fact, the daughter's name, Stelline, may be a link to a messianic identity, referring to Bethlehem's little star. Stelline may also be a reference to the woman of Revelation, who holds the stars, a symbol of the new Eve, Mary, who is a type of the Church. The messianic revolt of the replicants is their desire to be Human. The future, the end, is the key to redemption.

The film presents a stark contrast between a cosmic hierarchy of the past and the revolutionary potential of the future. The politics of the revolution certainly reflects Benjamin's theory of history, where the messianic age is locked into the bizarre gaze of the angel of the future, moving forward but looking back on the wreckage, suspended in the moment. The figure of Wallace represents a global corporatism, which is ironically fixated with the past as it is focused on progress. Like contemporary scientism, while it talks of the future, of technology, and Progress, it is ultimately about protology, about biological beginnings. The goal is to fix the Human race, not to learn to live in light of it. Like Benjamin, Blade Runner presents a stark contrast, where the past needs an apocalyptic caesura, a break in the madness. Thus, the replicant revolution is a radically leftist vision, seeking to undermine corporate cosmic hierarchism for an equitable society of freed slaves. The messianic Stelline is the leader because her existence places a question mark on all determinations.

There are many other biblical, or otherwise, motifs I've left out or missed. The film definitely wars against gnostic anti-christ, even as it it possesses a distinctly post-Christian vision. Unlike K, who rejects the past as an impossible dream for the potentiality of a future, Christ does not ultimately reject the past, but recapitulates it. The fog and haze of history is illumined through the work of the Messiah, who both reveals the past and opens the future. The radically apocalyptic messianism, found in Benjamin, but also radical Protestants like the early Barth and some existentialists, mistakes the power of God. Nature is not a problem to overcome, it is not the encrusted power dynamics of those seeking to grasp the future through mastery of the past.

However, K's vivification and death for the cause of freedom does reveal the eschatological hope that destabilizes all narratives of origins. For this reason, Blade Runner 2049 paints a portrait of a son of resurrection. K, in a way, gained a new birth, not through flesh and blood, not through the will of man, but the will of God, which in atheistic messianism is equivocal with Liberation. The film is an interesting diagnosis of global capitalism and a political radicalism that seeks to destroy the prison of ideological captivity. It shows both the good and bad in the misguided, and tragic, apocalypticism of a genuine leftist hope for the future.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Cranmer's Right Hand: A Symbol of the Magisterial Reformation

In 1556, Thomas Cranmer was to die as a repentant heretic under the bloody purge of reformers in Mary's short and vicious reign. Cranmer had recanted on almost all of his works as chief reformer and archbishop of England's church. Before he went to the pyre, Cranmer had time to give an execution speech. Marian authorities expected him to warn reformers of their heresy, but instead, Cranmer stood his ground. He was a man who seemed incredibly chameleon, someone who was politique and a survivor. Some have concluded that Cranmer was a toady, others that he was merely a slow thinker, an affable man, and someone highly committed to the English crown. The latter saw Cranmer's reformational views as a slow progress for a timid and thorough scholar. The truth is probably a mix of things, but, as he stood on death's door, Cranmer had made up his mind.

Cranmer rejected his recantation, decried the pope as anti-christ, and stood up for reformational principles. Marian supporters booed and hissed, evangelicals shouted him on. As guards escorted Cranmer to his execution, he found a fire and stretched forth his right hand. He proclaimed to the crowd that he burned off the offending hand that wrote blasphemies, perhaps as a show of zeal, perhaps with Christ's words in mind that it is better to lose a hand than be thrown into hell. Cranmer mounted the stake and burned, praying as St. Stephen did, asking Christ to receive his spirit.

I confess, I like Thomas Cranmer. He was one of the few major reformers who died a martyr. And it is my contention that Cranmer's burnt hand is a symbol for the magisterial reformation. Of course, by magisterial reformation I refer to the reformers who found governmental support for their reform efforts. Calvin had Geneva, Zwingli had Zurich, Luther had Wittenberg, and so on. The support of the magistrate did not mean it was not a bumpy road. Certainly Geneva was an endless headache to Calvin.  However, it did mean that the extant of a reformation depended upon the parameters of a particular magistrate, whether a prince or a city council. It should not be a surprise that Luther's haughty naivete, in a near "better a Turk than a Habsburg", quickly dried up as he depended on the prince-elector's authority to enforce his doctrine. By 1525, Luther turned his vicious pen against the peasants who misunderstood their man, and paid dearly for it.

Cranmer is a man who embodies the strains of the magisterial reformation. On the one hand, Cranmer was a humanist in the best sense of the term, someone who applied his mind to reassessing ancient sources. Ad Fontes was the cry of the Renaissance as well as much of the Reformation. It was in such an environment that Cranmer composed the prayer-book that would forever mark the Anglican world. Cranmer's design for the English church's liturgy was one that would give the Bible to the common people. The lectionary was designed for the purposes of covering the totality of Scripture. The prayers were soaked in Scripture, addressing the struggles and joys of everyday life. Cranmer sought to lift up lay people to the level of monastic holiness. All of life was to be addressed in worship.

On the other hand, Cranmer subjected English Christians to degradation beneath the crown. The church became a tool in the hand of Henry VIII's statecraft. The Reformation Parliament resulted in an established church thoroughly compromised, and its legacy set forth many future complications. Of course, without Henry, England would have never ceased to be Roman; many contemporaries considered it one of the last places to leave the papal fold. But the witness of Lollardy is proof against a nasally complaint that the great truths of the Reformation would've perished without princely support. Perhaps, but what a craven way to think. God uses many dishonorable villains despite themselves. On account of its magisterial attachments, the Church of England's history is blackened with persecution of the saints, greed, slavery, imperial warmongering, genocide, and partisanship, many times being the Tory party at prayer.

And I've only referenced England. Lutheran and Reformed hands are stained crimson in an ocean of blood. The many state-churches of Europe played the whore well, drunk on the blood of the saints and the oppressed. The tragic heart of the Reformation is 1525, when the peasant revolt broke out and was violently crushed. In light of the peasants' blood stained soil, remembering 1517 is sadistic masturbation, a selfish reveling in the deep tragedies of Luther's stand. While I'm in no way exculpating Rome's guilt in violence and cruelty, Luther was no hero.

And neither was Thomas Cranmer. He wrote well, he promoted beautiful truths, he tried to reform his church to bring the gospel. But his reform efforts were deeply compromised. The hand that wrote the prayerbook and the glorious articles of religion also penned propaganda for the realm, supporting Henry's tyrant reign. Cranmer's hand justified horrors as well as leaving the truths of the gospel that clearly proclaim a glorious kingdom not of this age. Cranmer's hand left a pattern for a deeply perverse church of anti-christ, typified in the current US episcopal church, as well a church of hopeful glory, as one sees in places like Nigeria and Egypt.

Cranmer acted better than he knew. The magisterial reformation has as much to offer as to disregard, it is a dead end that possessed the seeds of life. It is the burnt hand of the martyr-bishop, full of compromise and courage. Christ's church has suffered such contradictions and will continue to, as light and shadow mix in Christ's crucified body. May we learn from such, rejoicing and shuddering at once.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On Miracles: A Revelation of the Logos

Carl Schmitt's political theology program rightly understood that modernity depended upon secularized theological categories. Thus, he saw liberalism as a great smokescreen and shell-game, trying to hide its origins. Of course, this fact is more or less true. Many early-modern enlightenment thinkers attempted to build a political order that could accommodate as many perspectives as possible under a larger umbrella. The bloodletting and bloodlust of the Thirty Years War and the English Civil Wars provided the context for these men to pursue the project. This umbrella intentionally bracketed theological questions, and re-designed the edifice of politics to hide these questions.

Schmitt, as someone sympathetic to baroque monarchies, but, post-French Revolution, was a counter-revolutionary, sought to undo the mythology of liberalism. He was a deeply loyal, but heterodox, Roman Catholic. Rome possesses a huge theological umbrella, and a part of such an approach is its highly syncretic theology. Some trends in Roman theology are more Christian than others. Schmitt represents a fringe element that is akin to a monotheistic paganism dressed up in the pomp of thaumaturgy and imperial splendor. It's not a stretch to assume that if Julian the Apostate's attempt to build a Pagan church was a success, Schmitt would heartily endorse the legacy.

One point on which Schmitt was all too syncretic, but reflective of currents in Christian theology, was how he understood the miracle. For Schmitt, the miracle was the exceptional, where God suspended nature, which, in effect, proved the normative value of nature. In secularized political theology, the miracle as exception took a juridical turn. In constitutions and subsequent laws, the sovereign could intervene to suspend the constitution or legal authority, which not only was intended to protect the constitution, but also prove its normative power. The miraculous was a tangential intersection intended to bolster the normative functioning of the world.

Of course, this definition of a miracle fits with a very strong current in Christian theology that interpreted miracles along a supernatural-natural axis. The miracle had a utilitarian function and functioned as an intervention. Nature had a particular course, but, to effect His purposes, God acted suddenly to change a course of events. His act was tangential, a quick touch, which altered the direction of subsequent events, though the processes that unfolded did so according to the norm of nature. Of course, many older theologians had found problems in such a conceptualization. St. Augustine and Luther, following him, speculated that perhaps miracles were built into God's original creative act, set to occur at the proper time for the proper purposes. As such, miracles highlighted God's wisdom and effected His will.

However, this approach, while equally utilitarian, had given way to a much more functionalist account. The Reformation unleashed accusation and counter-accusation over the miraculous. The justification for the miraculous as proof began much earlier, but with Erasmus, the miracle was a counter to claims of the Reformation. If God had intended this shift, where were your miracles, where was your proof? Many Reformers shut the door on the argument, claiming God no longer did the miraculous, and that if someone saw a miracle, they were credulous, swindled by either the devil or man. However, the argument continued, and pressed on in how both sides defended the miracles of the Bible from skeptics and critics. Miracles proved new doctrines, changes in the covenant, etc.

