When years ago, I finished reading [John Crowe Ransom’s] God Without Thunder , I threw it aside, muttering that I would rather burn eternally in hell than submit to the will of such an arbitrary, not to say monstrous, God. But then, as an atheist, I am at liberty to indulge in such grandstanding. Were I in grace and in fear of the wrath of a God who proclaims himself ‘a jealous God,’ I would think again. Liberal (and liberationist) theology, in white or black, should warm every atheist’s heart. For if God is a socially conscious political being whose view invariably corresponds to our own prejudices on every essential point of doctrine, he demands of us no more than our politics require. Besides, if God is finite, progressive, and Pure Love, we may as well skip church next Sunday and go to the movies. For if we have nothing to fear from this all-loving, all-forbearing, all-forgiving God, how would our worship of him constitute more than self-congratulation for our own moral standards? As an atheist, I like this God. It is good to see him every morning while I am shaving.
The second, and harder, task of [an imagined book called] Christianity and Evangelicalism, would be to suggest some steps by which the latter could become Christian again. Here, ironically, the attempt by some evangelicals to sanctify Donald Trump might work well if given a quarter turn: he is no Cyrus, a pagan ordained of God to restore Jews to Israel, but Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan invader of Israel ordained of God to punish them for their unfaithfulness, and banishing the best of them from the promised land in the bargain. As intriguing might be the possibility of seeing that pagan’s later fate play out again—that is, to see the proud trumpet of egotistical greatness reduced to crawling around like a beast in the field, eating grass and growing literal instead of just figurative claws (Daniel 4)—one’s relish at the prospect bespeaks an unsanctified longing of its own.
The better role might be to follow after a truly scandalous prophet, Ezekiel; to describe and survey the scattered dry bones of a once favored people; and to ask by what means they might possibly live again. No mistake: this option entails death, exile, and damnation. Perhaps we’re left just there, right with the founder of Christianity. Perhaps this, and only this, is the path to resurrection and redemption.
No, Cessario is quite explicit about this: “Both the law of the Church and the laws of the Papal States stipulated that a person legitimately baptized receive a Catholic upbringing.” Not merely a Christian upbringing, but specifically a Catholic one. In terms of canon law and the law of Vatican City, what mattered about Mortara’s case was not that the Mortaras were Jewish but that they were not Catholic. Though it’s hard for me to believe that the actuating motive here wasn’t antisemitism, if David Kertzer is right in his book on the case, Pio Nono might have been even stricter with a Protestant family:
Events of 1848-49 only strengthened Pius IX’s opposition to the idea of freedom of religion. He was committed to the principle of the Catholic state, one in which any other religion had to be viewed with suspicion and closely regulated, if not banned. This principle extended not only to the Jews but to other Christian denominations as well. Indeed, the Pope was more favorably inclined toward the Jews, who represented no threat to the Holy Church, than toward the Protestants, who did. To the complaints of those who said that the Jews were poorly treated in the Papal States, the Pope and his defenders could argue that, on the contrary, they were accorded privileged treatment, allowed to have their own synagogues and practice their religion undisturbed. By contrast, Protestants were not permitted such freedoms, and Rome itself had no real Protestant church, other than a converted granary outside town used by diplomatic personnel and other foreigners. Papal police stood guard at its doors to ensure that no native went inside.
There are of course legitimate arguments to be had about whether true Christian faith is compatible with the liberal order, whether separation of church and state is a good idea, what Pio Nono’s true motives were, and so on — but there’s no doubt that the politico-theological principle at stake in the Mortara case does not concern the relations between Christians and Jews but rather the relations between the Catholic Church and everybody else.
As America in its present incarnation, with its present leadership, teeters toward an arrogance, isolationism and self-importance that are the portals of moral decline and political self-destruction, the nation must recall the faith of Martin Luther King Jr. He saw faith as a tool for change, a constant source of inspiration to remake the world in the just and redemptive image of God. On this holy day, instead of shrinking into the safety of faith, we should, as Dr. King did, bear the burdens of the less fortunate and rise again to serve humanity.
I’m late to this party, but there’s something to be said for taking time to think things over. The already-much-discussed book review in First Things by Romanus Cessario, in which Cessario defends the kidnapping of a Jewish child by Pope Pius IX, raises many important issues, and I want to focus on just one of them here. But first some clarifications.
First of all, there can be no question that Cessario is not simply defending Pio Nono’s action within the context of the governance of the Papal States, but is also laying down a more general principle. Thus:
No one who considers the Mortara affair can fail to be moved by its natural dimensions. It is a grievous thing to sever familial bonds. But the honor we give to mother and father will be imperfect if we do not render a higher honor to God above. Christ’s authority perfects all natural institutions — the family as well as the state. This is why he said that he came bearing a sword that would sunder father and son. One’s judgment of Pius will depend on one’s acceptance of Christ’s claim.
The lesson is clear: If you accept Christ’s claim, you will support Pius’s decision; if you do not support Pius’s decision, then you are ipso facto denying, or at the very best questioning, “Christ’s claim.” Cessario reaffirms this view when he says, in his last paragraph, “Those examining the Mortara case today are left with a final question: Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith?” Civil liberties are merely “putative”; Pio Nono acted in accordance with the requirements of faith. He could do no other and be faithful to his vocation and his office. And the “claim of Christ,” and the consequent “requirements of faith,” surely do not change from time to time and place to place. (Note that Cessario does not have any questions to pose to those who support Pio Nono’s actions.)
A second point of clarification: As Robert T. Miller points out in this post, that Edgardo Mortaro was Jewish is culturally significant, in that time and place and perhaps in ours as well, but theologically not to the point. For doctrinally speaking what underlies Pius’s action was not the fact that Mortara was ethnically Jewish but the fact that his family was not Catholic.
The operative assumption in Cessario’s argument is not that the child’s parents were Jewish but that they could not reasonably be expected to give the child a Catholic upbringing and education. Hence, if it is right to terminate the custodial rights of Jewish parents if their child somehow gets baptized, it will be right to do the same to parents who are pagans, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, or — it certainly seems — Protestants and even fallen-away Catholics. I don’t deny that, as a historical matter, the Mortaras were treated so badly because they were Jewish — of course, they were. I mean only that Cessario’s argument to justify Pius’s actions in the case would, by its terms, apply to many parents other than Jewish ones, and it helps in keeping the analysis clear to think in the broader terms in which that argument is cast.
Miller concludes his post by asking Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, to “disavow the position Cessario takes on the Mortara case and to reaffirm the journal’s historical commitment to the freedom of religion as understood in liberal states.”
Writing in response, Rusty very straightforwardly does the former: “The Edgardo Mortara episode is a stain on the Catholic Church. Whatever one thinks about the efficacy of baptism, forcibly separating a child from his parents is a grievous act. And even if one can construct a theoretical rationale for doing so, as Romanus Cessario does, it was wildly imprudent of Pius IX to take Edgardo from his parents, given the scandal it brought upon the Catholic Church, a scandal that continues to this day.” The latter request he does not explicitly address, though much of his post does so implicitly.
However, Rusty certainly does not apologize for running Cessario’s review. He argues rather that “Cessario, however, wants to challenge me. I must not imagine complacently that my natural moral sentiments and the modern liberal principles I endorse will always happily correspond with the demands that flow from ‘the reality of the Lord’s things.’” He adds, further, that “Cessario, a priest, is perhaps more perceptive that I am about our spiritual challenges” — which, for what it’s worth, I do not read as a qualification of his repudiation of Pius’s action, though I suppose some have taken it as such.
Rusty goes on, quite movingly, to describe his own family situation: his wife is Jewish and his children have been raised as Jews, and going to church alone has been his portion for many years now. So in this light you can see what he means, and that what he means is quite powerful, when he says that Cessario wants to challenge him.
And yet, it should be said — and I hope I can say it without seeming to minimize the painful complexities that Rusty has experienced — that the challenge that Cessario poses to people who, like Rusty, already believe that the Pope stands at the head of the One True Church is different, and less offensive, than the challenge it offers to non-Catholic Christians; and that challenge is less scandalous still than the one Cessario poses to non-Christians — primarily, though not only, Jews.
Which leads me, finally, to the one point I want to make. Imagine that I, an Anglican, were the editor of First Things, and I published an essay by a priest of the Church of England arguing that Elizabeth I was perfectly justified in carrying out her lengthy persecution of English Catholics, since she was ordained by God as His royal servant implementing the True Biblical Faith in England, and the Roman Catholic Church by contrast is the Whore of Babylon as described in the Revelation to John. Imagine further that I responded to criticism by saying that I don’t agree with that argument but find that it challenges me in salutary ways. Would Catholic readers of the magazine be mollified by that explanation? I suspect not — even if my wife were a Catholic and my children were being raised in that communion.
Of course, the real-world First Things would never run such an essay, any more than it would run an essay by a Muslim arguing that the right and proper place of Christians and Jews in the world is dhimmitude under a restored Caliphate, or one by a Jew arguing that Christianity in all its forms is necessarily and intrinsically anti-Semitic and should therefore be repudiated and marginalized by all right-thinking people. As I have noted several times on this blog and elsewhere, the Overton window of acceptable positions for First Things articles has been moving for several years now, but moving in only one direction: towards an increasing acceptance of the claims of the Roman Catholic Church over against other religious communities. Whether it might be defensible for non-Catholics to be in a position of dhimmitude vis-a-vis Catholicism is a question to be asked in the pages of First Things; but the legitimacy of Catholicism is never similarly open to question. For some time now it has been quite clear who at First Things are the first-class citizens and who need to make their way the back of the cabin. And this cannot be surprising, given that the entire editorial staff of the journal, as far as I tell, is Roman Catholic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes First Things, describes itself as “an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization.” To what extent can the Institute’s flagship publication be “interreligious” when its entire staff belongs not just to one religion but one communion within that religion? Certain questions about “religion and public life” — First Things calls itself “a journal of religion and public life” — will perforce be explored narrowly and (I think) in limited ways if one religious communion always takes the role of arbiter, if its core commitments are always considered normative while others’ fall under deeper scrutiny.
I have made arguments similar to this one before, and they haven’t been heeded or even acknowledged. But is is precisely because I believe in the stated mission of First Things, and regret its dramatically constrained current understanding of that mission, that I have become involved with Comment, which I believe is trying, in its currently small way, to take up the torch that First Things has, in my judgment, dropped. But I would be very pleased if First Things would pick it up also and we could carry it together.
