Monday, July 31, 2017

Augustine Reconsidered: A Review

Over a year ago, I wrote a post Against Augustine which was exasperation over the African bishop's theology. St. Augustine is a titan in the Western church and his influence bends conversations in certain ways, sometimes unhelpfully. I mentioned in the post that these words might those of a jilted lover, someone heart-broken by continual failures. This was true, I was angry with some of the dead-ends my intellectual pursuit was trapped within. After some time of reflection, I want to revisit some of Augustine's doctrine, and with a cooler temper, consider them anew.

The Two Cities and Political Theology: I would argue that the City of God is the best work Augustine ever penned, despite its, at time, rambling, ad hoc, format. While the Two Cities model he offers has a broad conceptual range, it remains one of the most Biblically grounded formulations of the Church in a larger world. Sadly, one form of this was revealed when Augustine, not inconsistently, called for the state to suppress the Donatists. This was certainly one of the most shameful episodes of Augustine's life. However, this is so because City of God promises something better than this. Radical Augustinian not only recognizes temporal kingdoms as penultimate, but also pessimistically sees their foundation in the reign of the Devil. While Christians may safely live and function within the Roman world, its foundation remains a murdered brother (i.e. Romulus killing Remus). In this way, one can see the foundation of all Cities of Man as recapitulating Cain's sin. The diverse churches, founded in Jesus Christ, are representations of the City of God, one whose king shed His own blood to save His many brethren. Augustine's work remains absolutely crucial for Chrisitans faithfully assessing the world around them.

Sex, Sexuality, and Concupiscense: I still stand by my mostly negative assessment of Augustine on this. While he was a competent explore of man's psyche, and he was rather adept at unpacking desire, he never solved this problem. Despite apologies for his superior view over contemporaries, Augustine injected an essential sinfulness into all postlapsarian sexual encounters. This radical pessimism rewrites most of the Scriptures more benign sense of sex within the confines of proper order. Western theology has suffered for a long time under the weight of Augustine's unresolved tensions. While Luther represented a forceful rejection of Augustine, this was still mired in anthropological pessimism. Since, for Luther, all Human works, always, remained tainted by mortal sin, openly engaging in marital concupiscence was a means to flaunt the Devil's accusations. Ironically, on account of their reputation, English Puritans recovered a more robust view of Human sexuality within the bonds of matrimony. In today's age, full of warped desires and hyper-eroticisation, Augustine's complex understanding of desire may be needed, but his teaching about marriage and sex needs to be finally put to rest as defunct and blind.

Predestination: Augusitne engages in a bit of mythologizing about the elect replacing fallen angels in Heaven as a reason for God's saving grace. This is goofy. However, he is basically right. I think Augusitnian predestination needs to be reformatted along figural lines, and not through a trembling reflection on God's inscrutable will. Rather, predestination needs to be Christ shaped all the way down: the elect united with Christ, figuring His death and resurrection, and the reprobate figuring the shadows Christ's passion cast (i.e. the forms of Pilate, Herod, Judas, the Temple Hierarchy, the mocking and sneering mob of Pharisees and peasants). Augustine is still too much enthralled to Plotinian metaphysics. But, when it comes down to the debate with Pelagius, he is absolutely right. While we were dead in our sins, lost and rebellious, God intervened and saved us. Soli Deo Gloria.

Sacraments: Generally, I find Augustine a helpful expositor of "sacraments", maintaining both the materiality of God's provision, while also not lapsing into a kind of idolatry. This depends upon his view of semiotics and the distinction, but unity, of sign and thing signified. Per a Biblical example, the bronze serpent Moses held in the desert actually saved. If Israelites did not look to it, they would've died from the snake venom. However, when a temptation to venerate the bronze serpent takes hold of Jerusalem, Hezekiah had the bronze serpent melted down (c.f. 2 Kings 18:4). God is present in material artifacts, as He commands and promises, but they are not reducible to Him. However, Augustine's mechanical notion of grace is bizarre, and has become a justification for a warped view of ordination and apostolic succession.

Trinity & Triads: At this point, Augustine is mostly a roadblock. In short, Augustine was able to find a way to integrate Neo-Platonic triadology and Nicaean Christology through a working definition of person as relation. While Augustine remains staunchly anti-Arian, he has more in common than he'd like to admit. This would not be such a problem if Augustine was not so influential in what became Latin theology. As can be seen in both texts and arts, Augustine's theology resulted in a reductive role for the Holy Spirit as vinculum caritatis, the binding cord of love between the Father and the Son. While the filioque is not itself a problematic phrasing, its interpretation followed a Neo-Platonic scheme that has been unable to understand unity and distinction without the creation of a fourth thing. There is no genus of God that lays behind the back of the Persons that we can more simply refer to. The New Testament did not merely make an addition to the more simple formula of one God in the Old Testament. The Trinity is not merely an irrational numbers game, 1+1+1=1. The Apostles clearly have no problem of intelligently describing things without throwing their hands up in confusion. Perhaps our Hellenistic metaphysics are defunct and incapable, which is exactly what Athanasius argued. I think Augustine's Neo-Platonic articulation of Nicaea only caused more problems later down the line. We'd be better off turning to Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzen for better thoughts.

So, all in all, Augustine has left much of a legacy, both good and bad, in his wake. However, he was also a great pastoral figure, and is worthy of emulation in how he combined intelligence, devotion to the Scriptures, and ordained leadership. To conclude, I will quote from Peter Brown's biography of the African bishop. May it stir your soul as it did mine, and continues to do.

"For Augustine’s doctrine of predestination…was a doctrine for fighting men. A monk might waste his leisure worrying about his ultimate identity: to Augustine, such an anxiety was misplaced. A doctrine of predestination divorced from action was inconceivable to him. He had never written to deny freedom, merely to make it more effective in the harsh environment of a fallen world."
"Predestination…had only one meaning for Augustine: it was a doctrine of survival, a fierce insistence that God alone could provide men with an irreducible inner core."


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Dead and Alive, You're Coming With Me

One of the slogans of Luther's theology is simul justus et peccator, simultaneously justified and sinner. This means that the Christian is caught between two radically different states of life. On the one hand, we still live according to Adam, full of sin, hated by God, and doomed to perish. Luther's primary purpose for the Law is to strike terror into our Adam, and bring him kicking and screaming to the executioner's block. On the other hand, Christ has justified us through His blood, and paradise is opened to us, where we see the friendly heart of God, His abiding love to save Humanity. Now, Luther held to a doctrine of a mystical union with Christ, though I don't know Luther enough to know how, exactly, he understood this. There are vying interpretations of this, but even if this is understood in the most extrinsic sense, where legally we are declared righteous and so on, this reflects a totally different vision of Humanity.

In Paul and the Gift, Barclay wants to put a more helpful nuance on this. Rather than talk of simul justus et peccator, Barclay thinks it would be more Pauline to say simul mortuus et vivens, both dead and living. This captures, I think, a better sense of St. Paul's sense of the larger pattern of Scripture, and makes better sense of our calling to be Christians, little Christs.