Ephraim Radner's account of the Jansenists opens a possibility of moving away from such an account of the miracle. To summarize quickly, Radner saw the Jansenists hold to the position that miracles were intended to reveal Christ, which was a revelation of not only Him, not only His body the Church, but also the entire shape of the world. There was no formula to the miracle, they could not be predicted, and they did not necessarily entail any direct purpose. Miracles were sudden and strange, and they, in a Jansenist defender like Pascal, created/sustained belief and unbelief. The miracle gave a glimpse of divine glory in judgement among sin. The only unifying factor was Christ, who reveals the meanings and purposes of all of the miraculous.

Another consideration is even the fact of nature. What is it? It's hard to find a section in Scripture that presupposes a well-oiled, self-possessed, nature that functions a part from God. The creation narrative of Genesis was not only a one-off historical account, but reveals the general shape of God's creative activity. God is continually speaking to keep the world in existence. In perhaps an unhelpfully charming description, G.K. Chesterton described the laws of nature as God's boyish enjoyment of His work, repetitively telling the sun every morning, "Do it again." In another instance, John Hutchinson challenged Newtonian physics with the idea that it was not an impersonal gravity, but angels, that caused things to fall. Of course, our own perplexity at such depends upon a particular definition of natural laws and a particular definition of angels. As a few biblical commentators in the 20th century pointed out, most notably the prophetic William Stringfellow, one should not separate dark social structures from the demonic. Both must be understood together. Our notions of the spiritual should not be as fantastic or reductionistic, or usually both, to assume anything less. The demons have done a good job convincing many that they don't exist, there are only social institutions that can be reformed of their evil or that they only exist as spooks and ghouls.

The point is that God's creation is a continual and ongoing affair. He must always speak for things to be as such. Yet, this creation is marred with the sin of Adam, which has only multiplied, deepened, and intensified.  The orders and powers of creation are out of whack. Man becomes a slave to these forces, bowing down and worshiping created things, even himself.  While creation still glistens with God's creative power and design, it is, with eyes to see, groaning under the weight of sin, awaiting redemption.

Thus, perhaps it is helpful to view miracles within this paradigm. The miracle is not a corrective or a proof, but a revelation. While some miracles have had a didactic element, they most properly reveal the person and work of Jesus Christ. Exorcisms, healing, feeding the 5000, all of these were not symbols of Jesus' authority, but a revelation of the Messiah's reign. When St. Peter has the cripple stand, it is because the reign of the Christ is restorative, bringing wholeness to the lame, lifting up the weak and humble and casting down the strong. When holy Moses opened the Red sea for Israel to cross, and closed it to drown Pharaoh's army, such was not a functional operation. Rather, it's a vision of baptism, a rite that is conjoined to the dying and rising of the Messiah. When Joshua asked God to pause the sun to win his battles, it was not because of a time constraint. Rather, it was a revelation that the reign of light was not subject to the powers of darkness; it was the other way around.

Therefore, the miracle is anything but a dichotomy of supernature and nature, but a revelation of nature itself. For the world was created by and for Jesus Christ, and it reflects His design, His logoi, even in its sin and rebellion. God does intervene into the iron law of history and the self-sufficiency of nature, rather He reveals the fraudulence thereof. Things as they are are not what they shall be. The miracle shows us Christ, which shows us otherwise than the rule of This World's god, the devil.

Applied in political theological terms, this understanding of the miracle validates John Howard Yoder's concern for fidelity. Rightly, he condemned Christian "realists", like the Niebuhrs, for mistaking God's reign in radically existential terms. According to Richard Niebuhr, Jesus was a great ethical model, but not at the social or political level; Christians have to get their hands dirty because they live in a world of sin and depravity. Yoder rejected such thinking because in embracing the patterns of the world, seeking after legitimacy and effectiveness, one denied the political implications of Jesus. The whole of Scripture, according to Jesus, spoke of the coming of the Messiah, His suffering, death, and resurrection on the third day. Fidelity to this promise was more important than calculated risks. One can not guess the actions of God, one only receives them. The miracle of the resurrection revealed the heart of God's design, the lamb slain before the foundation of the world.

I'm not a cessationist, I still believe miracles happen. And the miraculous unveils Christ, and all the many dimensions and facets of His glory. Against Schmitt, such a political theology is not conducive for states, for it claims a radically different sovereign, a kingdom not of this world. Christians may tacitly endorse different orders, but only in so far as they engage in a politics of the church, a devotion to Christ as ultimate king and within a body that seeks to manifests an imitation of Christ, the suffering and giving love, which, in a world of sin and death, appears as a crucified criminal. That such a figure would be the savior of the world is the truest of all miracles. May we say, with the bewildered centurion, "Truly, this is the son of God".

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Maturity, or Why Revivalists are Bad Farmers

One thing Peter Leithart has picked up on is the fact that Evangelicals are, by and large, terrible film makers. While he primarily chalks it up to a poor sacramentology, and I have serious reservations and disagreements on this point, he also points to the fact that Evangelicals focus on conversion to a fault. The climax of the typical Evangelical movie is the conversion experience, usually done hamfistedly. Sometimes it's in the throes of death (God's Not Dead), sometimes it's at the critical moment the film's plot revolves around, changing a character at the right moment to prevent catastrophe (Courageous). At best, these scenes seem highly implausible and wholly dependent on a deus ex machina, at worst, they're howlers, discrediting the Christian faith.

Evangelicalism developed such a diminished view of the Human person through its roots in Pietism. Now there is much to commend to a focus on conversion. The Scripture makes clear that one moves from darkness to light, from the reign of the devil to the reign of Christ. The emphasis on conversion appeared when churches collapsed into the surrounding society. The Pietist, and later Evangelical and Revivalist, approach was trying to combat the symptomatic rot without really recognizing the roots and scope of the lethargy, the worldliness, and the apathy involved.

The Pietists were devout Lutherans, but ones who sought to subjectivize Luther's law-gospel distinction into the emotional fabric of a man's life. The early founders of the movement were disgusted with what they saw as a desiccated orthodoxy which was more worried about the pristine formula than actual Christian living. Pietists saw the way forward was to trigger the formulaic path of the Christian life, terror and sorrow before the law and relief and joy from the gospel. The experience became a litmus test; and while the Pietists did not seek to upend the Lutheran state-churches they were among, the movement impacted the Anglophone world and created a stir. The First Great Awakening saw churches split and ministers thrown out of their congregations. It divided the Reformed world, seeing Old Light and New Light Presbyterians form, Methodists separated out of the Church of England, and smaller groups of dissenters, like the Baptists, exploded in size, fully embracing the change of emphasis.

Of course, as any historian of revialism can tell you, the movement's energy drove it into the ground. The western fringe of the north Atlantic became known as the burned-over district, where the zeal and fire of conversion has inoculated people to hearing the gospel. The reason may be that conversion is only the beginning, and not end, of Christian life.

When the young Luther began to write, he emphasized the need to return a focus on baptism. The Christian's life began at baptism, and confession and penance is only useful if it is a conceptualized as a return to one's baptism. This point developed into the divisions over the Third Use of the Law between Lutherans and the Reformed. The former inherited their master's deep ambiguity and ambivalence over the Law as anything but a terror. Contemporary pop-Lutheranism has concluded the struggle through sheer denial, but many confessional Lutherans still struggle over the question. Luther condemned the antinomians, like Agricola, but mainly due to an overconfidence about the Christian life's freedom from sin. The Law must be ever present for Christians, as sinners, still need terror to be driven back to grace. It flows from the doctrine of baptism. There is a deep pessimism about whether Christian maturity is anything other than being really good at returning to the basics. Hence, Luther, unlike later Pietists, is less concerned about experience, though the master's heirs were trying to preserve his emphasis on the basics. The heart of Christian life becomes conversion, though for Luther it is a conversion one repeats over and over.

The problem is that salvation is not justification. Protestant schoolmen schematized salvation into an ordo salutis, a steps along a single indivisible chain of salvation. Reformed schoolmen spent far more time on emphasizing the distinct stages and seeing the Christian life as steps along. Luther tended to wrap all other things under justification. Confessional Lutherans will complain about the Reformed as moralizers, because once one hits justification and moves along to sanctification, the sweet honey of the gospel is succeeded by imperatives to improve. These Lutherans are hardly in better in practice, though they have a point. However, this criticism only applies to some segments of the Reformed world, most of whom have lost irretrievable ground to those who see Scripture as presenting a historia salutis, the story of salvation. This approach is far more loyal to Calvin who saw the heart of the gospel as union with Christ, where no attempts were made to parse the distinct elements. Yet even here, union with Christ can be mutated into a static category, which is thrown upon the same set of emphases found among the schoolmen, getting no farther than when began.

The point is that maturity is left out of the equation. What does it mean to grow into Christ, depending upon Christ's many agricultural metaphors. The war against Rome's corruptions obfuscated the fact that they had a point, as Thomas might put it, that salvation habituates itself in the Christian life. There is a sense where a Christian is more justified, more sanctified, more glorified, etc., through the tenure of his life. It's in the same way one is more married, which is to say that one realizes the form of the covenant. It's why St. Paul compares salvation to an athlete striving to win the crown. For good reasons, many Evangelicals have emphasizes the final and saving work of Christ, but, as the apostle says, it's a work we must fill up on over what is still lacking. When Evangelicals detach Christ's form of life, namely suffering and dying for righteousness,  from the grace of salvation, it's an easy slide into cheap grace or, perhaps slightly worse or better depending on the circumstances, cheap grace with moralism tacked on.