Dear Dott. Franco,
I was moved that so many readers of your newspaper would like to know how I am spending this last period of my life. I can only say that with the slow decline of my physical forces, interiorly, I am on a pilgrimage towards Home. It is a great grace for me to be surrounded in this last, sometimes a little tiring, piece of road, by such love and goodness that I could not have imagined. In this sense, I also consider the question of your readers as an accompaniment along a stretch. This is why I cannot but be grateful, assuring all of you of my prayers. Best regards.
The reason I lost my church was not specifically because I spoke up. It was because we were advocating for other victims of sexual assault within the evangelical community, crimes which had been perpetrated by people in the church and whose abuse had been enabled, very clearly, by prominent leaders in the evangelical community. That is not a message that evangelical leaders want to hear, because it would cost to speak out about the community. It would cost to take a stand against these very prominent leaders, despite the fact that the situation we were dealing with is widely recognized as one of the worst, if not the worst, instances of evangelical cover-up of sexual abuse. Because I had taken that position, and because we were not in agreement with our church’s support of this organization and these leaders, it cost us dearly. […]
The ultimate reality that I live with is that if my abuser had been Nathaniel Morales instead of Larry Nassar, if my enabler had been [an SGM pastor] instead of [MSU gymnastics coach] Kathie Klages, if the organization I was speaking out against was Sovereign Grace under the leadership of [Mahaney] instead of MSU under the leadership of Lou Anna Simon, I would not only not have evangelical support, I would be actively vilified and lied about by every single evangelical leader out there. The only reason I am able to have the support of these leaders now is because I am speaking out against an organization not within their community. Had I been so unfortunate so as to have been victimized by someone in their community, someone in the Sovereign Grace network, I would not only have their support, I would be massively shunned. That’s the reality.
— Rachael Denhollander. Many Christian leaders will rush to deny this, will say that it paints with too broad a brush, will say #NotAllEvangelicals. My suggestion: everyone tempted to do that should shut up instead and spend the next year praying for self-knowledge. Only then say something — if you feel you must.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done… The Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be tied around your neck and you thrown into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds… The Bible you carry speaks of a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.
I get tired just thinking about what David French does here, which is to walk his way patiently through the cataract of vile twaddle that pours from the mouth of Jerry Falwell, Jr. But let me overcome my lethargy long enough to make two points and consider their implications.
Point the first: Jerry Falwell, Jr., though not a pastor and holding no advanced degrees in Bible or theology, graduated from two institutions founded by his pastor father for the express purpose of offering seriously Christian education: Liberty Christian Academy and then Liberty University. (JF Jr.’s college major was Religious Studies.)
Point the second: As is evident from the statements that French discusses in his post, Jerry Falwell, Jr. shows no evidence of having even the most elementary understanding of what the Bible says and what the Christian Gospel is.
The problem, as discerning readers will already have noted, is how to reconcile these two points. How could someone raised as Jerry Falwell, Jr. was raised, educated as he was educated, living as he now lives, say that Jesus “did not forgive the establishment elites”? Could he really not know that Jesus said of those establishment elites who killed him, “Father, forgive them”? And this is not an isolated incident. Quite often in recent months JF Jr. (like a number of other evangelical leaders) has made statements that clearly contradict some of the best-known passages in the Bible.
There are several possible explanations of this curious state of affairs:
- The elder Falwell was so interested in building political power through his Moral Majority empire that he, and consequently those who worked for him, either ignored or dramatically de-emphasized all elements of the Christian Gospel that didn’t fit the political program, and JF Jr. is simply the heir of those priorities.
- JF Jr. was well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but never really paid that much attention because he was interested in other things, so now he just goes with the political flow In his subculture.
- JF Jr. was well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but has found it convenient to lie about what he knows to be true in order to grasp some rag or tatter of political influence.
- JF Jr. was well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but has found it convenient to lie about what he knows to be true because he believes that this will serve the Greater Good.
- JF Jr. was well-educated in basic Christian doctrine but has somehow contrived to forget it because, deep down inside, he knows that if he remembers it he cannot be invited to the White House or be praised by members of the current administration.
There may be others, but these are the ones that occur to me now. Also, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In any event, it is, again, a curious state of affairs and one I wish we could understand, because if we grasped what really goes through the mind of someone like JF Jr. (or Franklin Graham) we would be better positioned to know how to address the manifest moral collapse of much of American evangelicalism.
white evangelical Protestants may be neglecting their future. As a group, they’re drifting further away — politically and culturally — from the American mainstream…. Samuel D. James, writing in the journal First Things, argued, “You cannot boil down Christianity to the parts that you are unashamed to speak about in the presence of your intelligent gay neighbor or your prayerful lesbian church member.” James’s instinct to hold the line against prevailing winds may resonate with many, but if white evangelical Protestants want to continue to be a home for younger Americans, they may have to reconsider what parts of Christianity are non-negotiable.
This is what happens when a politics site writes about religion: it makes religion just one of the form of politics, in which you worry about voter share and expanding your base. That Christians might determine what to preach and teach, not by seeking conformity to “the American mainstream,” but rather by what they believe to be true, seems not to have occurred to Cox. But maybe it’s a possibility to factor in to one’s analysis. Just saying.
Thus, for Christian educational institutions, the way ahead may be very hard. It will not simply be a matter of budgeting without federal loans. It could easily become a matter of budgeting without not-for-profit status. That double whammy is likely to annihilate many of those institutions which refuse to accommodate themselves to the dominant sexual culture. And that means that educators may need to look to new models of pursuing their callings.
The current struggle probably cannot be won in the law courts — certainly not until there are deeper changes in the ethos of society. Laws that may be used to dismantle Christian educational institutions are already on the books. How they are to be applied will be determined by the dominant taste or cultural sentiment.
Therefore every Christian institution of higher education needs to be pursuing “financial planning for the worst-case scenario, where not only federal money but also tax-exempt status is revoked.” Trueman has other things to say as well, but I want to focus on this point, and to indicate another dimension that he does not address.
As I have noted in another venue, calls are already being made for Christian institutions to lose their accreditation also. Many Christian colleges will be unable to survive losing federal aid for their faculty and students alike; those that can survive that may not be able to afford their taxes once they lose their traditional exemption; but a loss of accreditation is likely to be the death knell for all of them, because that will dramatically reduce the number of students who apply for admission. Students with degrees from unaccredited institutions are deemed ineligible for almost all graduate education, and for many jobs as well. How many parents, even devoutly Christian parents, even those few who can afford it (given the lack of federal student aid), will be willing to pay to send their children to institutions if that narrows their future horizons so dramatically? Almost none, I suspect.
The people who argue that Christian institutions should support the modern left’s model of sexual ethics or else suffer a comprehensive shunning do not think of themselves as opponents of religion. And they are not, given their definition of religion, which is “a disembodied, Gnostic realm of private worship and thought”. But that is not what Christianity is. Christianity intrinsically, necessarily involves embodied action in the public world. And this the secular left cannot and will not tolerate, if it can help it, because it rightly understands that Christianity stands opposed to the secular left’s own gospel, which, popular opinion notwithstanding, is not essentially about sex but rather may be summed up as: “I am my own.”
All this to say that while I agree with Trueman that Christian institutions need to plan for a dark financial future, I also believe that the Christian community as a whole needs to plan for a future in which most or all of its educational institutions have been forced either to close or to accommodate themselves to Gnostic disembodiment. What does Christian formation — paideia and catechesis — look like in a world in which many of the institutions that have long supported that formation have been shut down or substantively eviscerated? In relation to these issues, that is the question that Christian need to be asking. Because, I am convinced, that moment is coming: maybe not in the next decade, maybe not even in my lifetime, but certainly within the lifetimes of many reading this blog post.
Sermon by the Rev. Jessica Martin
Ely Cathedral, Advent 4 (24th December 2017)
Old Testament: 2 Sam. 7.1-11, 16
New Testament: Rom.16.25-27
Gospel: Luke 1.16-38
‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’
‘The Lord is with you’. Gabriel’s greeting blazes into the life of time and hangs between him and the girl to whom he is speaking. It is not a promise. Promises are about the future. This is now.
The angel who came to Abraham, back near the beginning of God’s story with his people – he uttered a promise. That angel said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son’. Sarah was not in the room – not standing before the angel but listening from behind the wall of a tent, and she heard his prophecy with the kind of despair which makes people laugh – you will know that rejecting laugh that wards away sorrow, and keeps you safe from pain? – that was Sarah’s response to God’s promise. And the angel heard the despair, and overturned it, saying, ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’ And in due season she had a son.
But this angel, Gabriel, the messenger of God, speaks no promise. There is no narrative trajectory forward; no future fulfilment. Although Mary converses with him, and although her obedience to the way of God is discovered through what she says, the pinpoint of the present moment seems to spread out over the whole encounter. So that it becomes hard for us, hearing what happened, to say when the moment wasthat God entangled himself into the life of her flesh and became a shining particle of the world he himself had made. Does Gabriel’s greeting itself bring the life of God into her? ‘The Lord is with you’. God has spoken those words across the centuries, the millennia before this moment: ‘I AM with you’ he says to Moses at the burning bush; he speaks his presence through the prophets innumerable times; he affirms it in song and story, the great covenant assurance which yearns for our answering embrace, and which so quickly finds us slipping out from under the everlasting arms and heading perversely into the darkness.
But there is no yearning here. This is a piece of the everlasting joy which Gabriel speaks – not words, but an act which brings the Word that makes all into the little room in which they stand, and fills it with himself.
So Mary’s question asks only to understand what is already with them, already happening. ‘She pondered what sort of greeting this might be’, writes Luke. But the gift is already given, the favour already granted . ‘The Lord is with you’.
It is always possible to draw back from the presence of God. He will never overwhelm. The brightness of his presence is always mercifully shadowed by cloud, and the questions he asks can always meet with refusal. But in this encounter the only mismatch is in understanding, in the faltering of the intellect before the impossible actions of God. ‘How can this be?’ asks Mary. The answer is the same answer as for Sarah: ‘For nothing will be impossible with God’. The difference in the two meetings is not a difference in God, but in the varying kinds of human response he met with – the one almost beyond hope, and the other illuminated with hope’s promise and open to the fulfilment which comes to her in Gabriel’s words.
