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.

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