Monday, October 15, 2018

Revenge of the Josephites

The Russian Orthodox Church has officially broken ties with Constantinople's Ecumenical Patriarch in what might be one of the most important shifts in Orthodoxy for centuries.

Eastern Orthodoxy operates along a collegiate model for the various heads of churches. Patriarchate status involves a recognition of autocephaly, literally being one's own head. Unlike Rome, there is no single monarchical figure in Orthodoxy, even as various Orthodox churches have a single head, usually along national lines. Ukraine, having been a Russian dependent, and deeply entwined not only in Russia's European geopolitical footprint, but also in the history of Russia culturally and theologically, has been under the headship of Moscow.

It has only really been since the Nazi invasion that Ukrainian nationalism has picked up steam. During World War 2, many Ukrainians, especially in the western, aided the Nazi invasion. Avenging themselves of Stalin's famine and Soviet brutality, Ukrainians supported not only waging a war of liberation, but also involved themselves in the massacre of "slavs" and Jews. As Western news reporters are now finally, but reluctantly, realizing, most of the nationalist agitation for a European Ukraine has come from self-professing neo-Nazis, advocating for the purity of their white, European, race from the Eastern horde of Slavs and Jews. These are the same forces that US/NATO interests have supported in fomenting agitation against Russia, under the corporate marionette presidency of Poroshenko.

I'm not saying this to say that Russia is the good guy. They're their own bloodsoaked empire. But in the terms of geopolitics and the harsh world of realpolitik, Russia is the one trying to be cowed. The pro-Europe Ukrainian movement is, in its organizations and potency, mostly a gang of corporate crooks, deeply involved in the US military-financial complex, who've helped to fuel Ukrainian Nazism to serve as shock troops on the ground floor. Al Jazeera has become exceptionally neo-liberal in its outlook, so it's no surprise to see that they cite, almost as if a given, an analyst who "speculates" that the Orthodox Church is exercising some sort of political control over Ukrainians. It's insulting to the many Orthodox, Russian speaking, eastern Ukranians. The two countries have a far more complicated history than many Western news sources let on. Russia and Ukraine share a long-standing historical integration of cultural similarity and synthesis. The Mongols helped to shift the balance of influence from Kiev to the east when they burned the city to the ground in their conquest. Moscow, through treachery and craftiness, rose to become the supreme city, surpassing the far wealthier Novgorod, and overtaking Kiev's cultural patrimony. The urgent sense of nationalism has far more contemporary roots, a combination of Jesuit intrigue in seducing many in the western part to become a Uniate Church and Stalin's murderous famines. The Nazis helped Ukrainians find a nationalist consciousness.

As one might expect, the Russian Orthodox Church has deep ties to Russia as a national entity. The Josephites were one group within the medieval Russian Church who promulgated a more distinctly Russian theology against a more pan-Hellenist view. My title is a joke, I don't think the Josephites are back (certainly not their crude typological prophecies about Russia's glory). But I do think there's an intellectual turn back to the mystic-Slavic philosophies of the 19th century, typified in the success and rise of Alexandr Dugin and his rising Orthodox media empire. He's not quite Solovyev, neither in his odd genius nor his heterodoxy. But he's certainly a return to the blending of philosophy and theology in Church and nationality.

The Soviet era was a hard blow to the Russian Church. Officially banned, symbolically demonstrated in Stalin's demolition campaign, many Russian luminaries fled in the infamous Ship of Philosophers, that formed exile communities in Britain, France, and the United States. After Stalin, the Soviet Union eased up, allowing the Church to exist in state surveilled ghettos, and often resisted from various congregations in underground Orthodox communities. After the Soviet Union, the Church returned to clear visibility, still rocked from infighting and suspicion. The episode of Sergei Bulgakov's pseudo-heresy, with various churches in the name of patriarch giving conflicting judgements, is a show of it. However, with the rising star of Putin and his Tsar-like cult of personality and presidential authority, the Church has aligned itself with a revived Russia. Excoriating its Soviet ghosts, Russia has increasingly postured itself as the premier Orthodox power, with the blessing of Moscow's Patriarchate. With Dugin's Slavic philosophy, and now this break-up, Russia may shift more decisively into its own center of defining gravity.

Now, it's possible that this episode is just a political stunt, a kind of brinkmanship. Perhaps this episode is a way for the Russian Church to cow the Phanar. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is an odd and peculiar figure. Being declared a first-among-equals of the New Rome in Constantinople I (383), his role reflected the political map of the Roman empire with its lifeblood clearly in the east. This title was resented in Antioch and Alexandria, which broke off in the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) respectively. And with the growing distance from Latinate Rome, Byzantium-Constantinople was the City for Orthodoxy. Its Hagia Sophia was where king Vladimir of the Rus thought he had stepped into Heaven, the beginning of Russia's Orthodoxy. However, as the Turks strangled Rome, slicing open their belly at Manzikert (1071), the noose was slowly placed around the New Rome. A few crusades held off Turkish domination, though the treachery of the West, the partnership of the Vatican with the Germano-Frankish princes, helped further cripple Byzantium. 1453 was the coup d'grace, with Constantinople now becoming Turkish.

Under the Ottoman sultans, the Patriarchate of Constantinople fluctuated from beleaguered leader of the Greek-speaking Orthodox, who had to mediate between his people and the court, and puppet, who helped smooth the way for the sultan's policies. It became a kind of defunct office, with many Byzantine Orthodox going underground, avoiding political involvement. For many Slavic peoples in the Balkans, the rise of the Russian Empire, turning its gaze west and south, signaled hope. Russia became the seat of Orthodoxy, whereas the Patriarch was reduced to symbolic head in the Turkish ghetto of the Phanar.

The 20th century signaled a change. The liberation of Greece was a blow to Ottoman power in the Balkans. The newly independent kingdom of Greece was deeply integrated into the West, with its royal family connected to Prussian Hohenzollerns and the Anglo-German Saxe-Coburg, among others. The significance of this western connection was not fully made alive until the end of World War 2, where the United States now intervened and intrigued in Greek affairs. After aiding the Greek Communists who had fought a guerilla war against the Nazis and Italian Fascists, the Americans quickly shifted towards active suppression. Greece became a fixed star in the NATO orbit, a strategic area for bases of operations, aimed to the north and to the east, able to point a dagger at the throat of the Soviet Union and maintain proximity to the Middle East. Directly through the Popodopoulos military junta, and through soft influence over the Papandreou political dynasty and other forces in the Greek political spectrum, the Americans directed the web of Greek and Greek-American financial-business interests to maintain support for its foreign policy.

Greek-Americans, many who were businessmen of various sorts, became useful mediators with the regime back in the old country and in the profit matrix in the new. The Greek Orthodox Church in America (GOA) has become a site for these connections and operations. Church functions have become networking opportunities, and as a cultural reserve, it has become colonized with quasi-Masonic Hellenic Fraternities which further build chains of networks. The Ecumenical Patriarch has not been shy to these networks. While there's much spookiness and superstition about Free Masonry, it is, at its core, a networking opportunity that, through odd and secret rituals, help bind people together. As a shadow institution, it becomes a way of networking below board. Thus it's unclear how deeply connected the Ecumenical Patriarch is, or is not, with various financial and political interests in the United States, whether directly or indirectly through Greek- American contacts. GOA is notorious among some Orthodox diehards for being, covertly more than overtly, a liberal mainline Protestant denomination. Like many wings in the American Roman Catholic Church, while many priests may show a public face of "orthodoxy", they're privately committed to radical reforms and heterodox, if not downright heretical or anti-Christian doctrines. GOA is a few steps behind American-Rome on this point; there are many priests who support abortion, female priests, and the conclusions of old-school Higher Criticism. Behind the drone of Tradition they adhere to these views among fellow priests, and away from the old women and the few devotees of the church.