Barclay follows recent scholarship in interpreting Romans 7 as an explication of Human life before conversion. This might be true, but there's no reason why we understand that to mean that our life according to the flesh doesn't follow after us. This is because we are dead in our sins, but alive in Christ. This is the Adam-Christ type applied to our lives, but restraining its use to a more limited form. 

What I mean by this is that Adam's sin in the Garden was monumental, but it was not a fall from perfection to oblivion. His sin was highhanded rebellion against God, but it was not the pinnacle of corruption. In fact, Scripture testifies that it gets worse, as people manifest Adam's sin in fuller and more depraved ways. Scripture reveals development and maturity within static categories. Sin is a developing, or more accurately degrading, concept within the more static category of death. We may talk of dying as a process leading up to death, but we do not become more or less dead. Adam's sin in Eden ushered in the reign of death, where our sins climax. Adam remained a Man of Dust, and cut off from God's communion, was doomed. Living according to the Flesh thus means living according to an empty vessel, one gnawing with decay and rot. Adam's sin becomes more developed, growing in its pride and lust, becoming more Satanic in its bondage to death. This approach is a combination of Irenaean, Athanasian and Augustinian themes, which helpfully complement one another.

This is why St. Paul can say that Death is the final enemy, and yet focus so much on the sins of mankind. The wages of sin is death, and we are reaping such a harvest. However, Christ has brought eternal life, but through the cross. Thus, the salvation of God manifests in our world as Christ on the cross, or, as Chrysostom put it, trampling down death by death.

The Christian life is not one of radical schizophrenia or inhabiting a dual states, even if life in Christ reveals a dual movement. While we are still afflicted with sins, and will be throughout this side of glory, we now repurpose them. We put to death the deeds of the flesh, we mortify our sins, so that we may sow our bodies of corruption and reap a harvest of incorruption. The work of Christ radically repurpose our corrupted and evil state, where repentance turns the body of death into the vessel of God's redemption. The Christian life is thus not a contradiction, not a mere double inhabiting of Heavenly glory and Hellbound sludge. Rather, we live in the reign of Christ's cross, where putting to death the deeds of the flesh is a moment of victory and conquest. 

Just as Christ reigned from the wood, so we are coheirs with Christ in Heavenly glory through putting our sins to death. Christ's ascension and reign is an anchor, and sure hope, not only of future glory, but the very flow of that glory. The Christian must follow his Lord through the waters of baptism, manifest in life through a life of repentance and putting sins to death. This is the path to glory. This is why horror of Romans 7 erupts suddenly into the joy of Romans 8. Our body of death is reconfigured by Christ into the mechanism of redemption.

It's not that Luther was wrong, but simul justus et peccator does not grasp the full depth of St. Paul's insistence that, indeed, while we are dead in the flesh, we are alive with Christ. While Christ was without sin, He became sin, and thus entered into our plight to deliver us. While death and resurrection are distinct, they are two movements in a single act. Hence, Union with Christ is the heart of salvation, encompassing even our sins for our good and God's glory.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

God for the Ungodly: The Incongruity of Grace

John Barclay's Paul and the Gift attempts (successfully I think) reframe the debate between the old and new perspectives, by recognizing the value in both. Barclay argues that while, indeed, St. Paul was a Jew among his fellow Jews, he was a radical Jew who offered a stunning interpretation of the Scripture to his contemporaries. Like the New Perspective, the Apostle Paul was not abnormal for his times, but he did not merely fit Jesus into a generally agreed upon reading of Israel's covenantal history. Rather, like the Old Perspective, St. Paul offered a radical interpretation, which was still strictly Jewish, but shocked his contemporaries. The revelation of Christ was thus not merely the crowning moment of Israel's history, but a stunning revelation of the whole, revealing the purpose of Israel definitively. Jews in the Second Temple period had no unanimous understanding of their own history and their own telos. The Messiah reveals this.

A major point in Barclay's work is that grace is a multivalent word, possessing a range of meanings. It's not enough tot talk about grace, you have to define exactly what this means. Thus, Barclay agrees with E.P. Sanders' seminal claim that Second Temple Judaism was a religion of grace, but countering that this claim is insufficient as an explanation. A helpful part of the book is how Barclay utilizes anthropological studies on the idea of "gift" to recognize that giving does not negate reciprocity, in fact, it is only modern definitions that has fundamentally rewired the concept. As a general aside, I think this sort of thing is necessary to demystify some aspects of the faith. While there are clear paradoxes and miracles in Scripture, we ought to make sure that this is not a paradigm haphazardly applied.

This last point is crucial (pun intended) for Barclay, because he sees in Luther both a deep understanding and misunderstanding of the Apostle Paul. Barclay argues that for St. Paul, grace was most radically taken to its logical conclusion (perfected) in its incongruity. This is to say that God poured His favor upon the sick and the sinner, the weak and the powerless, the idolator and the gentile. This was the stunning revelation of the cross: God for the ungodly. The grace of God came to those who had nothing to offer, who were unworthy of anything but death. However, the gift of Christ, and all that entails (forgiveness of sins, adoption, eternal life, etc.), elicits an expectation of response, of living in Christ. Barclay interprets Luther as insisting that grace has no return, that it is purely non-circular, God gives and there is no expectation of return.

Now, Barclay is not a Luther scholar, and I don't really care if he gets Luther right, in himself. I'm sure there are quotes to the contrary that one could marshal. However, he does grasp a certain interpretation of Luther that became secularized and became a hallmark of the Modern world in Kant's ethics. This is how grace became an individualizing concept, where the gift was never to be recognized as such, being totally alien and anonymous. Unlike the near universal understanding of gift as formative of social bonds through immersion into a relationship, Kant shifts attention to the motive of the giver, and the pure gratuity of the act. Thus, we turn totally inward, towards our subjective experience of giving as the ethical grounds. This is the root of Santa Clause ethics, good for goodness' sake.

Barclay says to be mistrustful of any attempts to describe a "pure" gift in this way, and I think he's right. Not only is this not ever true (most times people expect something in return, even if it's gratitude or acknowledgement), but its conceptual priority masks selfishness. While our subsequent actions in light of being in Christ do not merit anything from God, there is an expectation of new life. Clearly, when a liberator comes to free slaves, he has an expectation that the slaves would go and live freely, not sell themselves back into slavery the first moment they can. If the liberator did not care, because all he cared for was the sheer fact of liberating, there would seem as if something were amiss. And, as Scripture testifies, God's Word never comes back void.

This incongruity, and not non-circularity, is the sheer gold of Luther's theology of the cross. Here we can call evil evil, recognizing the truth of things without plying a fiction. I was a sinner, totally worthless, powerless, and dead, yet the Father gave Christ for me to renew me in the Image of His Son. The crucifixion of God reveals the depths He will go, but not self-abnegation. Long ago, I wrote about the "Agapists", who pit a totally selfless love against a self-recovering love. When Scripture refers to agape, it is not a disinterested love, but rather a love that is willing to give in order to get, to sacrifice in order to save. The miracle in all of this is that the Son of God reveals that God is willing to do this even to the scum of the Earth, obliterating all our social hierarchies and categories of worth.