When conversion is preached without a sense of maturation, we get Grahamites, a term I'm coining. I'm referring to the vast swathes of people who were caught up in Billy Graham's revival tours, or from derivative off-shoots aping his method. These people prayed the prayer, felt a little zeal for a bit, and then drifted off. As some polls have shown, a majority of the Evangelicals who voted for Trump were those who rarely attended a church. Their form of life was a brand of Americana stamped with a shallow image of Jesus, which is not much more than a brand and slogan. And these people drifted off rightly so, because they were given nothing more to feed on. It's not for nothing that Billy Graham counseled those who converted to go back to where they were from, even if it was a Roman parish or a Jewish synagogue. The comment disturbed some watchdogs, but it was symptomatic of a view of church that was not much more than a social club to hear the gospel. Many Evangelicals today recognize the deficiency and are trying to remedy it, with varying effects.

It is why the left wing of the Reformation, the Anabaptists (referring specifically to the breakaways from Zwingli), are worth understanding. There was a sense among them that the Christian life, even salvation, involved the body, individually and collectively,  needed the form of Christ. Contrary to propaganda, they did not deny justification by faith alone, or clung to works-righteousness, but applied union with Christ more radically. Faith was not uncoupled from works in such a way to oppose belief to fidelity. The full weight of salvation came through living as Christ, and, fulfilling the Master's prophecy, they suffered immensely for it, being reviled with lies.

I am not an Anabaptist for I diverge on numerous major doctrines, but on the above point, they truly grasped the heart of the Reformation, something even Luther vaguely understood. As I've talked about elsewhere in greater depth, it was about union with Christ as the total form of life given to all Christians. It is for such reasons that infant baptism is not only acceptable, but a good practice. Conversion from darkness, beginning so young, is something to grow into, and not the linchpin of the Christian life. Someone like Origen, who was born to a father who became a martyr, did not need an adult reconversion. He merely grew into the faith of his family. The early Anabaptists mistook the problem with infant baptism, though for good reason. Zwingli's reforms continued the prior practice of church welded to society; men like Hubmaier and Grebel did not believe the church was coextensive with Zurich.

I do not wish to diminish conversion, especially as converts turn their faces from the extreme perversions of the Western world. I wish only to situate it properly in a much deeper vision of the Christian life. I pray the American churches would recognize salvation as being deeply wound up with growing into Christ, a form of life that realizes through time and space. May the churches join in not only casting the seed of the word, but watering as well.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Atheism doesn't exist, or Atheism as Radical Protestantism

I recently watched Terry Eagleton give a lecture about how gnu-atheists mirror the fundamentalists they abhor. I'm not sure whether Eagleton is actually a Christian, he comes off as a neo-Thomist leftist Roman Catholic, but a very heterodox one at that. However, he is a pretty robust defender of the basic gist of the faith. When he concluded his lecture, the first comment was a frank side-step around the whole talk and pining for some evidence of God's existence. Eagleton stumbles over answering him, but he attempted to restate a major point of his lecture: God is not an object in the room for orthodox Christian theology, so gnu-atheists are fighting off titanic strawmen.

Before continuing, a side note: Eagleton has an enjoyable wit, but the whole crowd hardly murmured as he layered serious thought with light absurdity in perfectly dry English form. The lecture took place in Scotland, and I wonder whether a sort of moral seriousness, derived from reforming efforts and Reformed scholasticism, has created a totally arid environment. Sectors of Reformed theology devolved into rationalism, of which the atheistic secular variety is the successor. One sees such an ethos take shape where such a Reformed theology dominated. Thus, Scotland and New England, as two examples, lack an atmosphere of jest and levity. Truly, lacking a sense of humor is certainly one of the greatest spiritual sores such a woeful theology produces.

Anyway, St. Augustine shines a helpful light not only on dismissing these bad questions, but also uncover a more radical dynamic at work. Augustine establishes the definition of "god" as the ultimate reality. Therefore, and this point is key, everyone is, in fact, at the roots, a type of monotheist. Greco-Roman pagans worshiped a plethora of gods, who ranked in powers and scope, but the myths reveal that the ultimate force, something even Zeus could not control, was Fate. Other more philosophical pagans used the myth of Zeus as a metaphor for the ultimate god. Neo-Platonism spoke of the One. All three examples reckon the existence of multiple lesser deities, who may be appeased in some way or another, while all acknowledging a supreme reality which governs over all.

Augustine's approach cuts through a lot of labyrinthine thought when it comes to getting at real issues. All pagans, all polytheists, recognize some ultimate reality. However, even more critically, even all atheists recognize some ultimate reality. Some science-mystics speak of a multiverse that churned out many universes, of which ours is one. Some atheists speak of Being, or the Real, or the Subliminal. Others may talk of Nature, Freedom, Progress, History, Matter, Spirit, the Universe, Energy, Fate, even Death or Nothingness. But the kicker is that all of these names, with their properly capitalized letters, function as an ultimate reality, the final adjudicating authority.

Augustine deconstructs the latent theology that is submerged in common speech as well as the variety of fields of knowledge. When placed in this form (which I think is fundamentally correct), it turns out there are, in fact, no atheists. All people believe in an ultimate authority, even if that ultimate authority is the void from which all things emerged from. From this ultimate reality, people organize and govern their lives, taking into account the diverse lesser authorities that wield delegated powers. These lesser authorities resemble the gods of myth, though certainly in our age we've dragged them out of the Heavens and into the immaterial world of abstracts. We talk of the People, or the Market; these are like lesser gods, but they lack an enchanted mythos, though the stories we tell about them are equally fables. As Jacques Ellul never tired of pointing out: modernity did not disenchant the world, it only destroyed the old gods and replaced them with new sacred fountains.

However, I'm wont to throw out the label atheist. It still refers to something. I think Zizek is right to argue that atheism is only truly such when it passes through the prism of Christianity. Zizek reconstructs the Christian faith viz. Hegel and Lacanian psycho-therapy. For Zizek, the secret heart of Christianity is the death of God, the abolition of the Big Other. Hence, Zizek criticizes other, non-Christian, forms of atheism as still deeply theistic, still noticing a judge standing over and taking count. Zizek sees such anti-Christian atheisms as fundamentally pagan, as they, as I've argued, still worship some other god (things like History, Progress, or the Universe), even if they decry the Christian God.

I would reformulate Zizek's approach a bit. I agree that, certainly, there are varieties of atheism, and some tend to resemble some form of Pagan theology. And I agree that atheism depends upon the work of the Protestant Reformation. But, following only part of his his idiosyncratic theory, the deep bond between atheism and Protestantism is their deeply dialectical nature. Defining my terms, Protestant does not refer to a non-Papal form of Western Christianity, per se, but rather a form of Christianity defined from its encounter with Rome. Much of Protestant theology depends upon the existence of the false other from which it is locked in a fight to the death. Luther, and the confessions he and his comrades drafted, depended upon a dialectical engagement with Rome. Following Zizek to a degree, the secret heart of the Reformation is a form of negation. It's why sola fide becomes the doctrine by which the church stands or falls; Luther's reading of Paul sees a dialectical negation as the heart of the gospel, free grace against works-righteousness, the former cancelling out the latter. This dialectical approach carried a distinctly apocalyptic flavor; Luther thought the eschaton was near. Thus, not all Protestants are actually, or even necessarily, Protestant.

Atheism has a similar relationship with Christianity, though the same method refracts through Westernized varieties of Judaism and Islam as well. Per the quip, monotheists disbelieve in all gods but one, atheists go one step further. Not only is that not true, it betrays a dialectical dependence upon the monotheism it feeds upon. Atheists, like a lot of contemporary pop-Lutheranism, don't realize they depend upon double converts: first a person has to become somewhat religious, and then they break away. Trying to routinize the approach is similar to how Pietists schematized the need to subjectively experience bondage to the law and the freedom of the gospel. One needs to replicate a clone of Rome's works-righteousness, whether within the church or without it, through a schematic lens in order to break it. It's in this way that atheists almost act as quasi-evangelists for a clone of Fundamentalism, telling people about the stupid rule-mongering god from which to liberate people for a rationalist, pseudo-science, paradise.

From such a diagnosis, I'm inclined to see Luther as a radically destructive interpreter of St. Paul. I'm not saying Luther was completely wrong, to the contrary a lot of what he said was reading the apostle rightly. But it was the framework Luther placed Paul within which has plagued Pauline studies for centuries. As a side-note, John Barclay is a brilliant and perceptive interpreter of not only Paul's doctrine of grace, but also the structural pitfalls within Luther's approach, while paying him respect for what he got right. More to the point: Luther locked Paul's doctrine of grace into a dialectic with his contemporary Judaism. Luther interpreted Paul as setting up a dialectic between the law and the gospel, where the latter depends upon the former to emerge. The Jews became the perfect enemies, ones who, by denying the dialectic, formed it. By loving the law and pursuing it to the point of madness, Christ could emerge all the more glorious. Hence, law-gospel is the critical center of Luther's theology, a dialectic where salvation as justification can be deepened to nullification. It's for such reason that I think someone like Agamben, a kind of Christian atheist, can sound, at points, very much like Luther.

On the contrary, St. Paul's thought is not dialectical, but a dual reality is cast through the possibility of the surd. In other terms, the light of God's grace does not need a contrast; the fall was not a felix culpa, a happy sin. Rather, in light of sin, the grace of God casts a shadow. St. Paul thought the Jews had everything necessary to believe, yet some did not. It doesn't make sense, and and it's not supposed to make sense, because sin doesn't make sense. It doesn't ground itself in being triumphed over. As long as Paul, or any other author, type, or theme of Scripture, is read dialectically, it mistakes the way God's actions meet Human iniquity. It's a reason why Luther's thought can either only be superficially Christocentric, where Christ forms a pole on a dialectic, or is atheistically Christocentric, where Christ is the dialectical negation, bringing about ultimate destruction. For the former, it's why confessional Lutheranism is very conservative socio-politically, reflecting the pole of Deus Absconditus, the hidden god who broods with wrath and judgement. For the latter, it's why much of Mockingbird's pop-Lutheran theology vaguely resembles radical atheism (think of their love of Tim Kreider, Alain deBotton, et al.).