It should not be a surprise (and is mostly likely) that the Ecumenical Patriarch's support for the autocephalous Ukrainian church is part of American meddling in trying to rip, quite forcefully, Ukraine from Russia's orbit. Again, while I'm putting it in geopolitical terms, it's a rather steep cultural shock for many Ukrainians, who don't see their being Ukrainian as opposed to Russian culture, politics, or social life. There's a difference between nation and nationalism, with the latter being almost unilaterally rallied among neo-Nazi groups. It might confuse some American commentators, but there were many Ukrainians who would've found it obscene to suggest the Yanukovych was merely a Russian puppet. In comparison, it'd be like saying Canada's Trudeau is an American puppet: he is a freely elected leader with his own set of policy objectives, but has to work within the geopolitical balance of power. Ukraine within a Russian umbrella was not an aggressively new paradigm, but a traditional regional bloc. Whether it should be that way is an idealistic, but rather foolish, question. If not Russia, who? Idealism about Ukrainian independence likes to obscure this question, either avoiding or blind to NATO casting its shadow over the whole procedure. It's not for nothing that both high-ranking Democrats and Republicans have direct or indirect connection to corporate interests located in Ukraine. For those with eyes to see, the question in Ukraine is not one of liberation, carte blanche, but which master is better to serve. To many Ukrainian Orthodox, who will be forced to double down on their loyalty to Russia against the small, but highly politicized, autocephalous church, Russia proves the more loyal friend. American operatives, like the Jesuits before, seem to be willing to do anything, even chopping up the Church, to achieve their ends.

What does this mean in terms of the Kingdom of God? Well, I hope it will shatter the illusions of the Ameridox, though it probably will not. Unaware of reality and afflicted with a rabid stupor, they will probably march in lockstep with American political aims, self-deluded that they're adhering to the Ecumenical Patriarch behind a trash heap of poor history and theological justifications. Maybe a few of them will realize that from their Evangelical and/or Confessional Protestant journey to Orthodoxy they had been in a haze, and will wake up and hear the voice of Christ. Maybe they will cease to be ideological internet trolls and immerse themselves in the issues. While I take extreme exception with some elements of Orthodox liturgy, prayer and worship, and dislike the binding nature in many formulae of Orthodox theology, I don't necessarily want these converts to leave. Perhaps a deepening of their faith perhaps, but may they wake up to the real issues. I'd suspect there will be some dumb analogies between England's Henry VIII and Putin, shattering the "unity" of the church for their vain politics. Even though the former is far more responsible than the latter, this unilateral politicization ignores the other half. They fail to see how every side is tainted.

And while I dislike Slavophilia, and its concomitant philosophies, usually drawing upon German Romanticist metaphysics and the like (Schelling especially), I have some hope for Russian Orthodoxy. Even though the Patriarch of Moscow is playing politics, it's not superficial. The Phanar-Greek faction, if I may call it that, is a NATO tool, acting like a marionette for the unscrupulous. I don't think it's necessarily anti-Christ to appreciate one's nation, though what's happening in Russia is vainglorious at best, but most likely a sinful love affair with the Powers. However, if this schism breaks the false unity of Orthodoxy, and remains trenchant and permanent, I hope this opens up space in two ways. One, I hope the Russian Church will develop a rich sense of its self, a member of the body of Christ, without obscene claims to autarky and perfection. The road to Christification (if I may call it that) will be bumpy, the Russian church would have to be snapped off from the state, probably with a lot of pain and agony. But that's a far way away. The second is that I hope in places like Greece, and non-Slavic Orthodox regions, there will be a fresh opening for gospel ministry. I hope the increasingly transparent politicization of the Orthodoxy will erode this sense superiority, and create an opening for Christian unity.

And yet these hopes are whisps in the big picture, and mostly invisible as they work out in the local nooks and crannies. I hope there's a kind of reformation in Orthodoxy, though I hope it doesn't look like the Reformation, especially in many of its Magisterial forms. But that's asking for too much. Most likely, Orthodoxy will be riven between a Greek neo-papalism and neo-Josephites in nationalist mold. Yet, as long as This Age runs parallel with the Age to Come, Christ Crucified is the sign we live beneath. Amid the lust for mammon, the treachery and Jeroboam altars, the Crucified Lord reigns, ascended, whose Holy Spirit works to convict, reveal, and judge. I pray many eyes are opened through these tribulations.

Addendum: I have a great respect for much in Orthodox theology, even though I am not Orthodox and (as I said) take exception to it. Especially honor worthy has been Orthodox (namely Russian, but Slavic more generally) ecclesiology during the early and mid 20th century. The fires of Soviet persecution and the complicity of many elements in the hierarchy left many of the faithful bereft, forced to reckon with the truth and drawing up refreshing wells of thought from the life and teaching of people like Maximus the Confessor. I found an expression of this thought here. But I'm quoting the relevant part:
"In conclusion I would remind you that unlike the poor Latins, we don’t have to conflate the Church of Christ with any one individual. The very notion of “Sedevacantism” is, thank God, both absurd and irrelevant to us: we can freely chose whom we recognize as an true Orthodox Bishop according to our conscience and that choice is entirely unaffected by political, geographical or administrative considerations. Likewise, the “argument of numbers” is equally irrelevant to us: we don’t care, in the least, how many people recognize Church X or Patiarch Y as “canonical” or how many parishes any bishop or Church has. Again, the example of Saint Maximos the Confessor is the best illustration of that when he replied to his jailers (who told him that even the legates of Rome will partake of the Mysteries with the heretical Patriarch) “The whole world may enter into communion with the Patriarch [bold original], but I will not. The Apostle Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit anathematizes even angels who preach a new Gospel, that is, introduce novel teaching“. Contrast Saint Maximos’ willingness to disregard the possibility that the whole world would recognize the heretical patriarch with the modern “bean count” of parishes or Church members as some kind of proof of legitimacy! Finally, we know from our eschatology that in the End Times almost everybody will lapse and bow to the Antichrist, don’t we?! And yet, so many of us use the argument of numbers” to “prove” the “canonicity” of this or that person or ecclesiastical entity. How sad and yet how telling… 
It is paradoxical that in our age of “enlightenment”, “democracy” and “freedom” so many of our punitively most “liberal” and “tolerant” bishops would demand of us a blind and mindless obedience, and not to God, but to them personally. Truly these bishops are the “stars from heaven which fell unto the earth” described by Saint John the Theologian, Apostle and Evangelist in his book of Revelation. I can tell you from personal experience that your bishop is not the exception, he is the rule – at least in our modern world. This is why I think that the single most important question each Orthodox Christian should ask himself is this: “which bishop today has remained truly Orthodox?” We know from the Scripture that the Church is the “the pillar and foundation of truth” and that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. This means that there will always be at least one true bishop somewhere until the Second Coming. But we were never told that there would be many true bishops left. Christ told us “Fear not, little flock” and promised that He would send us the “the Spirit of truth” who will “guide you into all truth” and that those who really seek the truth (“do hunger and thirst after righteousness”) will find it (“shall be filled”) and that this truth shall “make us free”. This is just about the furthest thing from any kind of blind, mindless obedience I can imagine."
If only many American Christians had the eschatological sense, the disinterest in worldly prestige, and cruciform understanding of not only the Christian life individually, but corporately. Lord have mercy.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Whence Evil?: Beyond the Augustinian Paradigm

When I was an early Christian I came across Augustine's famous account of evil. What was evil? Nothing, said the African bishop. Evil was a void, a lack, a deprivation that somehow consumed the 'somethings' of a being, things like intellect, will, love, etc. Thus, against the Manichaens, Augustine supposes that evil has no ontological existence and cannot be a primal, oppositional, principle to good. There is no cosmic battle of powerful forces; the shadow is merely derivative from the light.

I found this vision wonderfully attractive (just as many strands of the Christian tradition have) when answering theodical questions about evil's origin. It can only exist in the presence of good. And yet, it's not a terribly satisfying answer. First of all, there's the sense that even though evil does not exist, it still does something. Accounts of evil deeds and evil mean contain a level of gravity and potency. To call it a nothing is to miss something. Hence, Barth, as an Augustinian of sorts, added that evil is nothing-ness, it is a non-ontological something, an a-being. Of course, this train of thought is patently absurd. If it's a not-thing, it does not have a gravity. Fear of the dark is a subjective state, but the dark is not a force, it does not do anything nor does it exert any force. And if you take this tact, we're back at the Manichean starting line: an anti-force at cosmic war with the force of good. Of course, perhaps the Manichaeans are not wrong for pursuing this line of thought.