While Barclay's work is a good investigation of St. Paul, it has limited value with a theological reading of Scripture, which is interpreted and studied as a whole. However, it grasps the theological fact that God's love, in This Age, is a gift that goes to the depths, even for me. That's good news.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Not All Perfections Are Good: Musings on Intellectual Failure of Nerve

I blew through John Barclay's Paul and the Gift, and will have additional posts on this fantastic tome. However, one section really struck me, but not for obvious reasons. The context of the quote is a summary conclusion of a historical review of a number of theologians interpreting the Apostle Paul's doctrine of grace. He analyzed them according to six types of perfecting, or taking to logical conclusions/extremes, found in grace. However, the key point resides outside of this. Barclay writes:
"Since no perfection of grace can be regarded as its core characteristic, or its sine qua non, we are under no pressure to prove or to disprove that Paul is the bearer of some 'essential' meaning. Nor can we assume that the more perfections of grace, the better. In fact, we may be wary of the tendency to pile perfections on top of each other, or to extend single perfections to a greater and greater extreme. Such tendencies may serve ideological interests, but there is no reason to think that the greater the number of perfections, the better the concept of grace" (187)
Moderation? Spoken like a true Englishman! But I jest. Barclay's point is that there is no essential meaning to grace that St. Paul is the bearer of. In fact, as Barclay is at paints to show, there are diverse ways of understanding "grace", and in that way we may call both Augustine and Pelagius theologians of grace, though they defined their terms very differently. There's no essential core to grace, where if we pile up extremes, we get to a pure concept. As he says, it's tempting to do it, continually radicalizing further and further, to make our particular point. However, this doesn't help us understand what St. Paul is actually saying.

This all cut me to the quick. Why? Because there's a certain kind of temptation to make the Gospel of Christ amenable to those outside, hostile, or indifferent to the Church. Reading many non/a-Christian authors, I can find myself straining to accommodate. What I mean by accommodate is that I find a reading of events that might conform to a pattern that evades judgement.

As long as I've been a Christian, I've struggled with this. The earliest I remember is that when someone pulled up the Crusades, or some other bloody episode, I could claim, with all my Evangelical zeal, that they were not true Christians, if they were, they would've known Christ's commands. This has only expanded, where I've tried to situate myself on a perch immune to attacks. When I've read critiques of Protestantism, I try to find myself outside of Protestantism. When I've heard critiques of Western theological development, I found myself building a fortress on the banks of the Bosporus. When Christianity is accused of x, I find some opinion that can make me immune to criticism.

Now, I'm not hanging my head and surrendering. Not every example of bloodshed in the name of Christ is legitimate, and some of them fit within a Biblical prophetic outlook on such things (Christ was not shy of talking about coming apostasies, faith growing cold, false prophets etc.) None of this is my point. Instead, I am talking about the temptation to incline oneself to another's views almost uncritically. There's a certain virtue in reading your opponents charitably, but they are still opponents and you're locked in an intellectual combat nonetheless.

Instead of seeking to understand the Scriptures on their own terms, I assume that the faith must not fit such-and-such's horrible paradigm, or damning criticism, and thus is radically outside the critique. This is nothing more than a sophisticated variety of "Christianity is not a religion". While this may be true, depending on definitions, this is a radicalization of concepts which might lead to unbiblical, non-Christians, and frankly demonic practices. In debate with someone over this particular claim, it'd be easy to throw away baptism, the Lord's Supper, and any real doctrine of Church in order to salvage immunity to the critic's venom. What I will struggle to reckon is that the sophisticated interlocutor, who is much more intelligent, well-read, and popular, might just be wrong, not necessarily in factual detail but in the conclusions, whether moral or otherwise. I am reluctant to admit that, indeed, the godless do not understand Christ or His Holy Scripture.

Per the Barclay quote, radicalizing is no virtue, and so looking for theological justifications to fit this or that is no help on the quest for truth. For example, some might say that the absolute power and sovereignty of God in the Bible has become a pillar for despotism, brainwashing, and societal oppression. Well, the temptation may be to agree that they're right, and prove that the Bible does not in fact paint that portrait. But this would be untrue, and I'd only handcuff myself to contorted doctrine. So what if it's true? The Sovereignty of God does not mean that Christians should declare themselves regional sovereigns vis. Divine Right of Kings. For all we know, such is not a logical consequence of the sovereignty of God, but its very abuse and manipulation. But, with research, intellectual cut, and persuasive rhetoric, the case can be made that might back some like me into a corner where we'd dare to pioneer novelties to save ourselves.

This is the phenomenon I see a lot of Evangelicals doing. I do not question their motives, as I have no idea what they are. However, I heard both Scot McKnight and Greg Boyd in two different interviews, promoting each of their books, sound like fools. The former tried to reconcile a form of evolutionary theory with the Genesis account through defining imago Dei as "consciousness." Yes, we're back to a certain German's attempt to refute Christianity's Cultured Despisers. I've heard him at conferences, multiple time, metaphorically bang his chest as "I'm a Bible man" in opposition to his theologian interlocutors. But it seems like this has only led to shallow end of theological liberalism, 200 years late to the party.

The latter, who I admire, has handcuffed himself to a bizarre reading of the New Testament that has him saying that God accommodated Himself to Israelite projections of an evil and bloodthirsty God in order to reach them; this was a veritable "crucifixion", foreshadowing God's later crucifixion in Christ Jesus. He spent 10 years writing this book, and it perplexes me, but I understand. In an effort to soothe the conscience and reach out into the World, to disprove the critics, inner and outer, who accuse Christianity of being a religion of blood and violence, you chart an almost novel path (i.e. the review says Boyd utilizes Origen, but from the interview alone, it seems very unlikely to be a good interpretation of an incredibly complicated figure). All of this only proves Luther's snarl that reason is a whore, or, in Cranmer's more accurate appraisal, what the heart loves, the will desires, and the mind justifies.

There's nothing particularly good about finding a safe spot. I confess that I've struggled with, and given in to, the temptation to radicalize for ideological purposes, both in conversation and in writing. A couple of my posts over the life of this blog reflect this, though they remain interesting thought pieces and interactions. However, the truth of things remains, despite wicked abuse and contortions, and remains despite critics.

Lord have mercy.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Faith is not a Faculty, or The Error of Reformational Transubstantiation

Here's a great post on the Biblical form of a doctrine of Imputation: here

The point of the brief review article of an article is that imputation is fundamentally separated from the act of sin. Hence, there is a crime done and a following act of assigning blame, the two do not magically happen together. Hence, why the imputation of sin to Christ may have ontological dimensions, but it also follows the Torah's logic of sin and guilt. In this way, while the Incarnation may be a stunning miracle, imputation is not (though it's a wonderful gift).