On the other hand, I see in St. Augustine a more biblical Christocentrism. Christ is the identity of God, the ultimate reality. To say Christ is God is to imply a Trinitarian theology; for as Son there is the unseen Father He images, and as Christ there is Spirit who is creative power. Augustine wires a deep interconnectedness between all the reflections of Christ. The heart of the gospel is thus union with Christ, from which everything else (including, and especially, justification) is a derivative benefit of His person and work. In addition, Pascal as a deeply Augustinian thinker, wires the cross into the identity of God. Christ is God revealed, but God revealed is the Deus Absconditus; One who tells riddles, provokes, and draws. I've written about this concept elsewhere. The shadow cast from the True God results in a duality. In the wake of Christ's crucifixion, one thief confesses Him as Lord and the other scoffs. Christ calls His bride, but she is imitated by a blood-drinking harlot. God makes in seven, and the beast brandishes six. Let the reader understand.

Christ is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Such is the ultimate reality, giving lie to all the others. Salvation is not in dialectics.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Sovereign Slave

In Richard Tuck's recent work, The Sleeping Sovereign, he documents Jean Bodin's conceptual development of separating sovereignty from government. The sovereign is the constituting authority and the government, whose existence is derivative from the sovereign, is the constituted authority. The sovereign determines the parameters and the rules, and the government seeks to uphold and maintain them. According to Tuck, Thomas Hobbes, that great blackguard and bugbear of political theory, followed Bodin, going as far to posit the possibility of a democratic sovereign. Thus, Hobbes was architectonic in offering up a reconceptualization of democracy that was possible beyond the small city-state. Prior to Hobbes, most considered democracy purely along the lines of a government by popular assembly, which was decried as leading to anarchy, corruption, and tyranny. However, for Tuck reading Hobbes, a democratic sovereign can institute a non-democratic governing structure, and this approach best preserves the power and authority of the people. The majority can rise up and alter the constitutional order, radically reconstructing the government for its purposes. Tuck sees this radical bifurcation key to the development of the United States, where a democratic sovereign constituted an aristocratic government. Per the titular metaphor, the sovereign may rise from sleep and take back his government from his vizier and give it to another.

Interestingly enough, Tuck explains the progress of Bodin's theory through a minor scuffle between the English Separatists (who were congregational and wanted the disestablishment of the Church) and the Presbyterians (who wanted to reform the national church into presbyterian synods, away from bishops). John Robinson, a Separatist leader, references Bodin in conceptualizing his ecclesiology. According to Robinson, the congregation is the sovereign who calls its governing figures, elders, who run the affairs of the church, but keep internal debates before the public. Some Presbyterians scoffed at the idea as sophistry for democratic mob-rule, others were amenable but found public discussion among the elders distasteful.

The reason I bring any of this up, in line with the Separatist examples, is that it is key to understand the church as a political body, by which I mean that it is social body that deals with how people live with one another. With St. Augustine, churches are visible manifestation of the city of God. They are not the cultic aspect of civilization that parallels the civic in the reign of kings or princes. Also, I reject aspects of a two-kingdoms view. It's one thing to posit that there is a distinction between inwards stirrings and outward actions, and that not everyone in the life of a church is, in the end, part of the Body of Christ. But it's another to posit the outward as a realm where both the civic and the ecclesiastical operate as non-overlapping, but conjoined, circles. I reject the idea of Christendom; therefore, I reject the idea that civil government is somehow necessary alongside the ecclesial. I will return to this point later.

I want to look at the possibility that Hobbes development of this differentiation between sovereignty and government was due to his attentive reading of the Bible. Hobbes may have been a heretic, perhaps even an atheist, I'm not wading into that; rather, all I'm claiming was that he detected a Biblical pattern in his studies. The pattern is how God mediates His reign through the rule of lesser authorities. St. Paul tells us God gave the Torah through angels. More importantly, God created man as His image and likeness, which possesses the grammatical parallel to kingship. Thus, man was created to rule as God's viceroy; God created man to be as little gods on earth. At least, that was man's destiny, which Adam threw away in bowing to the ancient dragon. The Biblical history of salvation documents how God began to continue along, developing man as well as proving the depth of man's corruption.

A major stage was when Israel harassed Samuel and clamored for a king like the nations. Samuel reports to the Lord, who replies that He will do as the people wish. The Lord counsels Samuel that Israel had not rejected its judge and prophet, but had rather rejected their God. This scenario has a deeply political lesson. Clearly, Israel had rejected Samuel, and they appealed to God to put a king over them. How was this request rejecting God, exactly? One way of conceptualizing these events is along the lines of sovereignty. The people of Israel rejected God by assuming the right to reconstitute themselves into a monarchy. Rather than the monarchy of Israel's God, who appointed governors like Samuel to intervene and solve problems; the people had assumed to themselves a kind of sovereignty that they wished to dispose in a monarch. The request itself was a rejection, asking the Lord to cease as sovereign. In a way, the people asked for a different god on earth. This act was in a way a certain form of idolatry, but God delivered the people over to their lust in bringing Saul forth.

However, the kingship in Israel possessed a redemptive aspect. Giving the people over to the idol they clamored for would become the very mechanism of redemption. The controversy between Samuel and Saul represented the fissure of the church rent with idolatry. God's election of David, as well as the eschatological blessing promised to his house, represented a dual maturation and corruption. The idol was dethroned through an icon; God appointed a king for Israel to call, but then called His own king, the son of Jesse.

David presents us with a riddle that only Christ solves: how can God be sovereign and yet elect a king as sovereign? How can God share His glory which He will never share? The coming of the Messiah Jesus unveils the riddle, for it is none other than the Word who took flesh, who became the seed of the Woman. The idol is finally broken into pieces through the rock who grows to the size of a mountain. The rough icon of God triumphs over the sin of man, and the Messiah not only restores man's vocation, but completes it, opening a new vision of what it means to be a man in a world of sin and death, as well as opening our horizons to a world to come.

What is revealed? Christ reigns as sovereign in the guise of a slave. His constituting authority comes not through clamoring, but through laying down. The broken body of a crucified criminal becomes the act of salvation, which involves the social dimension of bringing a people into union with Himself. Jews and gentiles are forged into a new community, scattered communities united to the sovereign Christ whose bonds are His blood. Reduction and weakness becomes the means of God's strength. A radical reversal from a surging multitude building a golden calf or calling for a tyrant. The nature of creation is uncovered, seen through the filth of the Devil's bondage and domineering.

William Tyndale translated the word 'ecclesia' into the English word Congregation. Some in England complained that such made the glorious reality of God's people profane sounding. Thus, the Bishop's Bible and then the KJV translated it back to 'church'. But I'm with Tyndale: the word church can obscure the social, and even political, dimensions of God's people. Again, when I say political, what I mean is the 'how' a collective, a coming together of families or fragments thereof, lives together. What it means to be the Body of Christ, where Jesus Christ is the Head, is to say the Body is the People in the midst of which Jesus reigns. To consider 'congregation' profane is to miss the meaning of 'ecclesia' in both Old and New testaments. And this congregation is formed not from the bottom-up, such is the pagan direction of turning to the worship of a totem. Rather, it is top-down, where God blows breath into His creation, making something from nothing.

Thus, Christ is sovereign, and as sovereign He has appointed a government for His kingdom. Christ chose the Twelve, who were pillars of His kingdom. The Acts of the Apostles reveals the unfolding of this government, the appointing of overseers, elders, and servers (bishops, priests, and deacons), for executing His reign. Of course, Christ constitutes this government to execute His purposes, forming a people that are like Him. Hence, we have the beginnings of servant leadership, where the power does not move upwards, like pagans, shamans lifting up the vitality of the people into a totem god. Rather, Christ' power surges downwards and out. Thus, the government of Christ's congregation/church is called ministry. In his treatise de regno, Thomas highlights the radical consideration of Christ's government. While freemen work for themselves, slaves work for another; the governing authority works on behalf of the people, for the common good; thus, the government is a slave. Thomas did not conceptualize a distinction between sovereign and government, and he was applying this model to civil society specifically. However, one can see how a government constituted by a sovereign serving, means the elevation of the sovereign slave. The identity of God is revealed in the One who gave His life away, even to death, death on a cross! Such is the proper shape and form of the Church.

And, since the officers of the congregation, such as bishops, are governors and are not sovereigns, Christ has laid down parameters for their selection. The ordained ministry governs on behalf of Christ, but it is still very much a part of the body. Hence, some mixture of appointment between those who are already ordained in consultation with the wider congregation is best. Clericalism begins a rot that confuses the Body, forming a caste that easily begins to mistake itself as sovereign constituting authority over the bodies of the church. Most likely, Christian communities form from pre-existing ones, and should derive order from them. However, clericalism, rank in most forms of Presbyterianism, turns a desire for good order and fellowship for a bureaucratic oligarchy. Such is obscene.

Many bracket out the concept of Christ's sovereignty, absorbing the very Human nature of Christ into His divinity. Nothing in this post has sought to deny or qualify God's providential rule over all events, that's a totally different question altogether. What I am saying is that in Jesus Christ, the people of God, all Christians, have a sovereign to whom they owe their total obedience. Yet the temptation to see through any other lens but Jesus can distort this reality, and we begin to act like pagans.  This battle is documented throughout St. John's Revelation, where a whore and bride move side by side through the pages. When the body seeks to offer itself to any other husband, submitting itself to the kings of men, or even becoming a Jezebel riding the beast, it is in idolatrous rebellion. Such a judgement is as political as it is theological.