And, like Sarah, with the joy comes pain – but the completeness of Mary’s embrace accepts the pain with the joy, and rejects nothing of what God brings. She will neither laugh nor turn away, but ponder all that comes to her without defence.
Gabriel goes on to speak to Mary of what shall be. ‘The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’. Even then she could, as anyone could, say ‘not me’. But she would have to push away the delight of what has already been in the nature of God’s greeting. In the actions of love it is very hard to say when fulfilment comes; it is there as much in the moment of understanding, the moment when you know that love speaks in the other’s presence, as ever it can be in the embraces which will follow. And this is a love affair, where God will dare his own diminishment into absolute weakness, and all for love. The immensity of his intention floods his encounter with Mary, and she allows herself to be soaked in its life. It is as if she knows herself fully for the first time, just as in every love affair the heart of it is the sense of being fully known.
‘The Lord is with you’, says Gabriel. Not ‘the Lord be with you’ but ‘the Lord is with you.’ And, hearing that, she knows what to say. ‘Here am I’. Here am I, the person who carries the Lord, because the Lord is with me. And the I that I am shines with his presence because he spoke himself into my frail and ordinary life, until it shone with his light and I saw who I was transformed by it. ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.’
And the word itself was already spoken at the very beginning. ‘The Lord is with you’.
The Lord is with us. His promise is already here and we stand on the edge of Christmas contemplating the birth of God’s helplessness, the solid truth of his speechless presence in our arms. We stand before an everlasting joy, until it spills into our own present, into this now of the end of 2017, reverberating there as it reverberates across all the whole of time, the everlasting in a little room, love who hurries towards us, love who is at the door, love who is already here.
For nothing is impossible with God.
Ten years ago I briefly wrote an online column for the late lamented Books & Culture, and what follows was the first entry. It still seems relevant, to me anyway.
Near the middle of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the archangel Raphael describes for Adam — who has not yet fallen, not yet disobeyed — the War in Heaven between Satan’s rebellious angels and those who have remained faithful to God. Throughout this portion of the poem a major figure is a loyal angel named Abdiel. It is his task, or privilege, to cast the first blow against Satan himself: his “noble stroke” causes Satan to stagger backwards and fall to one knee, which terrifies and enrages the great rebel’s followers. This happens as Abdiel expected; he’s not afraid of Satan, and knows that even the king of the rebels cannot match his strength, since rebellion has already sapped some of the greatness and power of the one once known as Lucifer.
But what if the combat hadn’t gone as expected? What if Satan had been unhurt by Abdiel’s blow, or had himself wounded the faithful angel? In that case, says one Milton scholar, John Rumrich, “God would by rights have some explaining to do.” What right would God have to send Abdiel into a struggle where he could be wounded or destroyed? To Rumrich’s claim that most eminent of Miltonists, Stanley Fish, replies: Every right. God’s actions are not subject to our judgment, because he’s God — a point which, Fish often reminds us, modern literary critics seem unable to grasp.
Moreover, Fish notes, Abdiel himself doesn’t think that God owes him success, or indeed owes him anything at all. In Abdiel’s understanding of what it means to be a creature, all the owing is on his side; all the rights are on God’s. As it happens, there are moments in the story when things don’t go as Abdiel expects, where his efforts seem futile or pointless — or seem so to us. Yet this doesn’t bother him at all. Why not? Because in each case he did what he was made to do: he obeyed. Obedience is the creature’s calling; the ultimate outcome and disposition of events belongs to God, and only to God. God does not need to adjust events to meet our expectations, nor must he offer us an explanation when our expectations are thwarted. And if we focus on our own obedience we will not ask such things of God.
In the long and brilliant preface that Fish wrote for the second edition of his landmark book Surprised by Sin: the Reader in Paradise Lost, he calls Abdiel’s attitude “the politics of long joy,” and sees Milton as a passionate advocate for that politics. Milton himself strove to live by it: having made an impassioned case for freedom of the press in his tract “Areopagitica,” he pauses to say that his argument “will be a certain testimony, if not a Trophy.” That is, whether his argument succeeded or not (and in fact it didn’t), he wrote it simply in order to testify to his convictions. It was within his power to make such a testimony; it was not within his power to control the minds of the members of Parliament.
“The politics of long joy” is an odd phrase, but a rich one. Fish derives it from another moment in Paradise Lost, when the archangel Michael reveals to Adam a vision of “Just men” who “all their study bent / To worship God aright,” who then are approached by a “bevy of fair women” and determine to marry them. Adam likes this vision; two earlier ones had shown pain and death, but this one seems to Adam to portend “peaceful days,” harmony among peoples. But Michael immediately corrects him. This is in fact a vision of the events described in Genesis 6, when, after the “sons of God” become enamored with the “daughters of man,” God discerns that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” “Judge not what is best / By pleasure,” Michael warns Adam, “though to nature seeming meet.” Instead, Adam should judge according to the “nobler end” for which he was created: “conformity divine,” that is, obedience to God. And when Adam hears this rebuke Milton tells us that he was “of short joy bereft.” Of short joy bereft: for the joy which comes from judging according to appearances and immediate circumstances, according to what we now like to call “outcomes,” is always short. Only the joy of conforming our will to God’s is long.
Most important of all, Fish goes on to say, “It cannot be too much emphasized that the politics of being—the politics of long joy—is not quietism. Its relative indifference to outcomes is not an unconcern with the way things go in the world, but a recognition that the turns of fortune and and history are not in man’s control and that all one can be responsible for is the firmness of one’s resolve.” Milton says of the loyal angels fighting against Satan’s forces that “each on himself relied” as though “only in his arm the moment lay / Of victory.” Or, in Fish’s summary, “each acts as if the fate of the world is in his hands, while knowing full well it isn’t.”
It seems to me that this politics of long joy is the one thing needful for the Christian cultural critic, as for a warring angel like Abdiel or a poetic polemicist like Milton. Perhaps the chief problem with the “culture wars” paradigm that governs so much Christian action and reflection, in the North American context anyway, is that it encourages us to think in terms of trophies rather than testimonies. It tempts us to think too much about whether we’re winning or losing, and too little about the only thing we ultimately control, which is the firmness of our own resolve. If the culture warrior would prefer not to be governed by Stanley Fish, or even by John Milton, maybe Koheleth provides an acceptable model: “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).
It seems to me that the careful dance, the difficult balance, of Christian cultural criticism is to be endlessly attentive to the form and the details of the world around us, while simultaneously practicing the “politics of long joy”—and in this way avoiding an unhealthy obsession with “trophies,” and avoiding also being conformed to the ways of this world. It’s a tough walk to walk, because one of the peculiarities of fallen human nature is that we find it difficult, over the long haul anyway, to remember that there is a world of difference between “I have no control over this” and “this isn’t very important.” We tend, against all reason, to diminish the importance of everything we cannot shape or direct. But our joy will be short if it is grounded in circumstances and events, because circumstances and events always change: if they please us now, they will displease us later. And then what will we do?
Central to this discipline, for me anyway, is a constant striving to remember who human beings are and what we are made for. Which brings me to the title of this column. On Bruce Cockburn’s 1980 recording Humans there’s a song called “Rumours of Glory”—a song about “the extremes / of what humans can be,” but also about the imago Dei which each of us bears, the divine image that waits always for the discerning eye to notice it. In the song, perhaps his best (which is saying a lot), Cockburn sees the “tension” between what we were made to be and what we in fact are; he sees that human culture is produced by that tension, which generates “energy surging like a storm.” At once attracted and repelled by that energy, “you plunge your hand in; you draw it back, scorched.” And the hand that has been plunged truly into the human world is always marked by that plunging: it’s “scorched”, yes, but beneath the wound “something is shining like gold — but better.” The truth of who we are, given the extremes of divine image and savage depravity, is hard to discern; perhaps we can only achieve it in brief moments; perhaps we only catch rumors of the glory that is, and is to be. But even those rumors can sustain us as we walk the pilgrim path.
As horrible as these revelations are about sexually predatory men at the highest levels of our culture, they serve as a reminder of what we Christians have been saying all along about the inevitable consequences of the sexual revolution. So even as we lament with the victims, we are, I think, justified in calling attention to the higher standards that we, at least, have held our male leaders …
Um … never mind.
The Christian doctrine which Protestantism emphasizes is that every human being, irrespective of family, class, or occupation, is unique before God; the complementary and equally Christian doctrine emphasized by Catholicism is that we are all members, one with another, both in the Earthly and the Heavenly City.
Or one might say that, in conjugating the present tense of the verb to be, Catholicism concentrates on the plural, Protestantism on the singular. But authentic human existence demands that equal meaning and value be given to both singular and plural, all three persons, and all three genders. Thus, Protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; Catholicism correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I.
— W. H. Auden, review of Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther (in Forewords and Afterwords)
Once more about this word “evangelical.” A number of organizations, of various kinds, around the country are rejecting the label, for reasons laid out by my friend and colleague Tommy Kidd here. This has been coming for a while. Last year I offered my defense of the term and my desire to “steal it back” from those who have appropriated and abused it; it has, after all, a long and noble history.
But now I’m starting to wonder whether I can steal it back. As I mentioned the other day, I’ve received a good many responses to my recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, and it’s interesting how many of them center on my description of myself as an evangelical Christian. There seems to be general agreement — among correspondents who aren’t likely to agree on much else — that being an evangelical means supporting Trump or at least Trumpism, despising all perceived cultural elites, making our public schools repositories of “Judeo-Christian values,” and so on. The only thing missing from all those descriptions is any sense that being an evangelical has something to do with the evangelion.
I look at these emails and think about the time it would take to address all the misconceptions; then I reflect on how pointless such an endeavor would be. Because what is my (historically-grounded) position against the whole world of social media? By what means might the term “evangelical” be restored to some genuine meaning? Beats me. I’d like to steal it back, but I may be forced to let it go.
As a Christian, I am accountable to God, and, as I understand things, that means I am also accountable to the teachings of Holy Scripture and to the witness of the Church throughout history, especially as it has expressed itself in the great ecumenical creeds. I am, further and in a different way, accountable to my local body of believers, who I am instructed to support materially, in service, in prayer, and in common worship.