However, the main point of my article is to highlight one thing written:

"The regenerated heart of the believer has been infused with a new faculty, faith. This account is gnostic to the core. It locates salvation in the human heart. It drives a wedge between faith and faithfulness. It distorts the sacraments into rituals of individualistic gnosis, so that Presbyterians hunch over and ponder during the Lord’s Supper, as though by their thinking they could confect God."
As I've stated elsewhere, this is the problem with many varieties of Reformed theology about the Lord's Supper, which reflected ideas of the Taborites in the Hussite reformation. This is the idea that faith draws down Christ into the sacrament (though, usually understood in a non-material way; it is less about eating than participation). This is nothing but a gnostic form of transubstantiation, that depends upon the same logic, but jettisoning physical experience. Though, it should be said that transubstantiation is no valorization of the material, since it involves the eradication of material substance (hence bread is voided as bread, and becomes the Body).

Almost all Reformational figures attacked the idea of private masses because they rejected the idea that the priest, with his ordained assistants, was the worshiper, which lay people flocked in order to gain the benefits of the Church. However, most also assaulted the individualized nature of the Supper, as the benefit happened in an individualized, interior, locus. It's not that the benefits of the Lord's Supper don't touch on an individual level (one, and one alone, eats or drinks to salvation or damnation). Rather, it's that the Supper is something that happens with the whole community. I'm not saying Calvin's idea about the congregation being moved up to the Heavenlies is right, that seems to be a forced reading of the text based on a metaphysics of space and distance. However, he is right to see that the whole act is grounded in words of promise to all, than to an almost magical sense that an ordained person makes it so. Christ shows up in the bread and the wine because He promised His disciples that's where He'll be, in a totally Realist sense.

This is part and parcel to see a conjoining, not a divorce, of the Word and metaphysics. We don't need categories of substance to figure out what happens in the Supper. Instead, there's something Real, in an almost superficial way, about Jesus' words. When we gather with bread and wine, in His Name, something special is occurring.  Faith is thus not a substance or an ability, something we use to effect a new state of things. Rather, the Word makes it so, and we can either see through trusting and obeying our Lord, or blind ourselves through distrust and disobedience. But it is still so, nonetheless, whether to our salvation or to our judgement.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

When the Emperor Permits the Desecration of Icons

As many commentators point out, both friendly and hostile, Christians, particularly "conservative" Evangelicals, in the United States have near equal divorce rates to those who are not. As some have pointed out, the real root of the gay marriage problem is in the changing attitude towards divorce, and to the institution of marriage itself. Defanging the legislation was not only grounded in disdain for the permanence of marriage or the growing absolute primacy of romance as the grounds of marriage. But either way, taking the bite out of the marital contract allowed marital dissolution a free-flow, which became a reality as divorce became more and more socially permissive. However, this is not the problem. On an unrelated note, Petr Chelcicky comments on his contemporary situation of confusing the Law of God with man made laws:

Now concerning the second difference between the rule of the law of Christ and the pagan rule, the Master Adversary says[381] that the civil or state law of the pagans is (real) law by virtue of the sinfulness of men and for the purpose of obtaining justice through compulsion, while the law of the holy gospel exists for the (sole) purpose of obtaining spiritual gifts of grace… [ Civil law administers justice through compulsion, while the law of Christ establishes justice through love. ]
[ But while law checks – to a certain degree – injustice within one’s own country, it does nothing when iniquities are committed abroad. ] The straying Christians like to depend on secular power; they even seek it and cherish it since it serves their inclinations… Thus a material-minded people asks to have secular power (over them) because it enables them to rest in peace around fleshpots, under the protection of (state) authority; and if, peradventure, some hardship or threat to life or property should come about, these things will be defended by authority of the king, through war, driving away the disturber, and revenge… [ These Christians who have strayed from the law of Christ and are under the jurisdiction of the civil law are regarded as just and good as long as they live up to the standards of the civil courts and offices. But righteousness by law has nothing in common with righteousness in the eyes of God. ] The truth of Jesus is nothing but foolishness[382] to proud men, an oddity, an offense, a pain, and a shame.
Following Chelcicky's logic, Christians, the little Christs, the people of God, ought to live their lives in accordance with God's law. This has nothing to do with, or contradicts, the fact that Christ fulfills the law, we are always at war with sins that plague us, that fact that Christ's blood shed is the forgiveness of sins and the sure promise of pardon. However, Chelcicky is at war with the problem of "Sunday Christians". And one can see that real problem is that the Kingdom of God is removed from our day to day, public, lives.

As I stated before, the Reformation reformatted the Two Swords doctrine, but did not fundamentally maintain a deep sense of antithesis, one grounded not only in the heart, but also in the material and immaterial structures of our world. Spiritual is understood to be something other than common life, which is then placed under diverse rules and laws that have only tangential reference to Christ. This is the origin of Jesus as Beautiful Soul, which reaches its political theological climax in Niebuhr's claim that while Jesus' ethic is important as an ideal, it's not practical or practiceable in the hard situations of real life, the world of politics and economics.

Chelcicky doesn't refute that in the pagan world, Christ's law will be marked foolishness, and hence while Christians could theoretically hold these civil functions, they'd be hated and scorned. As Chelcicky said elsewhere, indeed a Christian could be a king, but if he was a Christian he'd know only preaching the gospel is the true path to bringing about righteousness, not the coercion of the sword. That is, the king would appear rather unkingly, even though Christ teaches us not to war against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities. For a king to reflect David is to mistake the kingship of Israel as typological of Christ's reign. Christ Jesus is not a different kind of king than David, rather He is the fulfillment, the filling full, of David's form.

When Christ's kingship is mistaken as having no impingement upon our lives, that He is merely spiritual in the sense that Christ's words have no real bearing on our public lives, we are in grave error. And the facts of divorce are proof of this. We no longer live in accordance with Christ's law as true, looking to Him in faith, but turn to civil law as our boundary. While the temptation to do so is always there, the fact many self-professing Christians can do so with a good conscience is because of doctrine that says America is a Christian country (and thus its laws are holy?) or that all law is merely neutral, lest it govern our worship or spiritual lives, and we need not concern ourselves of it, obedience is enough.

The second sounds innocuous enough, but it becomes license to dissolve our lives, and churches, into the surrounding civil life. While men like Wycliffe and Luther were right to oppose the Pope's temporal claims as a prince, especially his meddling in the affairs of princes, they (especially Luther) resulted in unleashing a kind of anarchy. From his perch in the monastery and university, I do not think Luther understood that the coercive conjoining of Papal and Imperial law was all that kept the thin veneer of Christian virtue over most peoples. He lamented that many had no desire for the things of God, only to be free from all constraint. Very quickly most facets of the Magisterial Reformation hitched their wagons to princely reform movements, and recreated the same alliance between state and church, though perhaps with new power differentials. In both cases, whether under Roman or Reformational governments, the church became a spiritual province, with temporal benefits, that subdued itself fully to the needs of civil power.

What does this have to do with divorce? Because of the legacy of segregating Christ's law from common life means that we hide in the boundaries of civil law. It should keep us in awe that even though Henry VIII was absolute master of England, he was still enraged that William Tyndale, a nobody with no civil power, wrote against him. Why did Henry care? Because he knew Tyndale, standing on Scripture and claims of Christ's church, might cause people to undermine the king's stature. Tyndale was not explicitly being political, but he refused to call evil good because the king demanded it. And Tyndale did not take the sword, he was eventually martyred for his fidelity to Christ the King.