We don't have to accept Augustine's psychological considerations to appreciate an element of truth in this approach. As St. Paul would put it, he only knew sin through the law, which made sin utterly sinful. Torah casts a shadow; law-breaking is only possible with a law. But is law-breaking a thing? Given the abstraction of sin in Scripture, being spoken of as almost a force or entity, I think it's fair to say that it is. But where did this thing come from? Augustine hit the escape hatch in denying ontological status to sin and evil (distinct, but interrelated, concepts). But let's say sin exists, it has an ontological quantity, then how do we answer where it came from?

I'm beginning to think through the possible implications of what it might mean to follow Thomas Aquinas on this point. To put it simply, Aquinas believed that evil emerged from when a lesser good was chosen over a greater good. In the past I would recoil at this definition, which seemed so sanitized and methodical. It seems to imply that evil and sin is a mere misfire of the intellect, like Socrates, where one only chose evil through ignorance, the prime sin. But that's to assume too much. There's nothing here that supposes that choosing the lesser good is independent of the will or the heart. In fact, it's more accurate and more disturbing. Some may choose a lesser good over a greater good from ignorance, but they may do it self-consciously. It's the statement of, "I know I shouldn't..." or "I know...But I don't care". From a certain vantage, it may ring irrational, but that irrationality emerges from a deeper perversion in the heart. This approach has a corollary with some modern Reformed pastoral-council that speaks of idolatries in the heart.

But unlike the emphasis on idolatries, which depends upon more ethereal abstractions, to speak of lesser goods and greater goods. It's the virtue of self-control (for its various purposes reflecting the Kingdom of God) vs. the doughnut. To speak of idolatry of food can send you into an internal spiral rather than preparing you for the external scenarios. It's not so much what I get out of food, but what I'm going to get out of this specific instance, the doughnut. Of course, the focus on the idolatry of food is an abstract generalization: it's every instance one is put up against. But it's also more. Because this Reformed approach is more dependent on the Augustinian focus on lack. It derives from the common trope that Mankind has a God-shaped hole in the heart. The deprivation, the source of evil, sends one out into the world with an idolator's tool kit; as Calvin put it, man's heart is an idol factory.

Of course, the Augustinian paradigm is usually short on Scripture. There's that Ecclesiastes passage about God setting eternity in man's heart, but that does not really mean, without interpretive footwork, what Augustinians want it to mean. A lot of it derives from making a collation of the Apostle Paul's conversion accounts, and taking a particular interpretation of Romans 7, to hold the whole paradigm together. And that, of course, is still derivative not so much of Paul, but Paul through others. Augustine's personal experiences and Neo-Platonic backdrop fueled his approach, as he tried to re-read his life in a biblical key in his Confessions. And Luther too applied a set of life experiences and theological paradigms to working this out. But we're making a big assumption: did Augustine and Luther properly understand Paul? Without condoning or condemning, John Chrysostom was an avid commentator on Paul, drawing a rather different picture than Augustine. The point is simply that Augustine was not the first person to rediscover Paul, or the only one to extensive engage in the theology behind the Letter to the Romans. But then again, I'm a bad Protestant: I don't think the gospel is sola fide or that that grammar is useful. One can oppose the Medieval Sacramental complex as anti-Christ without having to hide behind Dr. Martin's skirt.

It's perhaps worth recognizing that while St. Paul depends upon an Adam-Christ type/antitype, Adam is remarkably invisible in most of the Scripture. The Fall is not a recurring concept, even though it is a recurring theme. Adam very rarely appears in prophetic visions, and is almost wholly absent from the four Gospels. Of course, if you're to read contemporary systematic theologies, or listen to popular preachers, you'd be lead astray. To anyone with a little sense of church history, Adam takes up a big place in many theological traditions extending back centuries. While I'm a believer in a historical Adam*, and think that it's important for larger questions about Scriptural authority, to say that it makes/breaks the Gospel is exaggeration by a few orders of magnitude. I would argue it is in the same category as Noah, Abraham and Moses. Why is that? Because Adam's place in Scripture is in setting a much larger form within and through the narrative of Scripture.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, many traditions of theology have lost their sense of history, which is to say that they've lost their sense of time. And not only of time, but of life. Contrary to many branches of Hellenistic metaphysics, life is not a static quantity, a thing that can be abstracted to atomize and investigate. Life is not a thing, but a progression, something that unfolds through time, which is only ever realized in a telos, an end, which, according to Scripture, is something wholly in the hands of God's good graces. Contrary to Augustine's attempt to work this out with the fall, grace is not a thing, an invisible quality that God disposes of in His creation. Thus man did not fall due to a lack of grace, the donum superadditum, that God withheld from His creation. Instead, grace is an abstract category for God's gifts, which may include tangible goods or a disposition. The earliest reformers appreciated this fact, but they generally failed to appreciate the temporal element involved. To this day, many Reformed and Lutherans treat Adam in the Garden as a static quantity given a task to perform. From this vantage it becomes difficult to understand how/why Adam fell in the first place. Some appeal to a a mystery of evil (like Barth's das Nichtig), while some (particularly Lutherans) seem to argue that sin was built into the creation from the very get go. As Heidegger (a student of both Augustine and Luther) would secularize, temporality and creatureliness is the Fall. To be Human is to be Fallen, and thus creation had to proceed through this prism towards paradise. If necessary, this says something odd about created life; if not necessary, it casts an ominous shadow on God's works. Luther could not handle this fact, which smacked too much of speculation, and banished these considerations to the deus absconditus, the hidden God, the one that stood behind the God pro nobis, for us, that we see in Jesus Christ. Luther did not deny these scary questions, he just banished them lest their implications create theologies like Supralapsarian Calvinists who theorize a moment (or something like a moment) where God in eternity past (???) elected those to show his mercy and reprobated those to show his justice.

But then that's all presuming too much. It's interesting to note that Irenaeus, lacking any sophisticated engagement with Platonistic metaphysics, described Adam as a child when he fell. He believed that God created Adam as a child in Eden. Regardless of what Irenaeus specifically meant, we can take this point to refer not so much to a physical age (though it could be that), but to a beginning. Adam is made good, but not perfect. Despite poor theologies and dull atheist critiques, God did not entrap Adam by putting the tree of the knowledge of good and evil anymore than a parent entraps a teenager by having a set of car keys lying around somewhere in the house. God grants Solomon such wisdom as a gift, a grace, to rule Israel. We must remember here that Solomon is a type, and appreciate what he signifies here. He is the son of David who inherits the throne, and yet he is not the Coming One. Solomon rules Israel in such a way that he marvels the world and the kingdom flourishes, but he also falls headlong into sin, enticed by Egypt, leading Israel back into another Captivity. And, as one might suspect, the Captivity is another exile east of Eden, another banishment from God's garden-temple (which the Temple in Jerusalem signified with its various of ornamentation). Here is where Adam is omnipresent in Scripture even as he is invisible. He is the type of God's people who turns aside, the failure for the good youth to reach perfect maturation. Perhaps like a 12-year old behind the wheel with a set of car keys, the possession of a genuine good out of order results in chaos, in dis-integration, in sin.

As some critics have alleged (I think more right than wrong), Augustine never really escaped his Manichaeism, even as he refit it within neo-Platonic metaphysics. Evil become an incomprehensible mystery rather than a misfire within a given created order. And whence the misfire? Because God created in such a way where good moves to perfect, young moves to old, time flows through the series of events. Thus, for this reason, Platonism in all its various forms is radically opposed to Christian theology because the former finds time a problem rather than a gift. Time is part of the created order that God made and called good. It is not a problem to solve, but becomes the medium for both the problem to emerge and the solution to exceed. Maturation means receiving the goods God gives in the times He chooses, even as we participate in this process. God calls His children to wisdom and discernment, an interaction that looks like holy Abraham and Moses who spoke to God, asking for this and that, reasoning with God with appeals to God to get what they discern to be right. And God does not punish them for what many contemporaries might consider impiety or insolence: Moses saves Israel from the pit.