However, as we live through an epoch where there is both a bride and a whore, it is as the days when God crowned David king yet Saul was still king. The story of Saul reflects not only the church, but whole creation, as Saul represents a worldly reign present everywhere, even among the people of God. Saul was not the king, yet even David paid him respects until God's judgement would finally come. Such ought to be Christian's relationship to all powers and principalities. It is the warp-and-woof of what St. Paul says in Romans 13. These governing authorities still exist, but their sovereignty must be denied, no matter what the nations say. The reign of the fugitive David is the reign of the cross; where in this era of in-between times, confusion, and tears we faithfully follow our sovereign king outside the camp.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Vulgarity: A Brief Genealogy of Dualism and the Body

In Beauty of the Infinite, David Bentley Hart noted that the post-modern capitalist West is not really materialist, but gnostic. Typical American shoppers are not hording goods because of some intrinsic value to materiality. Rather, it's all chasing a dream. It's not the love of clothes, but fashion; it's not the love of technology, but technique. Americans consume, looking for some spiritual goal in the ruins of physical goods. It's this same approach many take to their own bodies. Again, one might think the hyper-focus on physical health, nutrition, exercise, etc. would show a fixation on the body. But it's not the body many are after, but the intangible goods associated with it. The method behind the typical gym is that the consumer, with his all-powerful will and existence by fiat, can buy salvation for his flesh. He can mold and shape the ugly putty that a life-time of morose lethargy and gluttony had morphed it into a state of disrepair. The emphasis should be on the 'it', because, and this point is key, it's not the person who is in a state of disrepair, but the body, as if the two are not deeply intertwined, if not enmeshed.

It was, of course, the ancient gnostics who were a part of a large scale transformation of late-Roman society. Not only did the gnostics disparage the body, leading to both extreme asceticisim and libertinism, but pushed to withdrawal from public life. Society, in all its shapes and forms, was a means to an end, namely the salvation of the individual from the Demiurge's world of filth. Irenaeus, along with a majority of the Christian community, repudiated both aspects. Christians possessed a public faith, though this orientation did not mean a desire for respectability or being a part of the establishment. But, as St. Irenaeus made clear, Christians valued the body and its materiality. Christian asceticism, as opposed to its pagan varieties, was educational, not domineering. The Human body was not a problem, but it was the locus of not only the Christian, but where God would meet him.

While Christians venerated the fact that the Son of God would take up flesh and tabernacle among His people, the tides of late Roman paganism were growing weary and hateful. The emperor Marcus Aurelius described sex as the rubbing of an extremity between thighs until slime emerged. He intended this crude assessment as a sobering realism, in line with Stoic practices of discipline. The purpose was to dislodge Human desire from crude material things which are fleeting. This approach stands in marked contrast with the Christian hope for resurrection of the body, from a corruptible to incorruptible body, from a body powered by the flesh to a body powered by the Holy Spirit. St. Paul counseled that filthy talk should not be found among brothers.

I think it's visible, over the long arc of Christian history, that when the body and soul are fragmented, there results a cavalcade of justifications for sin. St. Maximus spent some of his intellectual energies seeking to counter Origenist monasticism, which had uncoupled the body from Christian salvation. The point of asceticism was not discipline, or taming the passions, but a kind of destruction of the body, fully subdued to the mind/soul, which would direct it as a master directs a slave, a mere tool and extension of the master's will. This form of asceticism sought to wither the body to a shell. It was such fools that the apostle Paul saw as possessing a form of godliness, but without content. There was a foolish assumption that the body was in the way of Human perfection, as if the devils were not perfectly malevolent as incorporeal spirits.

Origenist practices carried over into the West, morphing and mutating along the way. The monastic revolutions of Dominic and Francis were, in ways, attempts to overcome the quasi-Platonic ascetics that haunted the country-side. As one might expect, monks tended towards the corpulent or the demoniac. Some sought to earn salvation through flagellation and fasting, others were mere worldlings, fat and overbearing temporal lords who were insatiable in their lusts for wine and women.

Luther was firmly planted in this mode of thinking, taking to the side of the possessed, assailed by the devil and his own nervous conscience. When Luther unleashed his Reformation, one thing he took to was a complete repudiation of all his monastic seriousness. He began to veer towards drunkenness, an unconquerable arrogance, and an acid tongue. Now, Luther was not the only polemicist on the field of battle, but he was the crassest. He quickly tried to absorb as much colloquial filth as human possible, and brandish it through his inkpot.

Why did Luther move in this direction, to the frustration of some of his comrades? Perhaps it was because Luther was thoroughly at home with hating the flesh. Luther justified his foul mouth, his "earthy" advice, and even his marriage to Katherine von Bora as spiting the Devil. This argument turns on how the body, including the mouth, features in the Christian life. Even though Luther celebrated the marriage of monks and nuns, he was deeply ambivalent. He was quite clear he did not want a wife nor was he attracted to the one he got. Luther saw his flesh as instrumental, something to wield. Following his reading of Paul, since the flesh counted for nothing, he could purpose it to seek a higher spiritual life. As a monk this tactic involved pathological confession and harsh self-probing; as doctor and head of a revolution, it involved screaming obscenities at the devil, drunkenness, and a near gluttonous appetite for food. Luther was not necessarily enthralled to his desires, but he viewed the human body as a tool to fight off the Devil with.

Protestants have had a mixed legacy in regards to the body's role in Christian living. Puritans offered some better approaches, who attempted to reform marriage practices to reveal a more Christian vision, including friendship and love as obligations, and not mere accidents. Puritans were strict about sex outside of marriage because they waxed about it inside of marriage. The body was the locus of both sin and righteousness, one leading to eternal misery and the other to unending joy. There was nothing casual about a slip-up; if indulged, it would warp the mind and the soul.

The problem with dualism (and not, duality, as I've argued elsewhere) is that the division is artificial and illusory. People live as bodies. Once a division is asserted between the bodily and the spiritual life, the latter is ejected because it becomes ephemeral. As I've argued elsewhere, the Reformation's essence was in seeking to erase the false divide between monks and secular people. However, Luther-styled Two Kingdoms placed a thick division between the temporal life, under princes and the law, and the spiritual life, under Jesus Christ and the gospel, which resulted in rank worldliness. As burghers became the lifeblood of empire, in England, the Netherlands, and the German states, Christianity became fused to bourgeois sensibility and civil law. The 19th century saw the apotheosis of this fusion, which Nietzsche rightly recognized, and the 20th century saw its implosion.

A pastor like Mark Driscoll, for example, was incredibly vulgar and touted the fleshiness of the Christian life. But the reasons fit the America zeitgeist, not out of a Biblical concern for the Human body. Advocating for sex and violence, Driscoll, like Luther perhaps, instrumentalized Human flesh for the purposes of a godly life, rather than seeing the godly life take place in flesh. As an acquaintance (who has probably perked up at the above reference) has laboriously documented, Driscoll made sex instrumental as a cure for his manly maladies. What if, contrary to contemporary relationship guides, sex does not make your marriage good, but married sex is good? The distinction is subtle. The latter does not create an abstract entity, marriage, which it quests to obtain through physical acts (sex, date nights, compliments, etc.). The body is not a tool to gain an emotional state, whether positive or negative. Driscoll's vulgarity is, like his society, sheer gnosticism, a hatred of the physical world on a quest for the ethereal. He is just a Christian Gnostic, rather than your garden variety pagan versions, whether Oprah and Deepak Choprah, or the late Hugh Hefner and his fantasy world of homoerotic boyhood fetish.

Legalism, which Driscoll and others reacted against, was like a lay version of Origenist revulsion. There is a regulation of social behavior for fear that the body would slip out of control and dominate the soul, which is trying to make sure it can float off in the right direction. However, there are not as many Legalists as one might suspect. The idea of a Legalist has become an applicable schema to place over any concern for the body. A surge towards the Americana sublime was done under the label of rejecting world-hating legalism, not knowing that both live under the same rule of element darkness. Concern for the tongue is that it ought to bless, and it ought to bless because I, including all my bodily parts, was made to be an image of God, a bearer of His likeness.

The duality of the soul and the body, where the former alone was the site of the gospel's work, helped to justify chattel slavery and economic oppression. Both could be understood as merely belonging to the temporal world, where Christians could possess a good conscience about crushing the poor and enslaving the African. In the latter case, there was even a dispute about whether Africans had souls, and thus could deprive them of even the relief of the gospel's liberative message. Perhaps such a debate was rooted in bad faith, the knowledge that hearing the words of Scripture might lead to non-compliance and agitation. I'm not saying these ideas caused slavery, such would be nonsense. I'm also not saying these ideas were exclusive in justifying these practices.

The main point is that Humans are their bodies as much as they are their souls. We are not two, but one. There is no sense in the Bible that when our bodies die, we are still around. Death is death. And thus life is life; the resurrection of the body into incorruptible glory is a full return to life. Like a seed, what we do with our bodies will determine the crop we reap. The vain read this passage as a spur to go on a diet and exercise, but such is trivial, even if sometimes implied in practices to overcome gluttony and sloth. To live unto the Spirit, to hope for the promise of a Spiritual body, is not a counter to corporeality or materiality. But such an idea is a trick straight from Satan, luring Christians towards dissolution. Christ never cussed at the Devil. He didn't have to, and neither do we.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Creation is a Sin: More Thoughts on Luther's Legacy

As a fitting coincidence, and follow up to yesterday's post, Mockingbird uploaded a video about God, the gods, and man's heart as a "factory of idols" (ala. Calvin). I laughed when I realized a punchline was that atheists are good friends to Christians and that Jesus is the "twilight of the gods". It's a perfect explanation of what I wrote about. The cliches and zingers are predictable and sigh-inducing; the sloppy exegesis, the shallow intellectual history, and rhetorical flair is exhausting. I don't know what it is with contemporary Lutheran* apologists and popularizers; they seem to rely on snark and memes to make their point.