St. Paul tells us marriage is a mystery of Christ and His Church. In this way, marriage is a sacrament, if we are to use such a category, because it forms out of common materials (the ordinary civil function of marriage) an icon of Christ's work, a promise to an otherwise common fact. If Christians are ever to appear demographically different, it will be because we care more for Christ's law than the terror of civil judgement. Many are beginning to wake up to this fact, but I'm afraid it's grounded in present day hostility, not the binding teaching of the Apostles. Even if the Emperor tells us it's permitted to desecrate Christ's icons, we should rather obey God, and not hide under theological skirts, fleeing to the coercive features of the state. May God curse such people with a bad conscience, so that they might repent; and may God bless His churches so we may soak ourselves into the life of Christ.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Confusion of Constantine

Leithart recently wrote two review articles about the Church of England in the Victorian era. These articles send mixed messages, especially in light of Leithart's larger body of work and thought.

The first article described how the Church was afflicted with a plague of absentee ministers and absentee parishes. The former collected their salaries and pursued their own interests, the latter were jacking up the parish record numbers. Thus, the numbers of the Church of England were highly inflated and don't reflect church life in the slightest.

The second article described how an Evangelical layman was able to procure the ability to administer preferment. This was an old practice of the English church, where a church was staffed by men selected by the wealthy lay property owner who donated land to the building of said church. This process was a means to subvert episcopal hostility to evangelical ministers. Thus lay people helped the gospel go forth, despite the intransigence of her bishops.

These stories seem to militate against each other, and reveal the confusion of a church's involvement in the formation of a national identity and deeply intertwined with the functions of social prestige. I don't know if Leithart is bemused, or supportive, by the Evangelical layman's triumphing over stodgy bishops. But either way, both of these aspects are due to the fact that the church was tied in with the structures and institutions of the nation in such a binding way. This is the problem of, as Hooker put it , the church as the nation at prayer. This was mostly a fiction that was only ever true viz. coercion. The Glorious Revolution, and the resulting toleration that resulted, led to the Church of England only existing in national prominence as the legally established church. As ministers complained throughout the eighteenth century, many ceased to show up on Sundays now that coercion was severely diminished. If anything, this actually freed the Church of England to realize some of the problems of being attached to the nation and to the state, though many of these lessons went mostly unlearned. The current beauty of much of the Anglican Communion is the blossoming of it in the Global South, which has risen up to challenge the vile apostasy found in most of the West, most notable in putrid state of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.

When the Church of England ceased to be English of essence and was such only by accident, it was freed to obey Christ's commission and reveal His glory. Constantine is not really the problem. Christians should praise an emperor (or whatever governing authority) who eases over persecutions and appreciate any gifts. But Constantine was not merely a passing phenomenon, but a mistaken image of Christ. Constantine is less a problem than Eusebeius' immortalization of him, which has become the defacto model of Sacralist Christendom ever since. National life becomes Christianized, which means actual people hardly are. Hence, the parishes empty and powerful "lay" people, lazy and blind, turn churches into Pagan dominions, little play things in the hands of a national life. The occasional Evangelical layman is only a set up for a greater tragedy, as the general anemia of the Church of England today shows. When will Leithart admit that, as it turns out, the Anabaptists were right the whole time about the relation of the Church to the nation? How many tragedies will it take to wake up?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A City in the Distance: Reflections on Church, State and Society

I am frequently disturbed by the American ideology of Progress. That is to say, the idea of an endless advance forward for its own sake is very bizarre. I want to ask: Why? Is this a blind faith, leap in the dark, for a meaning to be later found? Or is Progress its own reward? And again, why? There doesn't seem to be anything inherently rewarding about progress, except when conceptualized competitively. No one cares to get to Pacman level 1000 unless one kept score. And even then, so what? In the movie The Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan says to Ozymandias, "The world's smartest man poses no more threat to me than the world's smartest termite." In the grand scale of everything, progress is eclipsed and obliterated.

Of course, no one lives for that, not exactly. Even psychotic atheists, who revel in this sort of thing, like DeGrasse Tyson,  utilize man's epiphenomenal status in the Universe as a means to spur a kind of existential epicureanism. What I mean by that is the value of life is forged in experiences, of bliss, love, and acceptance, and when we, the collective Human race, get off our horse and realize how worthless and speck-like we are, then we get about enjoying our lives. Thus, all law and government is primarily for the purposes of providing restraint on those who might interrupt this quest. Humanity is broken up and atomized, to the point that to talk about nature is nothing but a peculiar short-hand for a nominal pattern of behavior.

While the idea of progress for its own sake is incredibly peculiar, it pales in comparison to the above. In some ways, Kant provided the scaffolding for this new modus vivendi when he tried to save the Enlightenment from Hume's scalpel. The division of the noumenal from the phenomenal unveils a world that is ultimately a shell. Marxists provide the saner of the two options, positing the non-existence of the phenomenal and reducing all things to material causes. While this seems wildly implausible, it is far and above better than the opposite, which seems to be more of the case today, outside a couple of cynical and reclusive academics that remain. Instead, the noumenal has taken an absolute importance. Some have thus referred to our age as "gnostic".

This might be hard to believe when many consider our age as hyper materialistic, but this is a critical error. The ease in which American society easily chases after material objects means anything but a materialist society, for the material is at best a conduit for the real benefits of the immaterial. People do not horde money, but lust after the new gem of experience. This is the new watchword that functions similarly, but crassly, to the Plotinian Pagan quest of salvation. Yes, America much more resembles a cargo-cult than the austere ascesis of the late Roman world, but they mirror one another. Experience is the opening up of the noumenal world within the world of phenomena. That is to say, the really Real appears amidst a bunch of useless, dead, and empty objects. These objects merely obstruct or assist us in the quest for the true treasure of experience. Some experiences build towards other experiences, but ultimately it's a quest for the interruption of all things and receiving the point of it all.

This sounds esoteric and abstract, but let me talk about this more in terms of time. According to Greek distinctions, employed later by Existentialist theologians, there are two kinds of time: kairos and chronos. The latter is the normal pace of things, moment to moment, past and future, where the present is merely the funnel through which the one becomes the other. The former, however, is an interruption, a breaking point, where normal time is shattered. Kairotic time is best thought of as the Moment for which we crave. There are plenty of songs, usually about orgasm or drug use, that document the quest for this moment, the experience of meaning. There is a distinction between reality as material, objective experience, and the real reality of the subjective experience. The moment is punctilliar, but in a wholly tangential sense. It is the moment when time is opened to timelessness. All who do and act for "experience" have this sense lurking somewhere in the background. As much as people care about things, they are merely shells carrying the goods inside of them. The divorce can be stark. As one recent song put it, "I remember back in Oakland, I was lying there in rapture on the bathroom floor."