Practically, the Thomistic formula of selecting lesser goods over greater goods still fits here, not only from the temporal frame, but also the psychological dark hole of some who choose what will destroy them. An addict may know that getting clean is better, but heroin is preferred. And here maturity falls off the path. For maturity is not so much a process of children becoming adults (though it's that too), but a growing into the full use of one's faculties with skillfulness. Thankfully, as St. John shows quite vividly and with great pastoral excellence, there is room in the Church of Christ for children, adolescents, and elders. These categories refer not to physical age so much as the maturation of Human being, the full revelation of which we see in Jesus the Messiah. To be a Christian is to learn how to mature into the fullness of Humanity, forgiven of sins, cleaned of impurities, and now pursuing righteousness. And yet the fullness of such is not yet to be realized until we receive our immortal flesh and eternal souls, a promise we live out of now. There is a kind of perfection we can pursue and live in now, but perfection, as such, is an eschatological truth. For the wayward children of Adam, part of our virtue is to beat our breast in repentance, turning our minds back towards and onto the truth. It is learning how to discern the goods in their proper order and place, appreciating them for what they are in light of the hope of the gospel.

The gospel, including the shocking revelation that God's grace, ultimately and fully Christ Jesus, came even to the wicked and corrupt, is a path and way of life. It is the process of learning to repent, trust, and obey our Lord Jesus, the LORD. Through the passage of time, we learn to grow, to order goods towards the ultimate good, life everlasting in the form of the image of God, dwelling in His presence forever. Sin is ultimately banished because we will finally reach maturity, a promise anchored not in and of ourselves but in the Word made flesh.

*What I mean to emphasize is how some, locked into creationism/evolution debates, emphasize that Adam alone constitutes the gospel. While these people don't interact with historicity of others, and presumably their conservative biblicism would militate against it, the emphasis seems to shift the weight of Adam out of a Scriptural narrative. To say that Adam is the first man is something less scientific than theological, which has plagued debates for a long time. While I think it's crucial to say that Adam was historical, it's in relation to man's vocation as priest-king and the covenant between God and His people. To deny his historicity is a huge weakness in proclaiming the Gospel, because it is equivalent to saying that Moses or Abraham didn't exist, which makes the factitude of the promise, the covenant and the law bizarre and in jeopardy. You can't fulfill a promise that was never given without building a mythology. But to say that Adam is the first man is not to offer a biological account of Humanity as defined by Homo sapiens or anything else. We have to reckon with the fact that when Cain is exiled, he finds a wife elsewhere. Whether we presuppose there were other people or that Adam had other children who then moved away, we're asking questions of Scripture beyond the narrative arc, driven by other concerns.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Grace and Practice: Recovering the goods of the Medieval Epoch?

My work in the early modern period, as well as my discovery of Neville Figgis (viz. David Nicholls), has slowly revived an interest in the Medieval period. Many still grapple with a rather simplistic binary: the Middle Ages was a pale of darkness that the Renaissance-Reformation brought to light, or the Middle Ages was great, with the Reformation wrecked for (un)intentional goals. The former approach was itself formed and promoted through many Protestants themselves, many times obscuring their debts/shackles to Medieval thought. It has continued, and radically transformed, into the Enlightenment, and various projects of "modernity", whether it's the growth of a liberal political order, capitalism, and many others, where it is either explicitly or implicitly assumed.

However, the late modern relativization, and challenge, of the Enlightenment involved a revival of interest in the Middle Ages. Some saw a longer continuity of darkness, others a relatively more benign order because less universal/global in its scope. Thus, there was a confluence with late/"post"-modern philosophical projects and the Roman critique of the Renaissance-Reformation, which, like Protestants, obscured dependence on Tridentine reforms on the new categories and modes of thought, organization and polity that the Reformation introduced. Especially in the 19th century, there was a re-imagining of the positive good found in the Medieval, found in the various elements of Gothic revival, which was a world lost, destroyed by the modernizing and atomizing effects of Protestantism, which was now thought to inevitably lead to capitalism modernity. Some recent work has been more measured (c.f. Brad Gregory's Unintended Reformation), even if it recapitulates elements of the same account, while others, particularly idealist fruitcakes like RadOx, repeat the same canards.

And yet, I'm more persuaded that neither is the case. There was loss and gain. That's a position I've adhered to for quite awhile, but rather nebulously. What, precisely, was lost? What was gained? I've, in the past, reflected on the very un-Protestant, but non-Roman, elements within groups like the Waldenses, Hussites or Lollards, but that's not really enough. Because there is still a sense I'm still looking for a "proto-Protestant", a precursor of non-Roman forms of Christianity. But that presumes there's a single defining category of Roman Christianity, which, in the Middle Ages, there was not. There was still far more variety than the confessional turn in Trent would ever dare admit. And even after, Tridentine reforms only ever were fully articulated and embraced in seminaries closely linked to the theological core of Rome. Jesuits were the shock-troops of Trent, but even they were subject to divisions that followed national boundaries. To flip the script, Roman unity was as much about anti-Protestantism as Protestant unity was many times anti-Catholicism.

So, I'm now pondering the goods of the Medieval society that the Reformation erased, corroded, or corrupted, even as, at the same time, the Reformation continued forward Medieval corruptions, and promoted new options and goods that were, intentionally or not, goods. Part of the project is engaging myself with Aladair MacIntyre's work on virtue-ethics and Thomism. One thing I've learned from Figgis has been to appreciate how individuality is grounded in social bodies, and the concept of sovereignty and state-monopoly has had the effect of gutting, depleting, and pulverizing social bodies. They many times cease to be formative, or if they are, they must be, or quickly become, extensions of the nation-state. The process is complex and historical, a dynamic change over time of people engaging with a new world. But it's interesting to note how various Christian congregations in America, despite no official state coercion, become extensions of the sovereign, means to form people for its good. Thus, it's not that the church forms people for the way of Christ, which analogically is related, for the purposes of public dialogue, to the goals of the given nation-state, which has its own purposes. Instead, the two are collapsed, where being a good Christian means being a good American, and vice versa. Corporate life is degraded because there are no other bodies besides the sovereign monopoly. Or at least that's the center of gravity, from which various social bodies increasingly struggle against. It's not all or nothing; an organ of state can (and, historically, has) broken off to become its own self-regulating social body within an alien system. Its leaders, organizers, and enacters learn to adapt, or the body collapses.

MacIntyre's project can be useful for recovering this mode of thought. He calls for a Thomas and St. Benedict, but as new phenomena, not returns to the past or uncritical ipse dixit kind of thinking. And I'll have more thoughts about his work as I think about it more. I've had a small itch to see how to integrate the work of Thomas into my thought, but its so capacious that I don't know if I will, or what it would look like. However, as far as I can tell, MacIntyre's project lacks a concept of grace that sufficiently appreciates how the Christian church, unlike any other social body, is radically opened to the work of God that comes from the outside. Israel was not a nation like other nations, and thus Israel's destiny, fulfilled and manifested in her Messiah, was not like other nations. Israel's fall into corruption was when it became like other nations, thinking in terms of its own traditions without recourse to the Word of God who guided her, always both inside and outside, confined to the Temple and God of all, reigning over Israel but Lord over the world. Hence, MacIntyre can't quite get his head around some Protestants and Jansenists who emphasize the radical introduction of grace from outside. Here's Ephraim Radner, from an email exchange, explaining this problem:

My general sympathies lie in the fundamental notion that human "truth" (what it means to be a human being who engages what is true) is given in a "way of life" rather than in a set of apprehended -- cognitively or through some other posited sensibility [could even be a so-called "spiritual sense"] -- realities. This is not so much to contrast "living rightly" with "thinking" or "believing rightly", since living rightly engages thinking and believing, surely. But the contrast is useful, since it does in fact reflect whole Christian traditions and cultural trajectories.
But Christian "virtue ethics" is unique --and perhaps this is something you pointing to in your unease: it is ultimately about divine grace at work in a human life (and in lives together, and in the world more broadly). Certainly Thomas Aquinas would insist on this. But MacIntyre doesn't really know what to do with "grace", and once engaged theologically, it gets one into all kinds of difficult conceptual/pragmatic places (hence, I would guess, his dislike of Jansenists). Although the human engagement of the the truth may be given in a way of life, it is nonetheless a way of life that is a gift from and with God​ in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We have been struggling to sort all this out for two millennia now; and while that struggle has had tremendous and unfortunate casualties, it is also one that has invigorated our faith, and perhaps must do so in an ongoing way. 
MacIntyre's own intellectual background has made him, despite his renewed Catholic commitments, somewhat allergic to or simply tone-deaf to the wonderful ferment in entering into a world of "grace".
I'm open to suggestions in thinking this through. I think Radner is right in how he sets up this problem, in both sympathy and scepticism about MacIntyre's work. Radner confesses he's not an expert on MacIntyre, but I think this sentiment is generally correct. My interest in Thomas involves these points as well, but of course I'm interested more in Thomas than Thomism, less in schematizing and more in fruitful pathways for thought.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

What is a Calling?: A Critique of Vocation

The above post contains many of the problems in the doctrine of vocation as it developed among the reformers in the 16th century, further mutating into the Kuyperian paradigm the author celebrates. After a lead in from a former celebrity who now works a lowly job, who justifies that all work can be dignifying and uplifting, the author provides a genealogy for this view of things from the Reformation on wards. The basic gist is that, beginning with Luther, Protestants attacked the bifurcated world between the holy and the secular. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, all do their work coram deo, before the face of God, and equally find God's good pleasure as the preacher and teacher of Scripture. Work is a holy task, grounded in the various domains of life that God created in the beginning. Kuyper theorizes this division into the many "spheres" of life, of which there are vicars, subordinate authorities, that rule all under God. Kuyper synthesizes the liberal modernity of 19th century Netherlands with a concern to reinstate a more functional, "purer", form of Calvinist Christendom. Thus all contribute to the work of God's kingdom.

I find this whole approach total nonsense. First of all because the whole argument stands upon a peculiar interpretation of the ex-celebrity's words. There is a world of difference between finding work a potentially dignifying experience and making it holy. Sadly, most Kuyperian cultural commentators, in their various guises, make this fundamental mistake, and build Christendom upon sand.

Luther emerged from a distinctly Medieval world that made fundamental separations between the activities of man. Thus, the first estate, that of monks and priests, involved themselves in the godly task, that of praying, reading Scripture, and performing the mass. However, as Luther rejected this paradigm, trying to bring the monks into the village, he did not arrive at a more Scriptural conception of life. Instead, he tried to monasticize common professions, while also profaning the church's offices as being a mere thing within Christendom, within the paradigm of the Christian society. Of course, Luther's sacramentalism, and his doctrine of the word, made the specific task of preaching and offering bread and wine something distinct from the common affairs of men, something that many Calvinists slowly gave up. Under Kuyper, the preaching of the word becomes a sphere, separate, but equivalent to things like government, art, business, etc. This conceptualization of spheres matches the professionalization that occurred through the 19th into the 20th century. There were classes of experts in delineated fields that wielded a level of power. Being a pastor was now a profession, an expertise one went to school for, got accredited among a board of fellow experts, and proffered a specific trade. It's perhaps ironic, but in this way, the development of Reformed Protestantism, including less confessionally oriented Lutherans, was far more similar to Medieval Christendom (in a negative way). It was an overhaul of the three estates into a less hierarchical, more profuse, dominion of various professions.

What Luther failed to get at was how the Church was a separate society. Luther squared this problem, followed by some Reformed (particularly in Zurich and in England), through spiritualizing the Church. According to Luther, the Right-Hand, the government of God most proper, pertained to the invisible, the heart-level, the eternal. It involved questions of the soul and salvation. This government was the realm of conscience which only God could bind through His institutions, namely the power of the Word, through Scripture, and the sacraments, instituted through Scripture. Everything else was committed to the Left-Hand, involving all bodily, earthly, and civil affairs, including the government and operation of the churches. Thus, when the minister preached holy doctrine and administered the sacrament, he was mediating things pertaining to the invisible Right-Hand, he was, as an ordained minister, a subject of the Left-Hand. Thus, magistrates could not alter doctrine, but they did have power to reform churches in manners pertaining to the civil. Thus, princes could act as "emergency-bishops", hiring and firing pastors, staffing churches with people who were functionaries as the state, even as they had a dual role as emissaries of God.

Geneva, in contrast, saw the church, in toto, as a separate domain. Civil magistrates could not reform institutions of the church, and yet the churches affairs, even as they pertained to the bodies of Christians, were a separate, and concommitant, domain aside the state. Calvin was clear to try to demarcate that while churches could impinge upon the civil affairs of men, from an untouchable self-regulating presbyterian synod, these affairs were demarcated in such a way to not infringe on the magistrate. Thus, the pastorate could discipline people in such a way that was as a church, not an organ of state, and yet the result was a turning over to the state for punishments. Unlike Elizabethan England, where bishops could impose civilly sanctioned penalties, that came from the laws of king-in-parliament (ideally), Calvin's church imposed ecclesiastical penalties that could/would result in civil penalties from the magistrate. The differences are subtle, so subtle that Calvin was constantly frustrated by the Geneva council's disregard for these boundaries. There was a constant suspicion that this polluted the church with a political interest, which explicitly took root in Scotland's Presbyterian system. Synods could not run government, but they could "advise" kings in conducting policies. If the king did not listen, the synod could offer a prophetic rebuke. The result seemed to place legitimacy and power in the hands of collective elders, who had an indirect hold on power. Thus, it's not for nothing that there was suspicion, perhaps best summarized by Hobbes, that Presbyterians were secretly power-hungry monsters, trying to take over the government and subdue the monarchy. It's not exactly true, but the theory of boundaries (set by the synod of elders, of course) was blurred.

What does this have to do with vocation? Because if the church is conceived of as a constituent of a Christian society, then a reconfiguration of medieval monasticism ends up with the same misunderstanding of the Apostolic concept of vocation. As clear in a text like the Letter to Diognetus from the 2nd century, Christians were thinking of themselves as a separate "nation" that lived under another government. Of course, when Christians ceased to be not of this world, then the nation began to absorb everything. The doctrine of Christendom is to make a whole society the church; the idea of separating cult from culture, that the Church was a unique body and institution that was fundamentally different, and yet a visible and organized institution, eroded. Funny enough, for all of its problems, Luther and the Zurichers were closer to the truth, though in spiritualizing the church in such a way, they made elements of the New Testament incoherent and ejected them. The government of the church in the New Testament is relegated to an early period, no longer fitting a time under a Christian prince, or a baptized society. And yet there was still an awareness that the true church, and its functions/obligations, were still separate and holy and were not things to be profaned. Under the Genevan model, synthesized into Scotland and the Netherlands, this separation slowly eroded, becoming the social-justice activism among the neo-Calvinists. Pastoral work becomes a somewhat incoherent phenomenon; a professional occupation that has lost some of its rationale.

In the New Testament, vocation referred to one's calling to be a Christian, and subsequent callings within the church to leadership. To become a bishop of a church was not to take on a "job", but within the life of the church, it was a leadership position, a responsibility to "oversee" the brethren. St. Paul does not deny that financial compensation may be given, but this defense has been mutated to justify a salaried career. In the Luther-Zurich model, the salary falls under prudential management within society, as the ministry can be professionalized for the purposes of organization, but has no impact on the core of the church's work, namely the invisible powers of salvation and regeneration. It's interesting to note how this model mostly collapsed. Most Reformed adapted the Geneva model, with the exception of England. But there was unease, as the Reformed Church of England was under assault from Genevans and from a variety of people with suspicions about the model. Laud was no mere medievalist, wanting to roll back the Reformation, but his goal for an empowered church hierarchy with a semi-independent existence overlapped with some of the goals of the Presbyterians, but in a wholly different flavor. Perhaps that's why they hated each other so much; and yet many resented Laud because they had not given up on the Elizabethan system. And yet theological changes in doctrines concerning the sacraments, reducing God's invisible power in the world to a purely im-mediate phenomenon in the heart, made their designs progressively more Erastian.