Anyway, I wanted to hone in on a single point: the claim of natural polytheism. The speaker utilizes Luther's definition of a god as the one to which one gives faith for good favor. Luther's definition places religion in the realm of subjectivity, the expectation, worry, and hope for an other to supply our wants and desires. Gods only exist, and have power, in as much as we place our faith in them. A god is like a bucket. Of course, again, the punchline is that Jesus Christ is not a god like the other gods; we can't want Him, but He wants us. Because our hearts are depraved, we naturally incline to a wicked form of religion which is polytheistic, seeking for whatever god will fill us up with happiness and content. Christ seeks to abolish the gods, freeing us from sacrificing our lives on the altar for our hopes and dreams. I might've missed it, but I'll assume for charity that the speaker highlighted how, for Luther, even though God is the impossible and wholly Other, the Incarnation was God's move to man so we may approach God and recognize His friendly heart and overwhelming love for us, filling and exceeding all our hopes.

I used to find these lines of argument compelling. While I still absolutely agree with Calvin's quip, I think the idolatry angle is overplayed in many Christian circles. Idolatry is still a serious problem, but the subjectivity in Luther's definition of a god distorts the fact that sin is not always linked to idolatry, even if idolatry is a paramount sin. And, more importantly and to the main point, idolatry does not necessitate the isolated, subjective, inward account Luther paints of gods and their worship.

I don't think Luther was "modern", not in the least, but I do think he shares with the modern West a fixation on interiority. No, I know Luther had a hyper-objective view of the sacraments and the Word, but these doctrinal emphases emerged from within a locus of subjective crisis. The afflicted conscience had to leave itself to find an anchor and place of refuge in the sure, objective, promise of God. The interior battles of the conscience remain central and centralizing. Objectivity has no reference outside the needs of the conscience. There's an easy fit between this mode of thought and existentialist metaphysics resourcing Luther and adjusting his thought for the 20th/21st century, though Luther was no existentialist.

Luther's experiences in the relatively cloistered monastery shifted a focus towards the interior. While it's mostly decided that Luther rejected the nominalism of the via moderna he had been schooled in, it's fair to say its deconstruction of metaphysical thickness and turn towards subjective measure and interiority impacted Luther's notion of the self. Most studies also reveal that, contrary to the myth, Luther was not a man of the "people", though he pretended and acted as one in seeking to wield his influence. Luther's German was highly academic and archaic,  reintroducing older High German back into vernacular through popular consumption of his Bible translation. Cloistered monasticism helped to forge the "buffered self" that Charles Taylor sees as a hall-mark of modernity. Perhaps it's worth considering the Reformation's breaking down between monastic and secular life helped inculcate a form of piety that introduced a spread of this conception of the self.

To the point, while Luther was a man caught between God and the devil (as one book title put it) there was still a deep sense of self, a core kind of Martin who was besieged. And before we continue, I don't see the buffered self as a problem or a modern corruption; instead, I think Christian theology, especially when formed in Psalmody, introduced a form of the buffered self, though I'll return to that topic another time.

However, Luther's subjective locus, and not subjectivity per se, is a problematic that warps his view of anthropology and worship. We find Luther's notions commonsensical because many modern Westerners share the same assumptions about subjectivity. The objectivity of the created world is usually left out in the dust, as if it has no formative and deeply shaping power in our lives. Did pagans view gods out of a desire for matching their happiness and need to be loved? What about the fact that many, maybe most, deities reflected objective forces that spelled literal life or death. Love goddesses were usually identical with fertility goddesses. Pagans feared the gods not because they wouldn't fulfill all their hopes and dreams; it was because the gods exerted objective power. Would we call a man an idolater if he refused to step off a ledge because he knew how gravitation pull worked?

If you read contemporary cultural studies, many (if not the majority) clearly follow a deconstructivist and positivist account of Human meaning, significance, and social structure. Humans create all things, all claims on nature, and usually (always?) utilize them to dominate and gain power. The notorious Sokal Affair, where a mathematician submitted a fake article about how gravity was a bigoted concept to a journal, was a demonstration of a general frustration with the whole approach. The locus has shifted to a radical subjectivity, where all objectivities are laughed at as parlor tricks. 

Claiming, as the speaker does, that a little child has a death-drive to sublimate himself with the gods of his desire (namely, passing cars) is not only absurd, but obfuscation. Children running in the street is not a death drive, it's ignorance. Being amused by fast cars is not an act of worship, it's tapping into a creational ordinance (i.e. God made colors, lights, sounds, and movement stimulate/fascinate the Human mind). It could be an act of worship, but this sort of chuckling misanthropy confuses the issue. Drawing a thick line between God and creation turns all action and interaction into sinful idolatry, but it fits Luther's madness that all Human good works are, at their core, mortal sin, full stop. 

Rather, St. Augustine's claim that divinity is a claim on ultimacy is a much better account. Augustine's definition reframes all Humans, ultimately, as monotheists, in a way similar to St. Paul. Instead of the Lord, man worships the creation; instead of being joined to Jesus Christ, the Life, man makes a covenant with death. Ultimate divinity derives from the ultimate basis of reality. The Christian ascribes ultimacy to the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, who, along with the Holy Spirit, is consubstantial with the Father. Hence, it's not that there are other powers, it's that the other powers rebelled and claim for themselves godhood. Man ascribes honor and glory to these and builds idols to their name, now in bondage to the demonic. However, the Augustinian framework makes better sense of the fact that man, along with angels, has a destiny of glorification. All throughout the Bible there is reference to a divine council, where man and angels becomes gods in the council of God. Christ came into the world not only to save man from sin, but to perfect man, completing his original vocation as the second Adam, who the first was a type of Him who was to come (c.f. Rom. 5). The problem with eating the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was not that its fruit was evil, or sinful in itself, but that God had not deigned man ready for the moment. Clearly, Solomon was given a wisdom to discern good and from evil, and as little christs, the apostle Paul admonishes us to be wise as serpents. Of course, to highlight a fact I focus on intensely elsewhere, the shape of glorification in a fallen world is the cross, revealing a glory that is focused outwards. But, nonetheless, Israel's Shema is a statement of not bland monotheism, but that in the council of the gods God would reign and receive all glory and worship.

The payout of this view, in connecting back to questions of the objective and subjectivity, is that recognition and evaluation of creational ordinances is not idolatry. In fact, while I absolute agree with Calvin about the heart, the claim on idolatry is conceptually overextended. Respecting objective forces does not necessarily mean ceding sovereignty to them. Appreciating created things is not an instant recipe for idolatry. The Bible does not revel in misanthropy. To the contrary, there is no prophet or saint in all of Scripture that smirks and says "I'm a polytheist". According to Dr. Luther, they must all be liars. St. Isaiah laments he has unclean lips, but the Seraphim purge his mouth so he may speak the word of God. This definition of idolatry tears up the Bible and makes life impossible, which is ok when you're a well-adjusted, bourgeois, suburbanite who is insulated from reality. It's the Christian version of hipster ironic self-deprecation; it sounds enlightened and deep, but it's just self-delusional posturing dependent on wealth and relative social conformity.

The frustrating thing with this theological platform is it is almost impossible to intellectually assail. There's an explanation for everything; it's why Lutheranism has fit so well as a stronghold for the status quo. Like hippies, yuppies, hipsters, etc., the distancing and criticism remains surface level and actually strengthens and reinforces establishments, many of which operate as dominions of Satan. The only way to ever wake up from this fool's dream is to suffer tangible poverty and social disenfranchisement.

*: "Lutheran" in this context refers primarily to a body of thought which has, in differing levels and varieties, been institutionalized in Lutheran churches. For good or for ill, not all churches that have the name Lutheran function according to Lutheran theology. In this post, I have blurred influential Lutheran theologians and pop-Lutheran theology, and am not directly referencing Lutheran creedal symbols, though they possess the mark of Martin Luther's influence. I am more interested in a larger legacy and reject a fastidious appeal to the creedal symbol itself. Such an approach is obfuscation and shallow intellectual history; one does not learn the patterns, spirit, and effects of Luther's reformation.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Best Theologian is the Atheist: Thoughts on the Legacy of Luther

Mockingbird recently had a string of posts that I've found particularly curious. The first of note was a post examining the "theology" of Jim Carrey's recent TV interviews. The Mockingbird post praised Jim Carrey's deeply Christian theology of grace, which involved a deeply misanthropic Buddhistic notion of the self's non-existence. We're all wafts of fragrance in the air and clouds of tetrahedrons. The second of note was a quote from Paul Tillich, who was taking a theology of the cross to its "existential limit". This quote involved saying that true saintliness was in sin and true faith was in doubt.

I first started tracking Mockingbird because I liked their approach to film and pop-culture analysis. I appreciated their approach to grace. However, sometimes I get the sense that there is something deeply wrong a foot. They tout a theology of the cross, grace, and a low anthropology. However, that is not the theology of the cross I see at work in the Bible. At heart, I think it is because I have a fundamental disagreement with Luther and his subsequent theology.

I'm sympathetic with Papist attacks on Luther as the road to atheism. Indeed, I do think Luther's radical attack on Rome's claims, in a way to defend the Reformation and his own teaching authority, set the stage for later developments. Figures like Hegel, Tillich, Bultmann, et al. are faithful expositors of certain strands of Luther. Yes, I know many studies have come out that "prove" Luther had a metaphysics, and that he would not go along with these developments. You can examine Luther's work to see differences and contrasts. However, the development of tradition is not reification of a man or an era, but rather involves a careful distillation of an author or school's spirit, or direction or purpose.