The existential metaphysics make all of this different from classic Epicureanism, but it is on a sliding scale of similarity. Some argue for experience upon repeatable, usually licit, forms of gentle accumulation (e.g. you climbed a mountain, went skydiving, had a wedding, saw a birth, drank $500 whiskey, visited Bali, etc.), which fits more of the Epicurean desire for maximal happiness. Of course, there are those who are the crash course for the kairotic experience, and risking it all for briefly scraping it, and thus escaping the horror of the mundane, is totally worth it. Usually this sort of thing results in potent drug-use, socially radical sex, violence, etc. Thus, the dirty secret that ecstasy and agony are twin sisters practiced by those who crave this sort of life.

Both of these are pursued en masse, but neither of them really make sense of society or polity. I'm not talking about whether society is possible, ala. Lockean push and pull in the Original Contract. Rather, it doesn't make any sense. Society has no purpose, but to provide cover for all this experiential search. The kairotic moment of experience, the border-straddling of subliminal rapture, refers to nothing but to the subjective which some understand in strictly physicalist terms (i.e. brain chemistry, hormones, and nerve stimulation).

The maddening part is that people don't have any real objective sense to their lives. And this is very helpful for social policy, because the parameters of life are concrete and permanent, there is no deep-seated unrest or angst about this on the large scale. Now, this might become a factor if people are deprived of the means to go on this search; poverty, suffering, and hardship have the strange blessing of sobering people up.

For the strictly materialist, this is why Marx could say religion is the opiate of the people, cowing their energies for their own fantasies of the internal life divorced from material reality. Marx may have woeful philosophic presuppositions, but it shows the horrible error of the bourgeois Protestant theology of the day. While Kierkegaard, in many ways I suppose, is still part of the problem, his cries and shrieks that there was hardly a Christian in Denmark were an attack on this function division. When Christ is made conformable to Kant, the end is a disaster. The rise of the Social Gospel and the postmillenialist attempt to build the Kingdom on Earth was a reaction to this form of liberal theology.

However, this reaction within liberal theology is still tethered to the same impulses of the former. In terms of the faith, I'm not sure which is worse. All attempts at Sacralism, including the liberal Social Gospel movement, turn Christ's Church and His Gospel into a Pagan cult (meant in the traditional, not pejorative, sense), but at least they touch upon the discerned wisdom that Human life cannot be separated from objective, physical reality. The Christian Existentialist, which we might call the heresy, imaged in early Gnostics, cuts through reality, severing the life of Christ from the mundane. Kant may be the chief wizard for modern understandings of this fact, but he is not to be blamed as an innovator, or introducing something radically new. Instead, he allowed a form of Christianity to survive in tact while also allowing the pursuit of newly minted "Enlightened" forums to seek after. In a way, Kant typifies the logical conclusion of Lutheran Two Kingdoms theology, which I will from here on refer to as simply Two Kingdoms.

From the start I will say that Two Kingdoms is a critical error. It has a solid and long tradition, and develops as an interpretation of Augustine's theology of the Two Cities. Augustine's approach was a radical alternative to the other major political theology of Eusebeius of Caesarea's veneration of Constantine. The Eusebeian theology welded Roman Society to the faith as a story of conquest: Christ and His Martyrs overcame Rome, culminating in the conversion of the Emperor. Constantine's conversion heralded the creation of a Christian civilization, where Church integrated into Empire. This does not mean total capitulation, where the church is a toady of imperial design. Rather, it means that both emperor and bishop have a role within a larger society that one may call Christendom. Though there was not a strict divide between "temporal" or "spiritual", the boundaries of offices were understood.

Two Swords is an Augustinian spin on this idea, which became the de facto doctrine of Western Europe, once Germanic kings began to Romanize. In Two Swords, the king has temporal power and the church has spiritual power, wieleded by the two hands of the singular Christendom. It is less comprehensive than the Eusebian doctrine, at least how it played out in the Eastern Roman Empire, focusing rather on nodes of authority than a comprehensive sense of civilization. It's not that there wasn't a sense of Christian civilization, but it was less cohesive, focusing more on those at the top. Two Swords could become more or less Eusebian. In fact, it wasn't until the high days of the Imperial Papacy when Eusebian doctrine came back into play, full force. Rather, it was the Pope as Vicar of Christ who made room for the Christian princes of Europe. At its zenith, the role of bishop and emperor fused. After the Reformation, popes were now seen as having a spiritual power that undergirded temporal authority, and could be withdrawn through excommunication.

However, the Middle Ages also contained a more Augustinian sense of the Two Swords, which I think fully blossoms in the Lutheran enshrinement of Two Kingdoms. In this, the temporal and spiritual are strictly divided, but with the latter taking a more important place. As Augustine taught, the temporal was penultimate, while the spiritual was ultimate. In the Two Swords paradigm, this meant that the former was to encase and protect the realization of the latter. It was the religious life, questing for salvation, praying for the souls of the dead, accumulating heavenly merit, that was the really real. The penultimate order of the temporal sword helped protect the real workers.

It make sense that this was how Luther understood his world as an Augustinian monk. However, he radicalizes this notion when he blows out its foundation through his discovery of sola fide. This doctrine is biblical and life-giving, and removed the social purpose of Medieval monasticism. If Christ chooses the weak and beggarly, and accomplishes this work fully and firmly, then doctrines of purgatory, indulgences, and penance (at least understood in their Medieval form) are meaningless, if not potentially damning. However, Luther seems to follow Augustinian sense of the Two Swords, not abandoning a doctrine of Christendom, though the role of the spiritual is now overhauled. This is Two Kingdoms emending of Two Swords.

While later Lutheranism crystalizes this into a doctrine, Luther's body of work is not thoroughly consistent, and develops over his life. In his early days, Luther can appear pretty radical, totally secularizing all temporal authority, it being irrelevant whether one is ruled by a Papist, an Evangelical, or a Turk. Later on, as Luther gains momentum through the support of princes, Luther attempts to rebuild a sense of Christendom, where temporal rulers have a distinctly Christian role to play. They become aids to the work of the Church, which is focused on manifesting the drama of justification in the mass, bringing again and again God's terror against sin and His gracious word of reconciliation, to Christians. Princes could even function as emergency-bishops, having the authority of the church to bring about reforms. This is not the madness of the English Act of Supremacy, putting the king as the supreme head of the church of England. Luther hadn't confused temporal and spiritual power, but the role of the prince was to maintain order. Luther's emerging Two Kingdoms had flexibility for both a more Two Swords variety, with the temporal playing a role in a larger Christendom, and more Augustinian approach, where there was less concern for any distinct ideology of the temporal arm. This reflected Lutheran geography, those under Evangelical princes and those still under Papist princes. The latter desired tolerance, at least for themselves, and not a fully functioning arm of Christian enforcement.