This historical reconstruction aside, the inability to separate the dignity of work from a sanctification of labor flows from the inability to separate the church as a holy society that is in the world, but not of the world. It's not for nothing that the "high church" (a not very useful or clarifying term) revival happened among Lutherans and Anglicans, the two existing heirs to the Lutheran-Zuricher concept of two-kingdoms. It was a whiplash against developments in the Genevan-model majority world of the Reformed (of which the early reformers, like Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, et al., were eclipsed).  Experiences of the state's depredations (in Prussia and England respectively) and the flagging sacramentology of the Reformed pushed a resourcement and overhaul, especially in the scientism, rationalism, and deism of the 19th century. But I'm just speculating at this point.

The above author cannot separate what it means to give glory to God for work from a sanctification of the work. Being honest, working hard, caring for the work of your hands, and treating people well are a part of our vocation to being Christians, not a part of a vocation to a specific line of work. Kuyperians and neo-Calvinists cannot understand what Paul means when he says that being a well-ruling "elder" ("especially those who labor in word and doctrine") is worthy of double-honor (c.f. 1 Tim 5). It's incomprehensible, and smacks of sacerdotal priestcraft, that Paul clearly values his work as an apostle high and above his work as a tent-maker. It's a straw-man to say that to separate holy work from common work is to make an autonomous world of Nature, or reduce Christian life to Sunday. It's part of a false logic that accuses all separations of being sectarian; it renounces all holiness as demonic. It's a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand. It signifies the ugly monastic* spirit Weber despised. Unbeknownst to Weber the Agnostic, he put his finger on a fleshly desire to conquer the world that grew in the monasteries of Europe and the Reformation unleashed. In some ways, the Lutherans-Zurichers-Anglicans are the better sort, trying to protect the holiness of the church, but finding flawed conclusions in their desire to maintain Christendom and be partisan for their respective realms. They were not ready to abandon friendship with the World for the scorn of the Gospel. It's not to say that they didn't take risks, or suffer, but they were still deeply flawed.

The author's genealogy is distinctly the Genevan approach (even though he's an Anglican), re-reading the Reformation through a particular angle, to rob the simple honesty of an ex-celebrity and repurpose it for the dominionist spirit that rides underneath. I take no exception to the quote, and would even give it my own Christian gloss: we ought to do our work well, try to enjoy it, and give God all the glory and thanksgiving in all our labors. But this involves letting the common be the common. Not every glass of wine we drink or piece of bread we eat is the Lord's Supper; not every shower or bath is baptism. Scripture is not a book like other books, and our reading of it is different than reading anything else. If we are Christians, that is our calling, and it involves acting in accordance with the truth wherever we are. That makes us holy, even as we perform common tasks. And even so, the common labor of working at Trader Joes is not the work of preaching and teaching. They're not just different: one is of temporal significance, while the other is eternal. If everything is holy, than not only can that breed a totalitarian mentality, but also apathy and skepticism, for then there is nothing holy. In a practical outworking, appreciating the task of preaching, teaching, and leading in the church, a sanctified office, not only makes us take the work more seriously** (I hope), but reduces our expectation on all other things. Common works can be appreciated as such; I'm not helping repair the world by working a cash-register, and yet it still may be an opportunity to prepare myself, and others, for the Age to Come, as well as revealing that such an Age is present in the here-and-now.

*Weber sees Luther's doctrine of vocation as a step towards the "purer" Protestantism of Calvin, his various students, and his legacy. He chalks up Luther's failure to proceed in this direction from his Medieval "traditonalism" and his ignorance about the major shifts happening across Europe. However, it may be that Luther's doctrine of vocation lacked some of the elements that later uses of it would adopt. I'm speculating, but perhaps this difference emerged not so much from Luther's genius but his own monastic background. Maybe there were differences within Medieval monastic orders that provided alternative constellations of thought to draw on. I don't know, but a condemnation of the monastic spirit that pervades Weber may need major qualification.

**A counterpoint here may be that this attitude (the special holiness of the church's work) is what produced the horror of Roman Catholic sex abuse. The Church was an institution too important to be brought down and maligned by critics. Thus, the idea of a holy society ends up breeding the worst abuses. Perhaps, but this sanctification of the Church in this way reflects a way of being a nation, but one of this world. It's not so different from people who adhere to the "My Country, Right or Wrong" approach. Functionally, Vatican ecclesiology makes a nation of Christianity, but wherein the clerics are the only true Christians. But, of course, the Apostolic Witness informs us that while this separate status may be true, the idea of "nation-building" (so to speak) is a demonic inversion. The pursuit of holiness involves a level of openness, peace, and attainment to virtue that makes any idea of being too big to fail a satanic lie. Being a holy nation, the way the government and rules of a church do not work like any other nation. We're in the Spirit, not living according to the flesh.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Predestined Unto Life: A Brief Thought on the Parallel Logic of Hell and Election

In terms of the doctrine of eschatology and final judgement, I'm an annihilationist. I usually don't make a big deal on this point, because while I believe this doctrine to be true, I don't ever see the need to make the case unless asked. While the alternative, namely eternal conscious torment, is an error, I don't think it somehow has some negative or polluting effect on theology. Preaching brimstone and hellfire may be wrong for other reasons, but not because the destination is any less frightful. I believe in annihilationism because I think it is in Scripture, and makes the best sense. And by annihilationism, I don't mean what Jehovah's Witnesses do. I don't think death is a cessation, but that all will be raised up and face judgement, one unto life and the other turned back.

Which is why I think there's an interesting parallel in logic between single and double predestination in the doctrine of election. The concept of single predestination posits that God sets out a single path, has a single goal, for Humanity, namely salvation for the purposes of perfection. Man was originally good, and despite the fall into sin, God's plan has not ceased. He will make mankind good, restored through the Image into the image of the Image. However, the alternative is not so much an alternative at all, but a shadow cast. Some will argue that this is just being sneaky about predestination, either because ashamed of the truth or because of being a closeted Arminian. Double predestination, on the other hand, has two clear paths marked out. Some are created for life everlasting to showcase God's mercy; others are created for everlasting destruction to showcase God's justice. St. Paul's discussion in Romans 9 is proof of this doctrine, with some pots made to be common and others made to be righteous.

However, I don't think Romans 9 has anything to do with individual election, but corporate election in which individuals find fullness. But the contrast is between holy-common, not defiled, and the fate of the common is destruction. What Paul is saying is that those nations outside of the Holy Nation, God's Israel, will be destroyed, including all those who remain. But is the Apostle's point that the common was made for destruction? Yes and no. For those who are part of the common are not necessarily destined to end with the common; God is grafting Gentiles onto the Holy Tree. The point of Paul's teaching is that Christ, and one's relation to Him and His Body, is the new boundary for whether one is a part of God's holy nation, His People, the ones will truly be Human, raised up in glory and clothed with immortality.

The logic in a single predestination is that there is only one path, and the possibility of rejection. The logic of double predestination is that there are two different paths. The latter accommodates a doctrine of eternal conscious torment far better than the former. Why? Because in the doctrine of eternal conscious torment, God is actively creating a space, an alternative, for the damned to dwell everlastingly. Of course, there's a possible out in that man's damnation is not its own special punishment, but is given over to the punishment of the disobedient angels and the devil. But that would suggest a double predestination for the angels, unlike Humanity, but raising additional questions. And that's if we understand the passages about the Devil's torment and destruction in a metaphysically straightforward manner. But in the logic of single predestination, destruction makes sense as the corollary to a single predestined path to life. Destruction is not a separate mode of being, but a return to nothing, a handing over to doom, the smoke of which signals God's victory over sin. It's not an alternative, but the rejection of the only plan. It is finding oneself outside of the Garden once the Garden has successfully spread over the face of the Earth. It is being outside of the Land once the Land is equivalent with Heaven come down to Earth. It's being nowhere, not somewhere.