The core of Luther's radical posture was deeply suspicious and skeptical posture towards church history and holiness. Erasmus had attacked Luther for not listing any miracles, any saints, any acts of God to validate his doctrinal claims. If the church needed these new teachings, Erasmus argued, why wouldn't God validate them through signs? Luther retorted with deep skepticism about Erasmus' claims. How do we know saints were attached to any particular doctrine? How would we even know what miracles were even about? Instead, after despairing that holiness and the saints were invisible, Luther establishes doctrine as a litmus test. The plain words of Scripture, mainly the clear threats and promises of God, establish doctrine, formed upon the basic foundation of a law/gospel distinction. From the law/gospel distinction emerges Luther's notion of Two Kingdoms, the temporal kingdom of consequences and imperatives, and the spiritual kingdom of promise, relief, and comfort. While law/gospel is the work of the pastor, Luther posits civil authorities as engines of law. Perhaps Luther saw the pastoral office as a dual kingdom position, as the law the preacher thundered resounded with God's left-handed rule, officiated by princes.

Luther's position is seriously problematic. The temporal affairs are conjoined, though distinct, even at times different. Doctrine is deeply severed from lived lives. "Both righteous and sinner" functions as a means to draw a line in the sand. In contrast, early pastristic authorities attached righteous living to teaching and, subsequently, teaching authority. St. Paul made this connection clear when he pointed to his scars as marks of his apostolic authority. God's two kingdoms, his two hands, appear deeply schizophrenic. Luther had a high view of creational authority, but also had an incredibly high view of the gospel's radical transformation. He did not try to resolve the tension, but constructed a theology systematizing it. Subsequent Lutheran theology has struggled with tugging in both directions, antinomianism on the one hand and fierce conservatism to social orders and platforms on the other.  The problem is systematizing the tension is just, to use an acquaintance's phrase, jamming two crooked houses together. St. James frustrates Luther's dichotomy when he refers to Christ's gospel as "the law of liberty."

In addition, perhaps emerging from the invisibility of holiness, Luther was incredibly shallow when it came to metaphysics. Well, some say he had a proto-existentialist metaphysics, where the depth of reality is a relation between the justifying God and the sinful man (Oswald Bayer). Regardless, Luther's thin ontology left little tangible basis for thinking about the church's ontology, what the church is, in the space of the created world. Luther saw the church, along with all other visible and tangible things, within the space of the temporal, left-handed, kingdom. Thus, while princes could not alter doctrine, they could reorganize and manage the church for the purposes of "justice." In addition, Luther saw almost all of the tangible aspects of the church as things to be tolerated. Unless an explicit gospel promise was attached (such as baptism and eucharist) all else was left as means of comfort. Luther kept the medieval edifice in tact because he did not want to frighten most Germans. A major part of his attack on Carlstadt was that the latter was insane for fixating on external elements so much, confusing the gospel with law like an ignorant Jew. All created ordinances ought to serve these purposes.

It's in this vein that we may see Mockingbird as akin to Bonhoeffer's development of his very Lutheran non-religious Christianity. Bonhoeffer believed the modern world had ejected all religious sensibilities. People no longer needed church buildings, vestments, pastors etc. Now that man had "come of age", Christians needed to find a way to approach the modern, fully secular, world in ways that made sense. The core acts of the church were grounded in a word of promise, so preaching the law and gospel and taking the sacrament, could expunge a certain husk about them. Loving your neighbor required a reform program. Bonhoeffer, further radicalized, could seem to say that even the grammar of theology could be expunged for a world that was without the need for a god-crutch. Hence, the radical theologians of the Death of God school, or Christian atheism, could claim they were following Bonhoeffer. And in a way, they were. And in such a way, they followed Luther. Luther's theology represented the path to a very particular kind of atheism.

Slavoj Zizek sees in Protestantism, a mix of Lutheranesque Hegel and Calvinistic predestination, as the only pathway to genuine atheism, and thus authentic freedom. I think Zizek is picking up on a particular strand of Protestant theology that leads this way. In fact, if we narrow a definition of Protestant directly to a conflict with Rome, we might fully agree with Zizek. Protestantism depends upon a dialectic, which according to Zizek's psychoanalytic Hegelian philosophy, ushers in a creative destruction, opening up the void for authentic freedom. As Christianity was the dialectic negation of Judaism's Big Other, where Christ dying was the death of God and the open for Human freedom, Protestantism was the same dialectic negation for Rome's rejudaizing. If Protestantism implies the dialectic, it has no hope other than being a road to atheism. However, if there is a Reformational disposition outside of the dialectic, then there is hope and legitimacy. The pre-Reformation Vaudois communicated a non-dialectic, Biblical, vision of two churches, one of the chaste bride and the other as blood-thirsty whore. The point is that there are different strands within the Reformation, no matter how wants to parse the terms.

Key to our understanding is the role of another Martin, Heidegger. He was an atheist, but he remained a theologian of sorts, and that should raise questions. Luther (as well as Augustine) deeply influenced Heidegger's studies. Heidegger also taught many contemporary Lutheran theologians and pastors. Yet Heidegger was a neo-Pagan atheist.  Heidegger's opening, the apperance of Dasein, is a present absence. Post-Christian theology, the deep root of continental philosophy, is God as void. Hegel's grand synthesis results in Nothingness. I see here Luther's quiet panic that behind Christ is the Hidden God, the deus absconditus, the predestinating God of judgement. Heidegger has developed the trend towards atheism.

I wrote this post in the spirit of polemic, purposely leaving out aspects which may still be helpful. Many reformers, like Bucer and Cranmer, learned from Luther and his circle before departing from them. I don't discount those elements, but there is a distinction between Luther's reforming activities and Luther's theological teaching. The latter is a problem and is a fountain of atheism, Christian atheism perhaps but atheism nonetheless. The jarring distinction between the young and ascetic Luther of reforming zeal and the bloated and corpulent later Luther raging against his enemies should offer a typological lesson on the shape and direction of his life as well as his theology. This claim is perhaps too bold for many, so take it or leave it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Glory of God is to Conceal a Matter: Fragments on Natural Law

A recurring question in Christian theology is the category of "nature", and how exactly Christians are to understand it. I hope to offer some fragmentary thoughts on how to begin to think about it.

1) Nature must be understood as opened to the supernatural, that is what is beyond nature. I believe that it is not mere speculative to conclude that Christ was the telos, the end, of creation that did not take the Fall into account. Rather, it understands that the arc of the biblical narrative as good towards perfection, something Adam forfeited in Eden. Man begins in a garden, but ends in a garden-city. Christ is not the divine band-aid to return man to a natural life, but, as man, fulfiller of Adam's original vocation and thus perfecter. Christ reveals nature and perfects it.

2) Christ Jesus' appearance, and reign, as a servant, as lowly, reveals what man is. Accordingly, as man is in corruptible flesh, as Jesus was, so to does God call us to live the same. The glory of God is manifest in cross-bearing, suffering for righteousness. Christ reigns as king from the cross, where His glory is manifest. Contrary to gnostics and romantics, Christ does not live an other-worldly life, but reveals a new kingship over the creation. In light of the Fall, mankind's good is imitating Christ, the suffering king. In a sinful world, mankind's vocation is cruciform.

3) "The glory of God is to conceal a matter"; the Lord created things in such a way to unfold and unlock. Adam's vocation involved moving the creation from good to perfect. There was intentional space for development. God created a world of hidden things to discover and find. While the creation has a form, it has a "nature", such is something that must be sought out. Like any puzzle, pieces fit together when the puzzle is solved, so too does nature make sense in discovery. However, until the pieces are put together, a mystery remains. God created an entire world, full of parts and pieces, which man was to understand and put together. Creation has a design, but it is to be assembled. This view does not mesh with contemporary world-view types who operate along Idealist lines. Creation is not putty for man to sculpt through his imagination. Rather, like a puzzle, the whole remains incomplete, but the pieces only fit in one way. Jamming incompatible pieces together will create problems; a puzzle resists being solved incorrectly.

4) "The glory of kings is to discover it"; man's vocation to discover creation's pattern, its nature, was his glory, but it went far off the rails. The entrance of sin into the world through Adam led to a deep seated corruption and bondage. Rather than kings, humanity became slaves. Rather than spreading the life of the garden, mankind spread death. While sin is in no sense necessary, it is not foreign to the plans of God. God cursed the creation, subjecting it to futility, as a means to execute His original intent of its perfection. Humanity's maturity involved glorification, the movement towards kingship. In Christ Jesus, God reveals the pattern of the creation's nature in death-and-resurrection. Christ Jesus triumphs over all the darkness of the powers, all of the bondage of sin, all the rage of the devil, all the vanity of this age, through the cross. The Incarnation is not just God's rescue plan, but it is a rescue fit within the patterns of man's destiny. Salvation is not separate from, but in concert with, God's original act of creation. Creation's nature remains the same before and after Adam's fall, the form it takes is total warfare. The design remains the same, the method of execution changes.

5) Natural law may mean two things. On the one-hand, it might refer to the creation's blueprint, the riddle unlocked. On the other-hand, it might refer to a general sense of how things ought to be that all mankind has access to. The first view of natural law I accept, while the second I am highly skeptical of. Mankind has rational access to recognizing the diverse pieces of the puzzle, but our minds are corrupted, shrouded in sin, from actually seeing and making sense of it all. We tend towards trying to get the puzzle pieces to bend in directions we find beneficial to our designs, many times contrary to God's intent. There is a deep variety, and Christians can appreciate commonalities. Almost all peoples, everywhere and in all times, recognized the sexual relations between men and women as normative and the need to formalize bonds to recognize resulting children. However, there is much left uncovered. What is man? What is woman? What is sex? What is marriage? What does it all mean? These questions are not merely speculative; how mankind has answered them has determined, and justified, diverse practices, ranging from polygamy to pederasty. There may be general consensus on generalities, but it does not answer difficult normative questions.