This brief summary of some twists and turns of Augustine's doctrine was a set up for the real value of Augustine's Two Cities. In fact, while Augustine acknowledged the presence of a Christian emperor, he didn't make any distinct place for it. He was much more cynical about the possibility of its sustenance, though he certainly took advantage of it in the suppression of the Donatists. In this, he looks a lot more like a Lutheran. However, the deep division was Augustine had a much more optimistic sense of the Church than Luther. For Augustine, the City was a materialization of a blueprint, the love of the heart manifest in actions. Thus, there were two cities, one of man based in self-love, and one of God based in love of Christ. The kingdoms of this world, including Rome, even Rome with Christian emperors, were founded in self-love and their structures, both material (e.g. buildings, monuments, etc.) and immaterial (e.g. institutions, civic rites), manifested this. The Church was a part of, if not the, manifestation of the City of God, since Christians were those who had the love of God in their heart. Luther, on the contrary, was much more pessimistic about this, recognizing that all Christians are afflicted with sin. They were simul iustus et peccator, not merely lovers and friends of God who still struggled against their sins. While Augustine recognized that hypocrites, liars, and apostates could and would be in churches, even their leadership, this did not lead him to believe that all holiness on Earth was invisible as it did Luther.

Later Lutheranism has not been so cynical, but a stench of it has followed the development of the Lutheran church and has, perhaps, been part of the reason for its anemia. If holiness is invisible, even to Christians who are constantly beset by the Old Adam and his sins, then when Two Kingdoms is uncoupled from a Christian state, malaise about the role of the church can set in. All one sees is the kingdom of the world, with the exception of word and sacrament, and this can lead to a turn inwards. Perhaps Pietism's development is proof of this, as their reaction to "dead' Lutheran Orthdoxoy led to an emphasis upon subjective experiences of crushing law and liberating gospel, despair and rejoicing. Faith becomes increasingly experiential because a physical manifestation is wholly invisible in any objective sense. Living by faith becomes understood as an atomized act. In the English world, the reverberations of Pietism melded with, and influenced, wings of Reformed theology to create the Evangelicalism of the Great Awakenings. When secularized, it is easy to see how an unmoored mutation Two Kingdoms becomes the modern day modus vivendi of experience.

Sacralist attacks on Two Kingdoms will tell a similar story, and they are right at points. But, they beg the question that their approach is right approach. Of course, I would accuse them of Judaizing, mistaking the empty Torah of Israel for the fulfilled Torah of Israel's Christ. They are no better than those who sought to retain circumcision for Christians in St. Paul's day. While most are not open Eusebeans, they keep his spirit with an Augustinian gloss over it. However, I will say, once again, I much rather appreciate the emphases of the Sacralists, even if they are more dangerous. They, at least, do not divorce matter and spirit, and more properly recognize Creation as God's gift, not a stumbling block.

Augustine's doctrine of Two Cities is absolutely necessary, and it is because it does not obviate the intermeshing, though distinct, of matter and spirit. Christ's Gospel manifests in temporal form and in visible ways, hence why Pagans were shocked to see the love of Christians for one another as they perished. Augustine keeps both sides of the Biblical account in tact: the crowds see Christ heal the sick and rejoice, while also turning on him and bringing about His crucifixion. He both trusts the power of God, while also retaining healthy pessimism. The City of God intermixes with the City of Man, but the two remain distinct. Augustine, perhaps unknowingly, provides a political theology for the Church of the Underground, who do not put their trust in princes. Churches are thus politically engaged, but oriented towards giving and a willingness to suffer shame, scorn, and attack. It is not about control, but about witness. Hence, the congregation was a distinct society from the Roman world, but the former was not poised to conquer the latter. Thus, the Christian faith was not oriented away from, but within creation as the site of God's work. Chronos, linear and experienced time, was not disregarded as a problem, but was recognized as the place where the Creator God appeared, in the flesh. The radical nature of the Kingdom of God is not in a divorce between matter and spirit, but in a new interaction, where sin was overcome by the cross of Christ, and the folly and weakness of God stormed the Devil's palace.

If Christians are to escape from anemia of modern existentialism, with its aimlessness and purposelessness, literally without an end, a telos, then we must return to a vision of faith that does not pry a part spirit and matter, eternity and time, kairos and chronos. The latter is not merely an empty vessel, a means to an end, but the site of God's redeeming work. The Kingdom thus comes with power, but a power shaped by cross, a spiritual force that appears in the flesh. The Church of God, holy, one, catholic, and apostolic, may be an article of faith, the churches of God are visible, even if weak and unimpressive by the standards of This Age. We may still be pilgrims, not yet arriving at our city in a distance, but our tents and homes within the walls of Babylon reflect a Kingdom that is, indeed, not of This World.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

How Many Churches?, or the Perversity of Ring-Fencing

I recently watched an older video that was a little tiff between Lutheranism and the Reformed. The general details are irrelevant, but at a point the talking-head made the claim that there are four, distinct, church communions: Roman, Eastern, Reformed, and Lutheran. The claim was that in all four there were legitimate Christians and all four were legitimate churches in as much as they rightfully administer word and sacrament. But, and this is the point, the Lutherans grasp the truth of doctrine best and are the truest church. And in case you were wondering, Reformed means everything from Westminster Presbyterian to Pentecostal to Amish. They are all offspring of the radical Reformation, and not the conservative Reformation initiated by Luther.

This reminded me of similar claims you might here. Rome claims that papal communion is the mark of the true church, even though Vatican II does not condemn all outside (referring to Christian groups outside as ecclesial communities). The Orthodox believe in the unity formed in the seven ecumenical councils is the basis for the true Church of the Apostles. Then there are lesser claims. Some strange Anglo-Catholics desperately cling to the Branch Theory, to include themselves as a true church and denying all "Protestants" as lacking true ordination. There are some Reformed who refer to a stark difference of presupposition, there is either the pure gospel of Calvinist theology (which is exclusively Christian) and Paganism, everything else being inconsistency or mixtures of the two. Then there are Pentecostal claims that only those who have the Spirit are true Christians, wherever they are, and Evangelicals who look for "true believers", not having any sense of church beyond a mere gathering of fellow Christians.

Listening to the talk, the idea sounds attractive and simplifies a whole host of issues. But, I've also been enamored with the simplicity of the idea that Church unity is forged around the Petrine figure of the pope (ala. von Balthasar). In earlier days, I was also attracted to the sense of looking for the "true" Christians ala. Evangelicalism and the simple idea that there was some set of presuppositions where I could use as a criteria to judge whether a church was a good church.

Of course, there are clear historical, biblical, and logical problems to this proposition, which I won't waste time enumerating. What I want to talk about is the attraction to ring-fencing as a form of problem solving. The idea is basically to formulate some set of criteria that causes a quarantining divide to safe-guard a formal purity. This purity may be in the form of doctrine, form of worship, or form of institution, though some lunatics seek to find it in a form of person, which involves an abyss of psycho-analysis. This tries to soothe the conscience against what is otherwise a disheartening mess of divided churches, apostasy, rank heresies, and the development of both pre and post Christian Paganisms. While I am wholly opposed to Confessionalism (though not to confessions), I can appreciate the motive behind it in trying to bring fierce and ferocious touchstone. It seems a safe way to police the borders and maintain the faith. And while Confessionalist bodies tend to dabble in the same zeitgeist, they are better able to defend many forms of Apostolic Christianity. Sometimes I wonder if this is better or worse; is it slowing the poison for a time when the true cure can be introduced, or is it merely masking the real rot and prolonging a deep evil. I don't know.