This isn't to say that one can't be a single predestinarian and believe in eternal conscious torment. Plenty have, and what I'm articulating is a minority position. But what I am saying is that the Scriptural parallel fits neatly. Antichrist is a shadow cast from the Christ, not an equal or existent option; it's a parody and a parasite. Between Isaac and Esau is not a blessing and a curse, but curse on all and a blessing on the common seed. There is not a Yes and No through Christ Jesus, only a yes, with the shadow cast of a yes rejected. This point may be subtle, and sound like hairsplitting, but there's a difference between no and a not-yes. None of this logic is proof of final judgement as total destruction, but a way to conceptualize it. Take it as food for thought.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Tragedy of Confessional Ghettos

This brief blog post is almost 10 years old, and yet it still rings absolutely true. The problems with Confessional Reformed attacks on N.T. Wright and the complete overhaul of New Testament studies called "New Perspective on Paul" still continue in more and more ghettoized form. They only remain relevant among the small converted pool of seminarians, who form the denominational gatekeeper class of some shrinking conservative Protestant groups. The post is here.

The author is 100% correct that this phenomenon is about rabbinic-style tradition forming. As many recent studies have shown, the Reformers were highly dependent on late Medieval theological training, paradigms, advances, etc. And yet the Reformers, many in the Renaissance mood of ad fontes, were willing to place this tradition in conversation with a renewed emphasis on past texts as past texts. Unlike the scholastic approach of trying to synthesize all things into a timeless and accessible truth, the Renaissance was aware that the current age, the "modern", was different than the glories of the past. And yet they knew that that world had passed, and it was up to a new generation to engage with these texts to reform the corruption of the current era.

And while many of the Reformers possessed a rather generous mind, the polemics and confessional battles that formed began to close ranks around what was in and what was out within rapidly solidifying boundaries. Luther's rejection of Zwingli's party was a premonition. In this instance, it was two foreign delegations turning their backs on each other. Later it would be inner purges to remove heretics, which became more and more prevalent as scholastic synthesis (which never went away) was redeployed to make a "Protestant" position, whether among the German Lutherans, or the international Reformed, which eventually fragmented into nationally oriented confessions.

As it was beginning in the 17th century, today many seminarian careers are made through skillful handling of the masters. What makes this "evangelical Talmudism" is that it functionally is more important to demonstrate what Calvin (et al.) said about this-or-that passage, and not what that passage actually means. The late modern mood of skepticism has helped to tone down the seriousness of the claims coming from many scholars (many of them relatively orthodox Christians) who have overhauled the 16th/17th century interpretations of the New Testament and its historical context. Now, a pastor/teacher can stand up and say, "worldview", like a magic formula, and make these problems disappear in a puff of smoke. Never mind that the whole formula is a tautology: x is fundamental to a biblical worldview; therefore if the text does not say x, and instead some [insert slur] academic argues that it says y, then they are wrong, because x is the biblical worldview, and the text can't really mean that. Admittedly, there's good in a kind of conservatism about revising paradigms: one text isn't enough to overhaul everything; it might not mean what we thought, but it doesn't mean what we thought was wrong.

Among some confessionalists, their answers are absurd as they are pathetic. What!, they might say, Are you saying our godly ancestors were wrong for so long? Well, isn't that the point that the Reformation tended to make for centuries? The stunning fact is that, maybe, medieval catholicism wasn't so wrong about everything that the Reformers (or their propagandists) made it out to be; maybe the Reformers adopted many of the same errors that Rome continued in as well. The historical fact in it is that the whole paradigm for the Reformation was wrong: not only were the Reformers more indebted to late medieval paradigms then some of them thought, but "Catholicism" was far more diverse and fluid than it was thought to be. Both Reformers and Counter-Reformers ended up reifying what "Roman Catholic" really was; Trent solidified a direction for Rome that would proceed to erase all plurality and difference. And even this objective was somewhat of a paper-tiger: not only did groups like the Jansenists call this monolithic identity into question, but religious orders realized that most lay Catholics were outside the bounds of orthodoxy. There were quite a few, most unsucessful, attempts to re-evangelize European Catholics. Trent's goal of tightening up Roman identity set a trajectory towards papal infallibilism, with the pope becoming more and more important as the single element of unity that holds all together.

But I digress. Rather than appreciate the fluidity, and desire a return to the turbulent debates of the first three centuries of the Christian church, there's lamentation and attempts to create intellectual ghettos which the gatekeepers can police. They have their own version of the Benedict Option, which is nothing more than trying to wait out social and intellectual pluralism, rather than profit from it. A willingness to pursue truth may lead to odd and uncomfortable places, but it cannot undermine the Apostolic deposit, the New Testament, because the Messiah Himself is truth. Thus, as people like Tom Wright and Richard Bauckham especially have shown, one can have a stronger, more vibrant faith. It is far more rooted in the New Testament, and does not need to circle around the given rabbis. And yet, while I think church history is absolutely important, it is reduced to hagiography and things resembling fan-fiction. The whole episode of the Finnish school on Luther is an episode of this phenomenon. What is really in play is a relationship with Eastern Orthodoxy, but a real profitable conversation would be whether the New Testament teaches anything resembling theosis, not whether Luther had his own peculiar doctrine of it. But sadly, historical theology does not help us understand the world as it is, nor does it help us to better ground our faith, but many times it devolves into petty arguments over whether so-and-so held or didn't hold this-or-that fashionable/unfashionable belief, rarely for a reason beyond itself.

Appreciating tradition ought not lead to encrusted traditionalism, of which confessionalism is a subset. God gave us no assurance that Calvin's 16th century writings would offer us any help in the 21st century. And yet there is profit in receiving wisdom through the ages to get the lay of the land. But that's not what's at stake. Rather it's about setting strict boundaries to hem people in, rather than a map to allow one to wander deeper. And the real tragedy is that these groups have many insightful minds that are held captive to these debates, while many churches expand on ear-tickling doctrine, self-serving structures, and a worldly disposition. It's a shame.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Not Done in a Corner

A few months ago, I contacted John Behr, Russian Orthodox priest and brilliant patrologist, over what exactly Athanasius' Life of Antony was. It is one of the first full fledged hagiographical texts. Unlike accounts of martyrdom, Athanasius turns Antony's whole life into a "witness" for Christ, through his vanquishing of the demons and revealing Human nature as it ought to be, conformed to the image of Christ. Of course, questions arise: is this account supposed to be biographical? The Life of Antony has been contrasted with Augustine's Confessions in terms of its historical context for writing a biography (or auto-biography). Augustine has been usually considered more historical, but for faulty reasons. Usually it is because Confessions has no miracles, and seems more "realistic". There are no fights between Augustine and demons. And yet Augustine's narrative is formed around Scriptural types and themes. The emphasis on the pear theft recapitulates, in a way, Adam's lawless seizure of fruit.

However, the major problem is not so much a predispositon against the miraculous, but Athanasius' text weighed against the authentic fragments that Antony himself wrote. As one example, it's clear that Antony considered demons to be more invisible psychological forces that gnaw at him from the inside; he did not describe these struggles as combat with demonic forms. So, alright, we might excuse Athanasius for taking a kind of poetic license, but I'm still not sure what Life of Antony, as a text, is supposed to be or supposed to do. Behr is a proficient patrologist who has worked with Athanasius and I inquired what he was, in fact, doing by writing this work.

The answer was rather disappointing. Behr sets up history as the present projection back onto a series of events that one recalls to memory. Thus, hagiography and historical biography are two distinct categories, the latter a mere engagement with trying to reconstruct what one physically sensed and the former pursuing what is "real" in the interplay of various facts. Behr reduces history as mere a present reconstruction, which is a fantasy when anchored to our various prolegomena, whether it be some vision of Whiggish Man or Marxist Utopia, or something else. In Christ, we have an eternal vantage which comprehends all.