To those of you on social media, and other media, demanding that I take stands in conformity to your setting forth of The Options regarding The Issues, I am not accountable in any way. I do not care what you say and will not obey you, and if that makes you angry, you may call me any names you want to call me. I do not care.
Here’s something C. S. Lewis wrote in a 1946 essay called “The Decline of Religion”:
The `decline of religion’ so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels [in the Oxbridge colleges]. Now it is quite true that that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. But this change was not gradual. It occurred at the precise moment when chapel ceased to be compulsory. It was not in fact a decline; it was a precipice. The sixty men who had come because chapel was a little later than ‘rollers’ (its only alternative) came no more; the five Christians remained. The withdrawal of compulsion did not create a new religious situation, but only revealed the situation which had long existed. And this is typical of the ‘decline in religion’ all over England.
I think it’s pretty obvious that the situation that obtained at Oxford and Cambridge when chapel attendance was made optional is closely analogous to the religious situation in America today. Everywhere in America, and even in the deep South, being a Christian
has ceased is rapidly ceasing to be socially rewarding or even acceptable.* More from Lewis:
One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the ‘World’, was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded church-going as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners as (at worst) a proof of respectability. Hence a social pressure, like the withdrawal of the compulsion, did not create a new situation. The new freedom first allowed accurate observations to be made. When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered.
That’s what we are discovering. The question is whether American churches will have the intellectual and spiritual integrity necessary to recognize and accept how completely they have relied on the social appeal of a “vague Theism” and how little they have spoken to those who go to church because they seek Christ. What’s at stake here is merely life or death.
*I changed that on reflection — where I live in central Texas, and in the many parts of the Southeast, being known to have a church community is still an index of trustworthiness in some business and social contexts.
Many typos and missed auto-errors now fixed; sorry about those
I find myself thinking often about this 2014 essay by Pat Deneen, one of the smartest political thinkers I know and one of the most incisive commentators on matters Catholic. The core distinction the essay makes seems to me vital. It concerns two rival models of Catholicism that have emerged to replace the old distinction between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism.
On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century…. Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism. Liberal democracy is, or at its best can be, a tolerant home for Catholics, one that acknowledges contributions of the Catholic tradition and is leavened by its moral commitments. While liberalism alone can be brittle and thin — its stated neutrality can leave it awash in relativism and indifferentism — it is deepened and rendered more sustainable by the Catholic presence….
On the other side is arrayed what might be characterized as a more radical Catholicism…. The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism. Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility. According to this view, liberalism is not a “shell” philosophy that allows a thousand flowers to bloom. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Catholicism.
In the four-and-a-half years since this essay appeared, two significant developments have occurred that alter, but only to some extent, the story Deneen tells.
First, the collapse of liberal Catholicism — which Deneen in the essay takes as a given — has, it’s safe to say, been postponed. I doubt Deneen would see any substantive reason to question his belief that “Liberal Catholicism has no future — like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation”; but that leaves unanswered the question of whether “liberalism simpliciter” could come to run the Catholic Church, at least for a while. In any event, that’s an intra-Catholic issue and not one that I’m concerned with here. (Though I have my preferences about how it all falls out.)
Second, though: his “radical Catholics” — rad-trads, tradinistas (the latter being, I think, a subset of the former) — have grown in power and have taken over some territory that once belonged to that older conservative tradition. In 2014 Deneen could confidently identify First Things as a magazine exemplifying the older tradition, but in the intervening years the rad-trads have become much more vocal there, to the point that the older conservatism is certainly a minority position in the magazine and may eventually disappear altogether. And in at least one sense that is a welcome development: as I have noted several times over the years, my primary disagreement with Father Neuhaus, the founding editor of First Things, centered on what I felt was his too-great comfort with the American project and his consequent reluctance to subject it to as thorough a critique as it has often deserved.
But though I admire the rad-trad willingness to subject the liberal order to comprehensive critical scrutiny, there’s another feature of the movement that I’m not so happy with: its general lack of interest in, and in many cases even disdain for, for non-Catholics. This is an old theme with me, but re-reading Deneen’s essay has given me a new understanding of the phenomenon.
If I were writing an essay instead of a brief blog post, I’d spell this out with examples, and maybe some day I’ll do that, but for now I’ll just say this: I’ve had many conversations with rad-trads and have had no success in persuading them that any non-Catholic thinker has anything meaningful to contribute to their project. If you want to tell them that you agree wth them, they’re happy enough with that, but they’re not interested in finding intellectual resources outside the Catholic tradition (narrowly conceived) or in hearing commentary from outside the Catholic tradition. In other words, though the rad-trads in my experience rarely have anything good to say about Vatican II, they are the children (or grandchildren) of ressourcement.
More power to them, I guess — but I say that with a bit of sadness, because that older conservative tradition which they repudiate (and may be supplanting) had an interest not just in strengthening the liberal order but also in strengthening ecumenical ties among all Christians, but especially those of the small-o orthodox variety. And it now strikes me that those two projects were closely related: that is, one of the key ways to strengthen the liberal order was through drawing Christians together towards a more unified front, and one of the key ways to pursue ecumenism was through claiming a shared role for all Christians in the liberal order. So I guess the rad-trads have decided that if you want to get rid of the one you have to ditch the other as well.
There may be other factors as well: for instance, many of the rad-trads are converts to Catholicism, and continuing to value anything from the Reformation traditions might feel like a less-than-complete submission to Mother Church. (Dunno. Can’t read minds.) But in any case, I hope that in the next few years they’ll rethink their approach.
Just a couple of examples: Can the pro-life cause really thrive if Catholics and evangelicals don’t work together? Is it really the case that, as the aforelinked Tradinista Manifesto suggests, contemporary Western militarism can only be challenged by “the traditional requirements of the Church’s just war theory”? Might not the Mennonite tradition have something to say to Catholics — even rad-trad Catholics?
All this to say: I continue to think that, given what we’re collectively facing in this dark time, we Christians need one another — and need one another in intellectual collaboration as well as in common prayer. It would make me very happy if more of my Catholic friends agreed.
Well, for starters, I am (we are) still very much dealing with the local fallout. I’m referring to the incredibly kind teaching aide at my son’s elementary school who was jumped and beaten because of his skin color, and wondering if he’s going to be able to make it to the first day of class next week.
I’m thinking of my friend’s daughter who is still in the hospital down the road after being hit by that car and is waiting for a bed to free up at the facility closer to where she lives before she can be transferred. I’m thinking about her hospital bills.
I’m thinking of my Jewish bartender friend who never in a million years dreamed he’d be waking up to shouts of “First stop Charlottesville, last stop Auschwitz”. I’m hoping he doesn’t move away.
I’m thinking about the battering ram-barricade device that the antifa so kindly left on our church property for us to dispose of. You know, the one with the graffiti of the bloodied, beheaded frog.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that we had to inform the police chief that placing snipers on the church roof might not send the right message.
And I’m wondering how on Earth I’m going to preach a sermon this Sunday — and how much more impossible that would be were the lectionary readings not so miraculously pertinent.
In his great book God’s Long Summer, Charles Marsh demonstrates that the Civil Rights struggle in the Deep South was largely an intra-Christian dispute. From the sainted Fannie Lou Hamer to Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, to the “white moderates” Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us about his his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” all parties involved articulated their positions in reference to Christian scriptures and some broader account of the Christian Gospel.
How far we have come. As Joe Carter explains,
As many conservative Christians on social media can attest, the alt-right seems to have a particular disdain for gospel-centered Christianity. (For examples see here, here, here, and here.) Some on the alt-right (such as Vox Day) claim that Christianity is a “foundational pillar” of the movement. But what they mean by Christianity is often a heretical form (Day rejects the Trinity) a racialized version of the faith (e.g., the Kinist movement), or “religion as culture” (Spencer says he is both an atheist and a “culture Christian.”). The true religion of the alt-right is white identitarianism, which is why the SBC accurately considers it an “anti-gospel” movement.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum, it’s pretty clear — see for instance this excellent report by Emma Green — the the Black Lives Matter movement is also largely post-Christian, with little interest in and occasional hostility to the African-American church, which BLM activists often see as weak and ineffective — or simply irrelevant.
It wasn’t that long ago that Andrew Sullivan was denouncing “Christianist” movements as a threat to our republic — something I debated with him here and here, even getting him to admit that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a “left Christianist” and to that extent problematic. (Andrew’s response has been moved here.) For Andrew in 2011, the “Christianist takeover” of the GOP was complete.
Again: how far we have come. And in a very short time.
Ross Douthat once said to people on the left that if they hated the Religious Right, they should just wait to see the Post-Religious Right. We all saw it in Charlottesville yesterday. When political movements paid even lip service to the Christian Gospel, they had something to remind them of commandments to forgive, to make peace, to love. There were stable moral standards to appeal to, even if activists often squirmed desperately to evade their force. I am far more worried about neo-Nazis than BLM — as you should be too — but when people confront one another, or confront us, who don’t know those commandments, or have contempt for them, the prospects for the healing of this nation don’t look very good. I don’t know what language to use to persuade a white nationalist that those people over there are their neighbors, not vermin to be crushed with an automobile.
On the current debate among “small-o orthodox” Christians about sexuality and orthodoxy, I warmly recommend this post by Matthew Lee Anderson. It’s longish but really thoughtful about the key issues. I don’t think I agree with Matthew’s use of the idea of the “grammar” of credal theology, a use he shares with Alastair Roberts, because I fear that it can make Scripture and creed alike into an infinitely reshapeable wax nose: you can quickly move past what it says to focus on what you claim is entailed by its grammar. (Another way to put it: I am made uneasy by this mode of theology for the same reasons I am made uneasy by Newman’s view of “development of doctrine.”) But the argument is well-made and worth considering.
Anyway, I just want to make one brief comment about my participation in this whole business. I have had almost nothing to say about the substantive theological and moral issues at stake because my primary concern here is not the “what” but the “how”: how we handle disagreement. There’s an important sense in which our means need to be upstream of our ends.
One of the major themes of my forthcoming book How to Think is the fruitlessness of arguments badly conducted. When we treat those we disagree with as necessarily wicked or stupid, when we forbid to “their side” practices that we cheerfully allow to “our side,” when we recklessly (and sometimes quite intentionally) misconstrue those who disagree with us, then genuine argument never happens: we descend into shouted recriminations.