6) Scripture, sometimes hidden in its pages, reveals the normative patterns of God's creation. For example, St. Paul explains how Christ and His people reveals the shape and purpose of marriage. From this revelation, the apostle goes on to list practices Christians, as husbands and wives, should engage in. Christ's coming, manifest through the entire Scripture, ultimately in His revelation as Jesus of Nazareth, is the mystery revealed. Salvation is wholly of grace, God's incomparable gift, but grace is not a substance, opposed or even really distinguished from a nature. Rather, God's grace, namely the presence and union of Christ through the Holy Spirit, manifest in all sorts of gifts, of which repentance, faith, hope, and love are some of the chief, activates man's nature. Christ's grace moves men from a disposition towards oblivion, trapped in sin, towards the good, manifest in Christ's life, and even to hope in perfection, revealed in Christ's resurrection in incorruptible glory and ascension to His Father's throne. Scripture reveals not only what a good life is in a world of sin and death, but reveals that the creation's good is opened to perfection. We see not only what marriage ought to look like now, but also how marriage dissolves towards the greater unity of perfection in the New Jerusalem, when all are seated, in Christ, as kings and queens.

7) Christians do not only make a claim for themselves, as a mere sect of mankind, but rather prophetically announce Christ's kingdom. Christ is the Way. Christian public dialogue with non-Christians ought to involve not a war of ideas, but a discussion of practice. In a secular liberal society, Christians need not recite the gospel to explain why, for example, gay marriage is unnatural and should not be normative. Learning from Scripture the full vision of marriage, a Christian interlocutor can work backwards to make a point. Creation's nature, like a puzzle piece, will not fit if it does not match the intended design. For some positions, such as gay marriage, the jagged edges reveal a deep lack of unfittingness. Marriage, without any normative procreative element, becomes unintelligible. There ceases to be a reason why the institution even exists. Of course, Christians offer certain claims that go much farther than the sheer fact of marriage, but its a place to start. If Christians start from the gospel, the theological principles and history of salvation, they may engage in an attempt to evangelize, but it will not be an attempt to engage in persuasive dialog. Examining shared practices, such as the routines of human biological fact or the social custom of marriage, is common-ground to make a point that is credible to an opponent. The natural law is Christian, and is only wholly intelligible in Christ, but as we are all humans, engaged with the diverse pieces of the puzzle, there is a commonality that Christians can broach. The human race, after Adam, may be blind and stumbling about, but we're all stumbling about in the same room, so to speak.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Why the Reformation?: A Reflection

This year marks 500 years since that fateful year when Brother Martin posted his 95 theses for disputation on the Wittenberg cathedral door. Many see what they want in the Reformation, but it's still not clear exactly what marked it as fundamentally different than other reform movements, besides the aftermath. Sola fide? Secular-heads of church? Anti-papalism? Sola Scriptura? Anti-clericalism? Spiritual religion? All of these ideas and practices were influential among differing groups, many of which quarreled and anathematized each other. Rather, I would claim that the fundamentally radical, and unifying, doctrine of the Reformation was the dissolution of the monasteries. Here is the key to both understanding the broad current of motivation for the Reformation, including the rearguard efforts of the Roman Catholic reformation, and assessing its legacy since.

Yes, many make a big deal of Luther's tower experience and his emphasis on sola fide. Luther himself saw this doctrine as the very prop of the church, which either stands or falls in relation to faith alone. It was key to his, and his followers', continued war with the Papacy and the Emperor, who remained loyal to Rome. However, while salvation by 'faith alone' was both primary to Luther and his doctrinal reforms of the churches in Saxony, it did not initiate the widespread adoption of Reformation fervor, nor was it the only prime concern Luther had. The three key books of Luther's early days had little to do with a firm defense of sola fide. They were rather an exposition of how the church's practices became distorted and subjugated average Christians into a place of ignorance. Rather, Luther argued for the nobility of the average Christian, guaranteed by the rites of the church, and his calling and mission as such.

It's clear that the later Luther became more pessimistic as he experienced the effects of his reforms. However, the key objective for Luther was to dissolve the difference between the secular and the religious life. As he showed in his very own life, he wanted the monks to leave the monastery for the purposes of turning the whole town into a monastic community. Luther saw many practices of the church as detracting from the actual work God had commissioned the church to do, and thus fabricated a false line between working, lay, people and those who had made a special vow to serve God. Luther utterly rejected this arrangement: was baptism not sufficient for the Christian's life as holy unto God? The Reformation was to enlighten both monks and lay people of their shared state, where the former learn to live out of the cloister to love and help their neighbor, and the latter learn that their secular lives ought to be filled with piety and devotion. Together, there would be a renovation throughout the whole Christian world.

Many other reformers picked up on Luther's ideas, with many monks abandoning their false orders, and seeking to spread piety among regular folks. While Calvin is misunderstood as some deeply systematic figure, his Institutes was designed primarily as a catechesis. He intended to help ignorant Christians to develop the thought patterns to intelligently read Scripture and defend the faith. In England, Henry VIII's primary reform measure was dissolving the monasteries, which was equal parts greed and a desire to crack down on corruption. Many English reformers believed the monasteries fostered a decadent lifestyle, turning the faith into a vain parallel gentry. The puritans wanted to push the reform further. It was not all about polity and soteriology for them. Many puritans were concerned that English Christians were not walking right in the faith, and these reformers sought to improve preaching, instruction, and discipline to help provide structure. Eventually these desires radicalized, leading some to further doctrinal critiques, attacking things like infant baptism, the church-state confusion, ordination, etc.

What is the legacy of the Reformation, from this vantage? In many ways, the Reformation of the 16th century offered a fundamental paradigm shift, but was a failure. Luther grumbled, realizing the German people were more upset about taxes and papal authority than living an authentically Christian life. They were not merely awaiting a prophetic reformer who would unleash their burdens and free them for faith. Some forget that Luther was hardly a man of the people, most of his views were formed within the confines of the monastery. Luther very quickly forged his unique, and highly problematic, view of Two Kingdoms, where the church itself, as a temporal institution, functioned in the secular domain. Since it belonged to God's left-realm, princes could reform the churches when the bishops would not. While Lutheranism had a doctrinal core, it was enforced through secular authority, which cracked dissent as well as financially support university training for the scholarly-cleric class. While there was a spiritual world, God's right-realm, where the gospel was to mold and shape the hearts of Christians, the functions of life were under the princes. The reality for the Lutheran world was that secular law and Christian life overlapped. The effects of the Gospel were invisible and mostly imperceptible. The concrete facts of life were obedience to civil law. Christianity's practice was fused to the day-to-day affairs of living in a particular German principality.

The Reformed world was not much different. There were numerous Reformed figures who attempted to distinguish a distinctly Christian life, within the church, as a part from the state. However, these were few and far between the far more influential erastians and theonomists. The former functioned somewhat similarly as the Lutherans, but there were some doctrinal differences. There were shades of Erastian thinking, with some making the church a department of state and others seeking to remove a church hierarchy and subjecting preaching authority directly to civil authority. Theonomists, such as the Scottish presbyterians, sought to conjoin the church to the civil authority, but with the church as the regulative norm for civil affairs. This shift meant placing all civil authority under a vision of Biblical, usually Old Testament Israelite, law. Church authorities could challenge kings, and delegitimize them for failing to live up to their covenantal office. In the case of either the erastians or theonomists, both depended upon a conjunction of the church to civil authorities that saw an overlap. The Christian life was being a good citizen, and in some ways set the stage for the complete collapse of discipline as the state secularized. Christian life was reduced to a constellation of doctrines that one had to submit to, even if they were not well understood.

Of course, the radical reformation, the anabaptists especially, carried through their reforming efforts and were persecuted for it. Anabaptists were not legalists (at least not all and at all times) and they were not Pelagians. Rather, they did not sequester the gospel from public affairs, how they labored, traded, conducted business, etc. They saw the gospel as distinct from civil authorities, but rather than divide into distinct realms of government, anabaptists saw contradiction, contrast, antithesis. They knew that obedience to Christ might mean harassment, ridicule, even harm. While anabaptists, generally, did little to overtly challenge civil authorities, they did not conflate or confuse Christ's government for temporal rulers.

While the rest of the Reformation world disdained the anabaptists, and they left a mixed legacy and influence, later heirs to the Reformation recognized similar insights. The Church of England, throughout the eighteenth century, tried to invigorate lay piety and reform institutional corruption that hindered pastoral work among the ordained. Revivalism, in both Great Awakenings, was a response to a damp, highly rationalized and professionalized, piety as well a continuing secularization of authority and elitism. It was not in the same terms as Luther, but many saw the problem with congregations filled with worldlings, who had little to no interest in the work of God's Kingdom. I'm not saying every manifestation of this impulse to reform led in a good direction. The Second Great Awakening resulted in the burned-over districts, places full of people who were immunized to faith through its gross corruptions and grotesque, even anti-biblical, forms. Many reform movements depended upon the state to finance and support efforts, which hindered, and sometimes destroyed, efforts in the long term. However, all of these heirs to the Reformation intended to knock down degrees of Christian, seeking to instill a lively faith for all, especially those who were not ordained.

Many churches that spawned out of the Reformation possess reminders of that original drive, but have abandoned them. The university/seminary-education industrial complex created a new division between professional Christians and the masses. Education became the new name for the religious life. This phenomenon continues to exist in a secular form as well, where university degrees function mostly as a badge of the managerial class of western governments. A proper college education acts like an indelible mark on the soul, marking you out as fit to be the clerical elite of the American capitalist system. The scorn heaped upon the "uneducated" Trump supporters from media heads was not only class-based elitism, it was the same sort of sneer one hears from clerical lips for the laity.

The Reformation was a deeply needed shock to the system, an attack upon a medieval christendom that had severely warped the basic sense of the word 'Christian'. In most ways, the Reformation failed, with many institutions rejecting the primary drive that set them off in the first place. By the numbers alone, magisterial and mainline Protestant churches are collapsing. However, the heart of the Reformation remains unfulfilled. May the 500th year since Luther's chain-reaction remind us not only of failures, but the Reformation's promises. May we all seek to reform our churches, making them a home of godliness, where both ordained and lay peoples work as one as the body of Christ, living lives full of the Spirit's fruits, most importantly repentance.