I am someone who is struggling to believe that the current situation is mapped out in the Scripture. I do not believe history, and thus time, is the meaningless play of events, or that Scripture has little but proscriptives for events. Rather, the Holy Spirit is always working, gathering up the broken shards of our lived experience, and knitting them together to reveal Christ crucified. This, I think, is the heart of Christian theology of nature, by which I mean all things temporal and secular (literally of "This Age") but I'll come back to this in another post.

Contrary to the above claims by silly non-Papists, Scripture does not reveal four church communions, or three branches, or unity viz. "ecumenical" councils (which refers less to catholicity than Romanity; Ethiopia wasn't invited to these councils; and many Syrians, Arabs, Persians, and Armenians weren't invited to most) or a Petrine office founded on his grave in Rome. None of this is based in Scripture (though I can imagine creative exegesis about the numbers three or four, or appeals to Biblical reference to the Roman Empire or Peter's martyrdom in Rome). Rather, it all assume Scripture has nothing to say. I'm not sure of all that Holy Writ says, but I do know that it speaks of One Church (eschatologically figured in the Heavenly assembly) made out of a unity of churches, referring to concrete, local, congregations. And it has no place for fixed churches, where Revelation reveals churches can embody not three or four, but seven types of churches that succeed and fail in their loyalty to Christ.

But ring-fencing is a temptation to ease our sense of time. It's denial that, perhaps, if the Church is indeed the Body of Christ, it not only bears about glory, but crucifixion and humiliation. She is attacked not only by the foreign enemies of God (Pilate), but even stricken and betrayed from within by those controlled by Satan (Judas) and those under siege by Satan (Peter). And in the moment of betrayal, how does one know the difference between Judas and Peter, let alone those who flee? Perhaps we're not taking Scripture seriously enough if we don't think these same marks that happened to our Lord would not also happen to us collectively. But the urge can be great, so I strongly warn against it. For the Body is One, without a single broken bone, but remains stricken, even by ideologues.

Friday, July 14, 2017

God's Strange Gift of Melancholy: A Reflection

One of Luther's radical theological moves was to rearticulate faith's relation to knowledge and action. He took St. Paul's insistence that Christ was a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks as a wedge to destroy Medieval theology. Following Aristotle, it became a commonplace to understand Humanity caught within the binary of contemplation and action. Meister Eckhart produced the finalized version of this through his interpretation of Mary and Martha. Unlike Aristotle, who merely placed contemplation as superior to action (and both were Human and superior to creating/making (poieisis)), Eckhart saw contemplation only ever emerging superior when it went through the fire of action. Thus, Mary only becomes Mary through the way of Martha. Action leads to contemplation. This became standard practice for Medieval monastic practice.

Luther blows this a part by recognizing the receptivity, not instrumentality, of faith. Christ offers Himself to us, giving Himself to us sinful Humans through the preaching of the Gospel. This is not an offer, rather Christ is given. This is how faith is a gift. We already have Christ, we only open our hands for the gift to be ours and be our benefit. For Luther, this was the receptive life (vita passiva), something that happens to us. This is not inaction, but rather our world is shaped by the address and call of an Other, through which we are constituted. In this, faith reconfigures our knowledge and action. In faith, both knowledge and action can come to life and serve their God-given purpose. Without Christ, knowledge and action will always threaten to become demonic, moving towards self-justification. Being addressed, hearing God's word draw us into reality (namely, we are perishing sinners in need of redemption which God has decisively accomplished in Christ). We undergo this process, which stops dead attempts at knowing and acting which gives our lives meaning, fulfillment etc.

While we no longer are beheld to Aristotelian metaphysics, our modern metaphysics of subjectivity need to hear this Pauline injunction even more. The modern world pushes us to act, act, act; to justify our actions and our knowledge. Are we effective, efficient, productive? Are we doing anything useful? The Modern world is marked by the removal of all ends, a part of Liberalism's suspension of the ultimate, but was unable to replace this social dynamic. An end, something for its own sake, was elusive. Culture, art, civilization, knowledge, none of these were able to bear the weight of being a civic religion. Now all that is left is endless progress, a search for the search, ever onwards and upwards. 

However, we may do well to consider the phenomena that many call "depression". While I detest the term, as it is highly clinical, the state of mind is a forced experience of jamming the ideology of progress. In a bout of melancholy, one is overwhelmed with a sense of iniquity and uselessness. One's works turn to ash. Friendships are exposed, usually with the flash of pessimistic creativity, as unable to bear the weight of expectation. No one really seems to be your friend. Now, the bout of melancholy does not mean one generally rejects these things (you might still imagine other people have friends, a purpose, accomplishments etc.), but it does suspend it in your own life. There's a moment when it all of life, in all of its mundane features, is nothing but an empty play, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

However, this is a great opportunity for the Christian to awaken to a fundamental feature of reality. The truth is that we are never in a position of arbitration and authority. We are born in media res, in the midst of things, which shape and define us. Before we speak, we are given a name. We only know when we are known. The whole of life, in all of its particularities, is a given.

Of course, for the Pagans of old, this was not an uplifting or good fact. The gods were cruel and capricious, to be known was not necessarily a benefit. The walls of the polis and rituals of the variety of cults were intended to ward off, to form boundaries, against the world of the divine, to limit the interaction. By blocking of this ultimacy, the truly Human was bracketing our givenness to focus on a realm of control and mastery. The marble of Hellenic art does not show a love of the body, but the love for the ideal of body. Our actual givenness is separated towards the form that we perfect towards our distinctly Human goals. In Antiquity, this was for the freeborn and the aristocratic, who were authentically Human by divesting themselves as much as possible from the accidents of creatureliness. All theology of glory is an attempt to escape from our God given limits. There is no Christian theology of glory, though some Christians practice a theology of glory. Rather, it's the root of all Paganism, whether monotheistic or polytheistic.

For those who suffer the bouts of depression/melancholy, that come up like a storm, it's an odd gift that shatters these illusions. We are confronted with the all too Human in our present state, one that is in a cursed world and in exhausting circularity or in downward spiral. One caught within a depression recognizes that he is being identified, and paralyzed, through an addressed from the whirling storm of his psyche. The gift in this is to deflate the vanity of the Pagan division between act and thought from the primacy of givenness. The reflective melancholic knows that at a moment he could be stung with paralysis. Now as Christians, we are called to mastery over this form of madness, and one way is to see how beneficial it can be in a world that obsesses with progress. Because Christ addresses us in His promises, His Gospel of raising up the poor, the broken, and the sinner from the dusts of death, we can survive these storms and bless the Lord. This is a thorn that Christ leaves in the side, a means to battle Satan and remain realistic, the definition of humility.

We are called first, we are given a name, the Lord chooses us for nothing we can contribute. This is our great hope, and melancholy's strange virtue may be to illuminate this startling beautiful and hopeful truth. In the midst of the wreckage of the storm, God comes bearing gifts, He who is without Limits among us limited creatures. Amen.