Of course, many people are perfectly happy with shouted recriminations. But Christians are forbidden that. As I have reflected on these matters in the past couple of years — and I’ve spent a lot of time in such reflection — I have been struck by just how consistently concerned the New Testament is with proper responses to conflict. We are told, by Jesus in the Gospels and by the apostles in their letters, how to respond when we are attacked and vilified by those outside the “household of faith” and how to deal with various kinds of conflict within that household. Almost all of what I’ve written in the last year or so about the current disputes has been focused on the need to be obedient to these teachings.
One of the most famous passages in the whole of Scripture, but one that almost no one seems to find relevant to the current debates, is this: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” I just wish that before leaping into any fray — especially if it’s conducted on social media, given the online disinhibition effect — my fellow Christians would just spend just five minutes meditating on that passage.
Maybe this will help to clarify some matters concerning the definition of “orthodoxy.” Jamie Smith aroused a lot of outrage when he asked, “Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?” And I aroused the same outrage when I said he had made a good point. Both of us were accused of having demoted sexual ethics to the realm of adiaphora by saying that people who are wrong about controversial matters of sexual ethics are not ipso facto heretics (though they could of course be heretics for other reasons) — even though we both insisted that we were not saying that sexuality is a matter of theological and moral indifference.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that heresy is a particular kind of sin: it is one of the sins against faith:
There are various ways of sinning against faith:
Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.
“Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”
One of the things that should be immediately clear from reading this is that people often use the term heresy in contexts where incredulity would be far more appropriate. But I want to make a more general point here. Various people commented, in reply to Jamie and me, that since the credal orthodoxy we emphasize doesn’t say anything about genocide or necrophilia then I guess those are totally compatible with orthodoxy, huh?
To which I reply: I think you’re making a category error. Genocide and necrophilia are indeed sins but they aren’t sins against faith — they belong in different categories, as the Catechism suggests. Orthodoxy is “right belief,” right doxa, and people can be disciplined by or excluded from the community of Christians for holding wrong beliefs; but they can also be disciplined and excluded for committing sins that aren’t about wrong belief at all. They may simply be, as the old prayer book has it, “notorious evil livers.”
You can redefine orthodoxy to mean “Everything that a Christian is supposed to believe and do, and nothing that a Christian is not supposed to believe and do,” and if you redefine it that way then all sin is indeed heresy; but I think that disables you from making some very useful distinctions, the sorts of distinctions that the Catechism frequently makes. And in light of those distinctions a person could indeed commit genocide without being a heretic. He would just be a great and terrible sinner.
Now, to be sure, you could also create an elaborate theory justifying genocide or necrophilia, and hold to it in defiance of the biblical witness or church teaching, and in that case you really would be a heretic. But most people who sin (whether against faith or against charity or against anything else) don’t have such elaborate theories: they’re simply wrong.
But, and this is something I’ve complained about before, nobody is just wrong any more. Everyone you disagree with is a heretic, an infidel, a false teacher, not a Christian at all!! I really think we could make a lot of progress in our debates if we we recovered the category of plain old wrongness. But, failing that, let’s at least recognize the differences betweens sins against faith and other kinds of sin.
Quick addendum to this morning’s posts: I’ve already heard from several Catholic friends and emailers that my comments and caveats and recommendations have no force because the Church has spoken on these matters. Yeah, I know. But I’m not Catholic, so that’s not dispositive for me. Odd that this needs to be said, but apparently it does. Those of us who don’t have a Magisterium have to approach these matters in a different way: there’s nothing that we can point to and say: That settles it. People try to do that with Scripture, of course, but, as my earlier posts demonstrate, without achieving consensus. So my argument about who should or should not be excommunicated is directed to those of us who have already been excommunicated by Rome.* I’ll try to be more explicit about such matters in the future.
*Note to Catholic friends who will say, “You mean ‘who have excommunicated themselves by their disobedience to the Magisterium’”: I know about that too. What I have written I have written.**
**Note to Catholic friends who think it’s ironic that I use that phrase: I’m still one step ahead of you.
Imagine a pacifist to a just-war theorist: “Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ Jesus says, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’ Why is this even a question?”
Imagine a certain kind of gender-traditionalist when his pastor assigns women to read Scripture in services: “Paul says ‘Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak.’ Why is this even a question?”
Imagine someone with a very different view of, for example, the ordination of women: “Paul says that in Christ there is no longer male and female.’ Why is this even a question?”
I have had such thoughts many times: Why are we even debating this? Why is this even a point of contention? How can any Christian be confused or uncertain about this? Why is this even a question? We might be tempted to say, “I wish this question hadn’t arisen in my time.” To which a wise man might reply, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
For some there are no puzzles about what to do with the time that is given us: “Paul says, Do not ‘associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral.’ Why is this even a question?” The best answer I can give is that it’s a question because Christians now disagree about what in fact constitutes “sexual immorality.” (And not just about homosexuality: consider the debates about polygamy and masturbation that have persisted in various parts of the Christian world.) In the face of such disagreement, one might reply, Paul says we’re supposed to be, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
There are always questions. Which ones arise — that’s not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the questions that are presented to us. My one consistent position in all these matters is to resist taking the nuclear option of excommunication. It is the strongest censure we have, and therefore one not to be invoked except with the greatest reluctance. Further, I don’t think the patience that St. Paul commands is to be exhausted in a few years, or even a few decades. We need to learn to think in larger chunks of time, and to consider the worldwide, not just the local American and Western European, context. Many of us tend to think that if we haven’t convinced someone after a few tweets and blog posts that we can be done with them and the questions they bring. But the time-frame of social media is not the time-frame of Christ’s Church.
In addition to the matter of time, there is also the matter of scale to consider. As I have argued before — see here for example — the notion that our sexual preferences must be respected and affirmed is simply an instance of the larger claim that each of us is, as Milton’s Satan puts it, “self-begot.” That claim is the wellspring of what has become a comprehensive ideology: a framework of belief and practice so obvious that no argument need ever be made for it. And in my judgment that ideology is so powerful and living — organic, growing, having a mind of its own — that it should rightly be designated one of the Powers, the archas, the kosmokratoras, about which I have written a bit here. Some of the people who support the Christian legitimacy of same-sex unions have actual theological and biblical arguments to make, which should be responded to in kind; but for many others that legitimacy is guaranteed simply by the theos tou aiōnos, the god of this age. They believe in sexual self-determination because that is what is believed.
The god of this age, like all Powers, is not easily dislodged from its throne, and Christians should expect the battle to be a long one. This calls for patience in more than one venue: patience in awaiting the vindication of the saints, but also patience with those who have spent their whole lives in thrall to that Power whose proper name is I-am-my-own. And we should be especially cautious in casting out those whom we see to be so in thrall because there is a very great chance that that Power exerts far greater sway over us than we are able to realize. When we focus on disciplining the errors of individuals, we are often — not always, but often — considering neither the scope (in time and space) of the issues under debate nor the beams that, in this present darkness, have made their way into our own eyes.
As Ephraim Radner has pointed out somewhere, one thing that Christians have in common is that we’ve all been excommunicated by other Christians. Given the repeated commands throughout the New Testament to seek oneness in Christ, I don’t see how we can be complacent about that shared condition, or eager to continue the practices that led to it. In the long war with the god of this world, oneness is our greatest strength, and we must always be seeking it. Divisions will inevitably come, and some of them will be necessary; but woe be unto us through whom unnecessary divisions come.
We must look for every possible way to remain in communion with one another, to work together for the cause of the Gospel; we must separate from one another only with great reluctance, and after the long exercise of Christ-like patience: we must imitate the God who is lastingly patient with us. And when we decide that must separate, basic obedience demands that we immediately begin seeking ways to restore our fellowship. These are among the marks of the true Church, I believe.
Alastair Roberts says that Jamie Smith “den[ies] the place of the creed in teaching us Christian morality”; what Smith actually says is that “that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate” the traditional understanding of sexual morality, which is incontestably true, isn’t it? I seriously doubt that Smith would in any way dissent from Roberts’s claim that “the creed is the touchstone of Christian ethics, the document disclosing its true grammar.” Roberts seems to have fundamentally misconstrued Smith’s post as being about the sources of Christian ethics, when in fact it is about the way we use the term “orthodoxy.”
I believe that Roberts is absolutely right to suggest that the grammar of credal orthodoxy is a generative one, from which the whole of Christian ethics emerges. But it does not inevitably do this in obvious ways, ways that Christians are generally agreed about. Smith’s example of pacifism is a telling one. For the Christian pacifist, the very heart of the credal grammar is that in Christ God is at work reconciling the world to himself, and that therefore the whole life of the Church is to participate in that reconciliation, which enjoins a steadfast refusal of armed conflict. For the Christian pacifist, the Christian who believes that wars can be just has simply failed to grasp that credal grammar. And yet most Christian pacifists do not say that just-war Christians fall outside the scope of orthodoxy. And I think they don’t say this because they recognize the difference between grammatical rules that are explicitly stated and the consequences that implicitly follow from those rules.
The argument about whether Christians are permitted to participate in war can therefore be conducted within the ecclesia, within the koinonia of those who belong to Christ. But this does not in any way imply or suggest that the questions at stake are adiaphora, matters about which we can simply “agree to disagree.” They must be worked out with fear and trembling, and we must face the fact that some people in the debate are seriously and consequentially wrong.
This example shows that by noting that a particular issue does not fall within the boundaries of credal orthodoxy one is not thereby condemning it to insignificance. Smith makes this point explicitly. But I think that many of the people who want to say that sexuality is a “first-order issue” for the church are afraid that that’s what’s going on — and in many cases they’re exactly right. Many, many people really do want to claim that since sexuality is not addressed in the creeds it’s something about which we can expect and tolerate a virtually infinite range of opinions. But to deem questions of sexuality adiaphora, no less than dumping questions of war and peace in the same class, would be a tragic error and a complete abdication of Christian ethics.
That said, I just don’t think we can avoid that tragic error by claiming credal status for traditional (what I would call biblical) sexual ethics. I say this for three reasons:
1) We cannot logically and consistently elevate sexual ethics in this way without doing the same for other positions (on war and peace, on slavery, on usury, etc.) which have similarly been claimed by many Christians as being necessarily generated by the grammar of the creeds.