Of course, I was still frustrated. It seemed to blur all of these questions, and involved a general misunderstanding of modernity as a phenomenon, a response to varied and complex problems in relating the "present" to what had passed. The beginnings of modernity occurred in the Renaissance, which involved a frustration with things as they were present and a hunger, desire, and engagement with things that were no longer so. The modern was, generally, a negative phenomenon, a sort of paradise lost, whether it was the church or the civil polity. And yet the Renaissance was not an attempt to repristinate antiquity, but dialogue with it in such a way to solve contemporary problems. Whether it was resourcement of the Bible or patristics for the Church and right living, or engaging with Greco-Roman philosophy for statecraft, social policy, economics, etc. the strictly modern emerged from an awareness of time lost.

History emerged a discipline in trying to chart out a change over time, that things are now not what they once were. Behr is right to say that this exercise is creative, in as much as one comes to the past with questions that emerge from the present that help to set what, exactly, we are curious to know. And yet it is not purely projection, because the practice of history involves being surprised and overturned, requiring a level of humility to learn and understand. Of course this is not always the case, and many have used history as a crude instrument of domination, a means to justify, glorify or excoriate the present, to try to fit the past into a straitjacket of modern paradigms. But it need not, and it is, at its best, a creative engagement.

But here Behr excoriates the modern and history in dismissive terms, the fantasy of an objective pursuit of "what really happened" when it can be nothing of the sort. But he fails to engage with the harder question of what the remnants, the still speaking objects of time, still say. Hence, despite personal proclivities, academic fads, and ideological pursuits, historical research has still been anchored to texts, objects, records, etc. that refuse to be silent, that still speak. Contrary to the late modern delusion, there is no thick bifurcation between subjects and objects, things go their own way despite our own subjective appropriation. Sinfully, here is where the subject/object panic emerges, with many reducing Human experience as the struggle to form one's subjectivity, ceasing to be an object, and resisting objectivization even as one may continue to objectivize. The name of the game is domination. And yet, the reality is that no one ever really can achieve that kind of control, despite efforts to do so. The world is not plastic. Sure, subjectively may look at a specific constellation of "things" and say, as would be clear to most, that I see a chair. This same chair may also be described as a pile of wood, a weapon, a table, which describe further functions besides sitting. But if someone described it as a flying-machine, they would be wrong. It *can't* do that, despite our subjective appropriation of it. There is still an objectivity that refuses to bend to us, for we too are creatures, sharing the same plane of reality. We may deny that this reality is autonomous from God, as if all things do not exist by His express willing. However, that is a prerogative that comes from the Creator; we are creatures, and share our creatureliness with that chair, of which we share a common reality.

Or, in other less philosophical words, reality is stubborn. Thus I'm left baffled when Behr says, "St Antony the Great, likewise, is no longer simply an ascetic teacher of (? Origenist) wisdom, as it might seem from historicals tudy, but, in St Athanasius' theological vision, he is seen iconically, as the continuing presence of Christ on earth" (The Mystery of Christ, 180). What does this mean? Did Antony do the things Athanasius described or not? Is the description of battles with demons referring to historic episodes or mere fabrications? Psychic life still exists temporally and is documentable. I could struggle with lusts and vain thoughts, and look up and see that I had been in thought for an hour on a Tuesday, a conventional way of anchoring an actual event in Human language. Athanasius' Antony is a strong proponent for the Nicaean party, and yet, did he actually confound Arians or not?

Behr's treatment is ultimately obfuscation, and not because I'm projecting backwards. Antiquity had an understanding of historic reality as opposed to fables and fabrications; no one got Thucydides confused for Euripedes. Yes, there is a philosophical basis for appreciating time, but not facts. Ancient historians understood this when they went out to write biographies, finding and documenting credible sources. As Richard Bauckham argues, this literary paradigm was applied to the Gospel genre, where odd names show up as the equivalent of footnotes, references within stories where a given episode may have come from. The Apostles had a strict concern to document where things came from, as even Behr's beloved Irenaeus makes a habit of doing in how construing Apostolic succession and doctrine.

I don't mean to pick apart motives, but Behr seems trapped under the weight of Eastern Orthodoxy. Again, why, exactly, is Athanasius writing Life of Antony, a text that sounds like a literary claim to biography. But even if it isn't, what is the basis for the hagiography? Who is it convincing if the actual Antony did not argue for such and such a doctrine, did not accomplish such and such feats, and live a such and such life? It's one thing to creatively appreciate the past from the present, as all memory does, but it's another thing to assign a special gravity to the factual remnants. Our memories deceive us, and we might rescript past events in such a way that tries to suppress the remnants. Behr is surely right in seeing that the revelation of Christ unmoors us, allowing us to recognize the depth of our sin and depravity from being awash with a healing light. We first receive salvation, and the full scope of that grace begins to unveil how much that salvation was needed; we realize we were far worse than we thought before. But none of this conflicts with the need for grounded facts: it is no use to confess for sins that I did not commit. But what this contrast does for Behr is allow a level of ease with Eastern Orthodoxy; changes become rescripted as being there always in the beginning. Historically there may have been no icons until the 5th century, but if history is merely a present concern looking back, it becomes clear that the victory of icons shows a theological paradigm that was always there in Christ, who is present now and always, the "Coming One". It's a very slick overhaul of the Development of Doctrine within mid-late 20th century philosophical terms.

This approach also spawns ominous clouds. For if the past is always being read backwards, a projection of the present onto one's remembered past, then it seems there's enough flexibility to whitewash crimes that go forgotten. If a mountain of corpses is sufficiently buried, then it is gone. While Behr would by no means ever justify the evil that has gone on within the Orthodox churches, his approach becomes reactive and edges out the sharp-corners, the unevenness, the fragmented reality of the past. There is much that has gone before that must remain present even as it does not clearly have a place and remains, unexplained, floating, existing. Woe be it that we script these things out as we pursue a narrative of the past. Odds and ends are the surplus of historical experience, a reminder that we are not our own, and we are as much objects as these fragments are. I don't thin Behr would deny this point, but it would then undermine this dismissive account of the modern project. It does matter if we can appreciate the range of meaning of texts within their context. But that might mean reformation, a fearful claim even for many so-called heirs of the 16th century. The reception of N.T. Wright among many of the Reformed is a case in point: there's an almost allergic reaction and refusal to seriously engage; to do so might mean the tumbling of facades. It might mean, in my case, that Athanasius was actually more of a dirty-dealer, a propagandist trying to win a war; that Antony was repurposed to serve a polemical battle after he had died (late 350s).

Behr's ante-Nicaean work has made me a better Christian, and is brilliant historical scholarship with theological acumen. But his use of history reveals a distinctly modern attempt to guard the walls of theological truth from scientific inquiry through the bifurcation of history from salvation-history. Of course, there is an obvious difference between various facts, historical reconstruction, and significance. As seen in the Gospels, when the Father speaks to Jesus, many believe they heard a boom of thunder. And yet the Father's voice still had an effect, a historic occurrence, that one could experience, even if one did not know what they experienced or what it meant. But this means that theology is grounded in history, something open to scientific inquiry and interrogation. It means one could find witnesses to these events and then go about the even harder task of figuring out what it means. It means that the saving-truth of Christ crucified, the radical core upon which the all things revolve, is buried in a past, found among other things, contestable and seemingly fragile. True wisdom, the very foundation of all things, is historical. Truly, this is foolishness, and yet God's foolishness is wiser than the world's wisdom.

We must not give up finding the presence and truth of God in the common world of our creatureliness, something that is open to contest, examination, and inspection. And yet in this weakness there is power. The kind of late-modern learned fideism of Behr is to chase after a form of Godliness that denies its power, which is found nowhere else than in the fragments that we call time. For it is in this swirling dustbin, a veritable desert of the lost and ugly, that the Lord of Time, of all Creation, worked, works, and will continue to work until He appear in glorious light. History stands under the sign of the cross. God help us.