2) To say that sexual ethics is a “first-order issue” on a par with the creeds themselves is inevitably to decenter the creeds themselves: to see them as having failed to specify, to make explicit, absolutely essential matters. They then become creatures of their time and place, products of the disputes that just happened to dominate their moment in history, rather than documents of permanent, binding validity for later Christians. This implies a lower pneumatology and a lower ecclesiology than I believe is healthy.
3) The flip side of the previous point is this: by declaring the issues that most occupy us at the moment, and most occupy us at the moment thanks largely to our mass media, as “first-order issues” for the whole of Christ’s Church in all times and places, we are courting parochialism and presentism. We should, instead, have the humility to wait to see if the whole of Christ’s Church, acting in conciliar unity, agrees with us. Perhaps we can argue that it should: perhaps we can call for a new Ecumenical Council. (And if our disputes over sexuality have the effect of bringing about the kind of unity in Christ that would make a new Ecumenical Council possible, it will have been a blessing in disguise.)
But as it stands we are living through in-between times, what Auden calls “the Time Being,” and as he notes, “To those who have seen / The Child, however dimly, however incredulously, / The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.” When we believe our brothers and sisters in Christ are wrong, terribly wrong, about sexuality, let us borrow a strategy from so many Christian pacifists over the centuries and tell them they’re wrong — without telling them that they’re not our brothers and sisters — without casting them out of the koinonia. That would be the easy path, the simple path, but not, I am convinced, the Christ-like path.
The preacher in most Anglican traditions works under strict time constraints: what one has to offer must be given in just a few minutes. When anything of substance gets said in such a brief compass, it is a great blessing. Also: when a sermon of any length works from poems or stories in ways that are richly theological and deeply biblical, that too is a great blessing. And when a single briefly sermon uses literature imaginatively, unexpectedly, and profoundly … Well. The following homily was preached a few days ago by Jessica Martin, residentiary canon at Ely Cathedral. I am posting it here with her permission.
Southern Cathedrals Festival Eucharist: Feast of Mary Magdalene, 22nd July 2017
1st lesson: 2 Cor. 5.14-17
Gospel: John 20.1-2,11-18
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Jn.20.11
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
She turned her eyes towards him for the first time… — & he was looking at her with all the Power & Keenness, which she beleived no other eyes than his, possessed…. — It was a silent, but a very powerful Dialogue; — on his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance . — Still, a little nearer — and a hand taken and pressed — [and her name, spoken] — bursting forth in the fullness of exquisite feeling — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. — They were re-united. They were restored to all that had been lost.
Only — it wasn’t like that, quite, — was it? Perfect happiness, the same writer observed, even in memory, is not common. Yet how the soul yearns for that moment, for the overplus of bliss that comes when you turn, blinded by tears, and your beloved that you thought lost for ever is there before you speaking your name, and you say, ‘How could it ever have been otherwise? My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?’
The dying woman who, in Winchester, in the relentlessly rainy spring of 1817, wrote that scene of fulfilment beyond loss, was of course Jane Austen. We mark the bicentenary of her death this year at the time and place of her dying. Some among you will recognise the encounter as being from the close of her last novel Persuasion, but some will not know it — because she discarded the draft. She was unhappy with the ending she had written and replaced it instead with one of more indirection, where a letter stands in for the ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’ and the fulfilment of the plot upon words only overheard. Neither touch, nor voice is retained in the moment of reconciliation as it went to press, months after Jane Austen herself was dead and buried. The body was absent. Clear-eyed and unsparing to the last, she would not allow herself even the dream of so impossible a meeting. The most she would allow us to see of immediate, passionate felicity was the sensation of an ‘overpowering happiness’ in solitude as her character, Anne Elliott, read to herself words of love.
Yet the prospect of fulfilment beyond absolute loss stands like a promise and we cannot look away. The novel, a literary form which has dominated our cultural imaginations for the two-and-a-half centuries since Austen’s lifetime, offers that fulfilment in terms of marriage. On the last pages of novel after novel, the apparently impossible union — whether for emotional, or family, or even more often economic reasons — proves miraculously possible after all. Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth.
The marriage plot’s satisfactions are so potent that readers across those centuries have been outraged when, exceptionally, such human fulfilment is withheld by the author — by Charlotte Bronte in Villette, for example, where the marriage between M. Heger and Lucy Snowe is frustrated by a probably-fatal storm at sea, or in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, where Lily’s constancy to her Adolphus survives her discovery that he is selfish and shallow, and brings her to remain single even though she is passionately loved by another decent man she will never accept. In making that choice to be single, Lily allows herself to subsist beyond the fleeting moment of fulfilled desire, beyond that vision of youth and beauty and pleasure, into tiredness, old age and mortality. She stops being a cipher of promise and becomes fully human. Marriage can only be guaranteed to be absolute fulfilment if you stop time on the wedding day.
So it is that marriage is only ever a metaphor — though a powerful one — for fulfilment, pointing beyond itself to a love which is both more elusive and more durable. When Mary stands weeping in the garden she is more like the single Jane, dying in discomfort during a rain-filled summer on the three chairs she allowed herself in order to leave the sofa for her grandmother to lie upon, alone in the contemplation of her mortality and keeping others at a distance with stoical letter-writing. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth are pleasant fantasies, not part of the realities of life. It is death, not love, which beckons at the end of the long vista of patient endurance.
That, at any rate, is the human point of view.
But — from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view. We cannot avoid being the one who stands weeping outside the tomb; Christ has died for all; therefore all have died. Mary Magdalene, associated traditionally with all the betrayals and bad faith that go with an over-reliance upon human desire, yearns beyond it to a love which seems extinguished by death. She stands by a tomb puzzlingly empty yet peopled by angels who ask the crazy question, ‘Why are you weeping?’ For Mary, the absence of the beloved body, marred by death and empty of its spirit, is not a sign of resurrection but a final cruelty. She had hoped to care for that body, to wrap it in linen and honour it with spices — not because it would do any good, but because love is like that. ‘They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him’. She has been cheated of any direct encounter, and cannot hope even for a love-letter.
But then she turns around. She turns away from the tomb, and towards a living presence she cannot as yet name, and which has not as yet named her. This is, for a moment, a ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’. The person before her asks her the same question as the angels; she gives him the same answer; nothing new has yet happened. The point of recognition is when he calls her by name — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. They were reunited. They were restored to all that had been lost.
Yet this Now, this joy, is also ‘not yet’. It is not only fulfilment — it is promise, it is something still happening and still growing. ‘Do not hold on to me’, says the risen Jesus, ‘…go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ And Mary Magdalene becomes transformed from weeping woman to messenger and witness: she went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
In our human point of view, we cannot avoid standing with Mary. Loss is real, and death is the certain vista for every life, the standing condition for every hope. But look at your life carefully. Study the tomb by which you mourn and wonder why it is empty, full not of corruption but of animated light which asks you the question, why are you weeping? Someone in your life is standing behind you, waiting for you to turn. When you look away from the tomb and towards the presence, what might happen next? What could happen? On his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance. Somebody is speaking your name. And you think, amazed: How could it ever have been otherwise? My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?
The fact that the body, and locality and locomotion and time, now feel irrelevant to the highest reaches of the spiritual life is (like the fact that we can think of our bodies as ‘coarse’) a symptom. Spirit and Nature have quarrelled in us; that is our disease. Nothing we can yet do enables us to imagine its complete healing. Some glimpses and faint hints we have: in the Sacraments, in the use made of sensuous imagery by the great poets, in the best instances of sexual love, in our experiences of the earth’s beauty. But the full healing is utterly beyond our present conceptions. Mystics have got as far in contemplation of God as the point at which the senses are banished: the further point, at which they will be put back again, has (to the best of my knowledge) been reached by no one.
– C. S. Lewis, Miracles
I see Rod is still engaging his critics, and now we’re into the deep weeds of just how important Obergefell is or is not for the future of American Christianity, something about which I don’t have any firm opinion. I wonder whether it might not be possible to simplify the issues at stake a bit, and in that cause I have prepared the following chart. You’re welcome.
Suppose, I asked the students, an observant Jew has a florist shop. One day, a customer, who is also Jewish, comes to the shop to say she’s getting married and would like the florist to do the wedding. “That’s wonderful,” the florist says. “Where will you get married?” The customer replies that the wedding will be at a local nondenominational church, because her fiancé is Christian, and she, the customer, isn’t very observant. The florist thinks about it and then says, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t do your wedding. It’s nothing personal; I’m sure your fiancé is a fine person, as are you. It’s just that as an observant Jew I don’t approve of interfaith weddings. For our community to survive, we must avoid intermarriage and assimilation. Please understand. There are many other florists who can do your wedding. I’ll even suggest some. But I can’t, in good conscience, participate, myself.” What result?
In posing this hypothetical, I was not so interested in how the case would come out under current law. Rather, in good law-school fashion, I was trying to show the students that these are complicated questions and that they need to consider both sides. Much to my surprise, the students were uniformly unsympathetic to the florist. There should be no right to decline services in this situation, they told me. The florist was not acting reasonably and in good faith. […]
Conservatives often assume that controversies like Masterpiece Cakeshop reflect changing sexual norms and an intolerance of resistance. That’s correct, in part; one definitely senses a “you-lost-get-over-it” sentiment on the other side. And yet, the students’ reaction to my hypothetical case suggests that something else is going on as well, that the dispute is not about sexuality as such. Rather, it’s about not allowing people to draw moral distinctions that exclude others and hurt their feelings, no matter what the justification. That’s what the florist was doing in my hypothetical case—and that, I think, was what bothered the students.
— Mark Movsesian, St. John’s Law School, New York. A fascinating case study for people who tend to think these disputes are all about the sexual revolution. As it turns out, and as I have sometimes suggested, demand for the affirmation of sexual choices may simply be an example of a greater demand, that for the affirmation of all the self’s choices. The real principles here are (a) I am my own and (b) the purpose of society is to empower and affirm my claim that I am my own.
Day and night addicted people come and go by the dozens through once-boarded windows. Some get high and collapse onto mattresses. Some come looking for prostitutes. Others have made it a home. Even in the depths of addiction, they are drawn to the familiar, the normal. First, a library lawn, now a church.
“I know it’s probably not the right thing to do,” said Josh Green, who is 28 and originally from Kensington. For three months he has been sleeping on blankets in the filth of a lower church office. “But I honestly feel a little more comfortable because I know I am in God’s house.”
The Christian church has another narrative, but we must teach it to ourselves over and over repeatedly, or the world will run away with it altogether. For at least fifty years, the majority of clergy in the majority of congregations have allowed the church’s teaching about death and funerals to deteriorate, and have let the traditional burial service slip away in favor of any number of generic, syncretistic intrusions. Returning to the power of the Christian gospel in life and in death is not only an affirmation; as such, it is a form of resistance to the story that the secular spiritualists are telling us. My husband and I are preparing to put our funeral wishes on file with the church from which we will be buried. The list will include such things as the presence of the body in the church (covered with the church’s funeral pall), real pallbearers (not undertakers), a significant sermon about death and resurrection, strong hymns, no “eulogies,” and the conspicuous absence of the phrase “a celebration of the life of…” on the front page of the program. In the Book of Common Prayer, the service is called “The Burial of the Dead.” If that is too stark, a fine alternative is “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”
What I am finding is that the gospel, as a narrative, seems to function as a kind of attractor for me while I am telling stories. Without deliberately alluding to it, or meaning consciously to create any kind of counterpart of it, I seem to keep tracing around it, to keep drawing out partial, wandering, approximate, sometimes parodic or borderline-blasphemous outlines of its shape. Give me a story about a stranger who comes to town and instantly there, nearby, is the possibility that he may be a sin-eater or scapegoat, in some kind of redemptive relation to the ills, individual and shared, of the place he comes to. Give me a comedy of human fallibility, and I start to wonder whether the wisdom of God may be at work in it as well as the foolishness of man; but I also find myself reaching for some of the black paste of tragedy to stir in, because of the Christian story’s insistence on the mortal stakes for which we human idiots play. Conversely, give me a tragedy, and I seem to start tilting it towards laughter, because of the awareness that Easter Sunday follows Good Friday. It’s a tragi-comic religion, Christianity, hopelessly mixed in genre—the only one I know that ends with a death sentence and then a wedding.
When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.
Are we to live in an age in which every mechanical facility for communication between man and man is multiplied ten-thousandfold, only that the inward isolation, the separation of those who meet continually, may be increased in a far greater measure?
— F. D. Maurice, 1848
When Christian communities decide that they must, for whatever reason, walk apart, then the question that they should all be prepared to answer is this: What are you doing to make it possible to walk together again? For to treat the decision to walk apart as the end of the story is simply to mock the prayer of Jesus that we all be one, even as he and the Father are one. It is the grossest disobedience.
So I have been very pleased to read some reflections on the recent conference at Nashotah House, Living Sacrifices: Repentance, Reconciliation, and Renewal. For instance, this post by Mac Stewart quotes Rowan Williams describing the thought of Michael Ramsey:
It is more attractive to go in quest of the real Church than to seek for the pattern of Cross and Resurrection in the heart of where we happen to find ourselves. But Ramsey implicitly warns us that the quest can be a way back to the self-defining and self-protective religious institution that always distorts or stifles the gospel. Somewhere in this is a very substantial paradox — that the harder we search for a Church that is pure and satisfactory by our definition, the less likely we are to find it.
In another post, Clint Wilson writes,
During the last year, in particular, I have become increasingly engaged and grounded in ecumenical theology, having studied various ecumenical texts and developed several ecumenical relationships. I am a child among giants in this arena, but I trust my newfound passion for this area of work will endure throughout the course of my ministry. Given my experience on the inside of both the ACNA and TEC, it seems to me there are several items in the ecumenical toolbox that might be employed for the hard work of reconciliation between Anglicans, especially within the Anglican Communion. For instance, at a symposium held at the Pontifical Gregorian University last October, Dr. Paula Gooder of King’s College, London, called for an “ecumenism of wounded hands,” a recognition that “we cannot heal ourselves.” Her call is predicated on the notion that our healing is incomplete (and therefore is not gospel healing), until it includes the healing that comes through reconciliation with those from whom we are divided. The cross does not need to be protected, it needs to be invoked, carried, embedded, and embodied across our divisions.
Bishop George Sumner suggests,
Amid protracted international debate, mission in communion can and should continue at the grassroots. Parishes, dioceses, and provinces maintaining initiatives of mission in communion across lines of difference are their own kind of sign of reconciliation. Obedience to the risen Christ’s command to go is as much lived out from the bottom up as the top down. This on-going and local mission in communion is a valid dimension of our common life and vocation.
Zachary Guiliano asks some penetrating questions:
God does not call us merely to submit to the counsel of our friends. That would be too light a thing, and hardly cruciform. He calls us to submit to the oppressive, perhaps even arbitrary and mysterious, judgment of our enemies, even if they are our Christian sisters and brothers, baptized all. God does not call us merely to live within the constraints of communion. He summons us to come and die for those who would deny communion, in this way to give our Yes to every No — dying to self, dying to and for the world, dying for the sake of our enemies, taking up our cross and following him. Only then, perhaps, will he raise again the weeping ruins of our division.
And so I close with a final set of questions: How far will we go in pursuing communion? Will we go even to the cross?
Guiliano’s talk was a response to an address by Ephraim Radner, and I will conclude by quoting it:
The road together, at this stage of Christian history, begins in several places. But it leads and must lead to others, so that a convergence of ways can indeed finally include one flock and one Shepherd (John 10:16). Full and visible unity, as the 1961 New Delhi Report of the World Council of Churches emphasized over and over again as the necessarily and inevitable goal of Christian ecclesial life. Benedict XVI used this phrase — “to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers” — to describe his pontificate. But the vocation is Anglicanism’s as well, and so it must begin with us too. Both the vocation and the promise laid out by the Covenant remain real and compelling in this general way: we have been given a charism to maintain and extend the communion of God’s transformative life in the midst of a world of instability, fragmentation, and now, in its wake, of swirling meaninglessness. The charism is given for the sake of others.
All these words challenge me — some of them even judge me and find me wanting, and I acknowledge the power of that judgment — but they also encourage me. I commend them to any, and not just Anglicans, who prayerfully seek the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Via Archbishop Cranmer I learn that the Anglican Diocese of Truro in Cornwall is looking for a new employee. The good Archbishop is exercised by this phrase in the advert: “You do not need to be a practising Christian.” Well, that might well be something to be exercised about — but look at the overall job description:
The Strategic Programme Manager will be responsible for leading and managing the Transforming Mission programme from initial set up through to successful delivery. This role requires an individual with exceptional project management skills including the ability to successfully manage stakeholders; implement change and balance multiple projects simultaneously.
The scope of the role incorporates both the strategic leadership of the Transforming Mission programme — first in Falmouth, and then in other parts of Cornwall; and the project management of key programme elements including the establishment of the Student Hub (café) and redevelopment of the Resource Church.
Reading that description, I see quite clearly why you need not be a Christian to do the job: it has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity, and in fact may be incompatible with that other religion. What the Diocese of Truro wants to do is practice modern administrative management in the way that monks pray the Hours: purely, for its own sake, and with a studied indifference to any everyday notions of cause and effect, means and ends, purposes. It’s admirable, in a way: it is rare to see the Gospel of Taylorism followed with such apostolic zeal. In the Diocese of Truro there are no human beings, still less creatures made in the image of God who need to be reconciled to that God; there are only “stakeholders” who must be managed, change that must be implemented, projects that must be balanced, programs that must be strategized — and then, on the last day, we hope for “successful delivery.” (Though those who ask of what and to what shall be cast into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.)
So, in short, not a job for a practicing Christian at all. After all, no one can serve both God and Strategic Programme Management.
Since, therefore, we see in [Jesus Christ] qualities so human that they stand in no way apart from the common weakness of mortals, and qualities so divine that they befit nothing except that highest and ineffable nature which is deity, the human intellect is seized with perplexity and so silenced with amazement that it cannot tell where to go, what to think, or where to turn. If it discerns God, what it sees is a mortal. If it thinks him a human being, what it perceives is one returning from the dead bearing the spoils of death’s conquered empire.
. . . Obviously, to set all this forth for people and explain it in speech far exceeds the power at once of our deservings, our talents, and our words. I judge, however, that it surpassed the capacity of even the holy apostles; indeed, when all is said, the explanation of this mystery may reach even beyond the whole created order of the heavenly powers.
— Origen of Alexandria, De Principiis, Book II, Chapter 6, “On the Incarnation of Christ”
I enjoy talking with Rusty Reno — as I did just yesterday, here in Waco! — but he is, I have learned over the years, a frustrating person to argue with in print, because he doesn’t respond to what you write, but rather what he thinks you must have meant, or, worse, what he thinks someone of your type must inevitably mean.
Jacobs exemplifies the all-or-nothing approach to politics characteristic of Evangelicals. Seeking a theological voice in the public square, Evangelicals are tempted to discern direct divine warrants for their political judgments. This can lead someone to speak of God anointing Donald Trump to save our nation, and thus implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for anyone other than Trump. Alan Jacobs and other Evangelicals (Peter Wehner is a notable instance) are mirror images, describing Trump in ways approaching divine condemnation, implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for Trump.
In fact, more than half of my essay is devoted to a critique of the very “all-or-nothing approach” that Rusty says I exemplify. (Maybe he only read the parts of it that concerned him.) And here’s what I write in the conclusion to that essay:
What is required of serious religious believers in a pluralistic society is the ability to code-switch: never to forget or neglect their own native religious tongue, but also never to forget that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish. To speak only in the language of pragmatism is to bring nothing distinctive to the table; to speak only a private language of revelation and self-proclaimed authority is to leave the table altogether. For their own good, but also for the common good, religious believers need to be always bilingually present.
Does that sound like an “all-or-nothing approach” to politics? You could only say so if you weren’t paying attention — perhaps because you think you know what “Evangelicals” are like. (Rusty typically says “Evangelicals” the way Victorian civil servants said “Hottentots.” The first thing Rusty ever said to me, many years ago, was that a talk I gave — on a subject that did not touch on evangelicalism at any point — reminded him why he’s not an Evangelical. One of the chief themes of his essay seems to be that, while he supported Trump — vigorously — he didn’t do it for the reasons that Evangelicals did.)
On another matter: Rusty writes, “Christians have theological reasons for not theologizing their political judgments.” Whether that’s true or not depends on what Rusty means by the odd word “theologizing.” If he means that Christians have theological reasons for not making their public arguments in explicitly theological language, then he’s simply restating my claim that “religious believers in a pluralistic society” should remember “that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish.”
But I think he means by not-theologizing something like “not seeking a theocracy,” because from that point he goes on to denounce Christians who “expect the laws of our country to accord with the Sermon on the Mount” — though that is not a position I have ever held. Maybe he’s not even talking about me there, but if not, I don’t know who he is talking about. Does he think that’s the typical view of Hottentots? — I mean, Evangelicals? Hell if I know. All this is just orthogonal to the issues I raise, and the issues that matter. The whole essay, I’m tempted to say, consists of a smokescreen made from burning strawmen.
The sine qua non of this rhetorical strategy comes when Rusty sententiously declares that a post in which I said that I would vote for “the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson” in preference to Donald Trump is deficient in “analytic sobriety.” Can Rusty really be that completely humorless? I would ask him to take a post like that a little more seriously and a little less literally, but I think someone may have used that line before.
So I’ve written a few hundred words here and I still haven’t gotten to any of the really significant issues we could be debating, such as the difference between prudence and pragmatism, or Rusty’s rather astonishing claim that “Trump’s campaign came as close to the platform of European post–World War II Christian democracy as any American candidate for president has come in two generations.” This is what happens when someone ignores what has actually been argued in favor of a fantastical caricature, presumably because the caricature is so much easier to refute. I’ve got a list of seven other ideas Rusty attributes to me that I did not state and do not hold, but it’s too depressing even to contemplate going over those. Whenever Rusty takes the trouble to represent my views accurately, and respond to what I actually argued, I’m ready for a conversation. Until then: as William Blake said, “Enough! Or, Too much.”
You hear a lot these days from people who refuse to engage in dialogue with others who hold certain views because to converse with them would be to “normalize” or “legitimate” their position. I hear this view articulated most often (a) by people who can’t stand Trump and his supporters, and (b) by conservative Christians who oppose same-sex relationships. What I find odd about both groups is their belief that their inclination or disinclination to converse has some bearing on whether a politician or position or idea lies within the sphere of the “normal.” When a man has been elected President of the United States, then he and his supporters are ipso facto as normal as it gets, and won’t cease to be if the rest of us refuse to speak to them. Ditto with the general acceptance in our society, and increasingly in the church, of same-sex unions.
But aside from the practical, prudential questions, there are larger and genuinely principial matters at stake, and in a post today, Wesley Hill has wonderfully articulated what I believe to be the value of dialogue within the fellowship of baptized Christians:
Why do I agree to do these sorts of dialogues? The first reason is that Justin is “family.” We’re both baptized in the same Triune Name. We both confess the same creed. We both believe the weirdest thing is the deepest truth of the universe: that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. I think Justin’s Side A view is wrong and that it is wrong in a way that touches on first-order Christian claims about creation, Christology, and redemption; I also think that when family members hold views you think are that wrong, you keep on loving them and talking with them and seeking to bear witness to what you believe is true and life-giving. Second, for those who are worried, like I am at times, that this sort of dialogue may be a form of capitulation, a form of saying, “I’m convinced of the truth of my view but not so convinced,” let me just add that another reason I want to dialogue with people like Justin is that I want, in whatever minuscule way I can, to help see my own Anglican Communion, and the church more broadly, through its current crisis on sexual ethics. “Dialogue,” so easy to criticize as wishy-washy, need not entail compromise of one’s convictions; it may instead be a way of signaling hope that some future unity-in-truth may be realized in a way I can’t yet fathom. As the Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan has written, “The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process [of dialogue between ‘gay-affirming’ Christians and ‘traditionalist’ Christians] is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.”
Preach it, my friend. Preach it over and over again.
From all the irrefutable testimonies of human misery there is no logically sound path to the great heavenly Physician; from the fact that we are sick it does not follow that we can be cured. It is possible, as Pascal repeatedly argued, that the human condition, including all its sorrows and evils, as well as its splendours and greatness, is unintelligible and meaningless unless it is seen in the light of sacred history: creation, sin, redemption. If so, it appears that the admissible options are: a meaningful world guided by God, spoilt by men, healed by the Redeemer; or an absurd world, going Nowhere, ending in Nothing, the futile toy of an impersonal Fate which does not distribute punishments and rewards and does not care about good and evil. Promethean atheism might appear, on this assumption, a puerile delusion, an image of a godless world which rushes on to the Ultimate Hilarity.
The percentage of young people willing to entertain a genuinely countercultural Gospel has always been small. It hasn’t changed in my 35 years of teaching. I can introduce you to students who would make you despair for humanity, but I can also introduce you to students — Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, evangelical — who would give you great hope for the future of the Christian faith.
Seriously, I don’t get these people: what planet do they come from? Do they really remember, thirty years ago, teaching to a roomful of rapt scholars eager to absorb the richness of Christian tradition? Not a world I ever knew. Most people — here, now, and always — just want to go along to get along. Those who are open to the risks of genuine education are rare, were always rare, will ever be rare. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
This is something I’ve been worrying over, specifically as a Christian, for a long time:
… It seems to me that the people who are really wrestling with Scripture are the ones who are taking its authority seriously. After all, if you don’t believe that the Bible is the word of God, if you believe that these are just historic documents with no particular claim on you or on anybody else, that doesn’t lead you to wrestle with anything. You can just dismiss anything in it that you see that strikes you as being alien or that makes you uncomfortable or that you feel that you can’t endorse.
So it’s quite easy to read a passage of Scripture, decide that it’s not something that you buy into, and then put it aside, unless you have a commitment to the authority of that text. If you have that commitment, it actually pressures you. It puts the screws to you. It makes it very hard for you to have a simple response to it.
Jesus talks to a man who is always referred to in the biblical literature as the rich, young ruler. He tells him, “OK, if you want what I’m giving, if you want the kind of life that I have to offer, then take everything that you have, sell it and give it to the poor.” And this young man walks away sad, because he had great wealth.
I read that passage, and I have to struggle with that, because I’m thinking, “What is this passage demanding of me?” It says something to me, because I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe that he is my Lord and my Savior. He says something like this. I have to ask myself, “What does it mean for me?” So far, I haven’t decided that it means that I have to sell everything I have and give it to the poor, but maybe that’s because I’m an inauthentic or disobedient Christian. Maybe I’m not taking my beliefs seriously enough.
So I can say this is the word of God for me. But that that’s only the beginning of my problems. That actually doesn’t solve problems. That creates a whole set of problems, because I have to work very hard to try to figure out what sort of demand this text is making upon me.
I spent a bit of time and energy trying to convince my Catholic friends that Pope Francis’s apparent pastoral relaxation of the rules for admission to Communion in Amoris laetitia was possibly salutary and in any case not that big a deal. But I did not anticipate this. I am so, so sorry.
(a comment on this post by Adam Roberts)
… let me just offer one thought about Silence (the novel — like you, I haven’t seen the movie)…. Rodrigues had always thought of himself as a Sidney Carton kind of hero, and had in a sense prepared himself for Cartonesque acts — but not for the choices he ended up facing. The key to his character, I think, is that he had always (Endo makes this clear) believed that it’s not wrong for the poor native Christians, weak as they are, to trample the fumie, but it’s wrong for him because he is a priest of God, a missionary, one presumably equipped for every challenge. It almost doesn’t matter whether he ends up trampling on the fumie or not, because his entire self-understanding is (I’m using the word advisedly) crucified by the mere fact that he has no idea what the right thing to do is. Is that really Christ telling him to trample? If so, then Christian faithfulness is not what Rodrigues always thought it was. Is it a false Christ, an apparition of his tormented mind giving him a way out? If so, then Rodrigues is not the Christian he always thought he was. The shift at the end to third-person narration is (to borrow your term) a withdrawal, but perhaps of a different kind: perhaps a gracious and compassionate turning away from the utter destruction of this man’s whole self-image.
For what it’s worth, I always think of Rodrigues in contrast to Isabella in Measure for Measure, who is given by Angelo a very similar choice: Do this thing you believe wrong or someone you care about will die. And Isabella never for a moment hesitates: “More than our brother is our chastity.“ Rodrigues may be (indeed is, in several ways) a miserable failure, but I’d rather be Rodrigues than Isabella.
And I think the plight of these two characters sheds some light on another question you raise, though in a complicating rather than simplifying way: When you learn that the choices you make for the sake of your own soul have profound consequences for other people, does that place you in a position of power? Or rather of a particularly miserable sort of powerlessness?
Much of the history of religion in America has been written to emphasize the triumph of pluralism. Perhaps rightly so. That has meant, however, that those who have never conceded the premise that all or most religions, or even most Christian denominations, are more or less equal, have not been taken as seriously in our histories as they might. Even today there are vast numbers of Americans who, although committed to live at peace with other religious groups, believe it is a matter of eternal life or death to convert members of those groups to their own faith. Like it or not, such evangelistic religion has been and continues to be a major part of the experiences of many ordinary Americans. The dynamics of such religious experience need to be understood if one is to understand large tracts of American culture. Indeed, the tensions between religious exclusivism and pluralism are among the leading unresolved issues shaping the 21st century world.
– George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life
Satan, issuing orders at nightfall to his foul precurrers, was rumoured to dispatch to capital cities only one junior fiend. This solitary demon, the legend continues, sleeps at his post. There is no work for him; the battle was long ago won. But monasteries, those scattered danger points, become the chief objectives of nocturnal flight; the sky fills with the beat of sable wings as phalanx after phalanx streams to the attack, and the darkness crepitates with the splintering of a myriad lances against the masonry of asceticism. Piety has always been singled out for the hardest onslaught of hellish aggression. The empty slopes of the wilderness became the lists for an unprecedented single combat, lasting forty days and nights, between the leaders of either faction; when the Thebaid filled up with hermits, their presence at once attracted a detachment of demons, and round the solitary pillar of St. Symeon the Stylite, the Powers of Darkness assembled and spun like swarming wasps.
— Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence