Barth: great hope and little hopes

Hope seizes, or rather is seized by, the promise of the future. To that extent, it is the great hope, the expectation of the eternal life, which has still to be manifested and given to us, confidence in the coming Jesus Christ as the end and new beginning of all things, the joy in anticipation of the perfect being of man and all creatures in the service of God which is pledged because it is already actualized in Him. As it seizes the promise of the future it is in every respect – not only hope which derives from Him but also hope in Him as the eternally living One. He, the content of the promise and object of hope, cannot be replaced by any other. If there is also a small hope for today and tomorrow, if there are also temporal, penultimate, provisional and detailed hopes for the immediate future, it is only because He is the future One who shows himself in every future.

Where there is the great hope, necessarily there are also small hopes for the immediate future. These hopes have their basis and strength only in the great hope. They are small, relative and conditioned. In their detailed content, they may be mistaken and open to correction. But within these limits they are genuine hopes. And it is certainly in these many little hopes that the Christian lives from day to day if he really lives in the great hope. And perhaps he is most clearly distinguished from the non-Christian by the fact that, directed to the great hope, and without any illusions, he does not fail and is never weary to love daily in these little hopes. But this necessarily means that he is daily willing and ready for the small and provisional and imperfect service of God which the immediate future will demand of him because a great and final and perfect being in the service of God is the future of the world and all men, and therefore his future also.

Church Dogmatics IV/1, pp. 120-122

the experience of free will 

I think it’s generally known that one wing of the New Atheism, led primarily by Jerry Coyne, has made the denial of free will a major cause. Well, so have Calvinists! (Just for somewhat different reasons.) I think all aspects of the Great Free Will Debate are illuminated by this wonderful passage from Leszek Kolakowski’s magisterial book on Pascal and the Jansenist controversy, God Owes Us Nothing:

The belief that everything is preordained by God is psychologically compatible with the belief that I am free in my actions. Personal freedom is an irresistible and elementary experience; it is not analyzable any further because of its elementary character. The former belief acts as a source of trust in life: God rules and orders everything, thus everything is directed toward a good outcome, even if we cannot know or see the cunning tactics of providence. This psychological compatibility proves doubtful when exposed to theological scrutiny, and the task is then to make a coherent, logically sound whole out of the two experiences.… The most elementary facts of experience – “I,” existence, freedom – once converted into theoretical concepts, tend to resist logical examination and are therefore threatened with a verdict of theoretical annihilation; indeed, they have on many occasions been denounced as figments of the imagination. Still, they do not vanish from experience; they stubbornly refuse to evaporate, all philosophers’ condemnations notwithstanding. To accept all-embracing providence without denying the irresistible experience of freedom is psychologically possible even for people who cannot be accused of having simply failed to learn their first lesson in logic; they do not necessarily feel mental discomfort because they believe in, or experience, both. But to unite both in a consistent “theory” seems hopeless, and when theologians ultimately admit that there is a “mystery” in combining providence and freedom, they do not claim to explain anything, but accept the inadequacy of “human reason.” Rationalists normally shrug off the idea of “mystery” (as distinct from something not yet known) as a verbal cover for simple illogicality. However, when people think of ultimate realities, the experience of mystery, which often includes a logical helplessness, may be intellectually more fruitful than rationalist self-confidence that simply cancels metaphysical questions, relying on doctrinal dogmas. To be sure, we have only one logic at our disposal but we are not sure how far its validity can extend when dealing with those ultimate realities.

Reading Calvin

Lately I’ve been trying to read John Calvin, and I’m struggling. When I was in graduate school I read the whole of the Institutes, and as I recall I did so with interest and at least some profit, but now … it’s hard.

People who love Calvin often say that his thinking and theology must be clearly distinguished from the use later made of them. If certain Calvinists are dour, rigid, cold, insensitive to the human condition, prone to make vast theological generalizations from a handful of biblical passages while ignoring the greater part of the biblical witness, those vices should not be attributed retrospectively to Calvin. Which is certainly true, and something I try to keep in mind. But as I read Calvin now, I consistently find him to be dour, rigid, cold, insensitive to the human condition, and prone to make vast theological generalizations from a handful of biblical passages while ignoring the greater part of the biblical witness.

I am not at all sure I’m being fair to Calvin. I would like to think that as I get older I become a better reader, because I know more and have more experience. (Don’t we all like to think that of ourselves?) But experience is a two-edged sword. In the decades since I first read the Institutes I’ve had a great deal of experience with Calvinists, or people who claim to be Calvinists, and with some notable exceptions it hasn’t been pleasant. (In general, and for whatever reason or set of reasons, I found the Calvinists I met at Calvin College far more generous and humane — far more attuned to the spirit of Christ, at least as I discern it — than the Calvinists I met at Wheaton College. And in an environment that’s not wholly Calvinist, self-consciously Calvinist undergrads can be enormously troublesome, because they believe, and tell everyone who will listen, that they and they alone have the honesty and courage to face the hard truths of the Bible….)

But I digress. The point today is that I am simply unable to isolate my reading of Calvin from those several decades of experience (both in person and in reading) with people who admire and see themselves as followers of Calvin. It is possible that this background is actually helpful: for instance, perhaps if generations of readers have discerned certain implications in Calvin’s work, then they’ve seen something that’s really there, for good or ill, and I would do well to be attentive to it. But it seems to me more likely that Calvin’s successors, being less gifted than he, are drawing less subtle and nuanced conclusions than he did. And if that is the case, then my years of experience may be making me a less successful reader of Calvin than I was thirty years ago — at least in certain ways. (What I’ve learned about theology and church history in the intervening years has to be worth something.)

In any event, as I read I keep telling myself read this as though it’s new to you, as though you have no idea who John Calvin is — but it’s not working very well. I find myself longing to turn to Thomas Aquinas, whom I find infinitely more simpatico. But I shall persevere — both in reading Calvin and in trying to understand what it means to be a good reader.

a theology of culture

Another photo from that NYT story on the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece. I have long dreamed of writing a comprehensive theology of culture — one to replace Richard Niebuhr’s overrated and conceptually rigid Christ and Culture, one founded in a truly thick theological anthropology, one that reckons with the full inheritance of modernity. So, so much of what I would want to say in such a book is already said by this image.

On False Teachers: Bleat the Third

Steve Holmes recently wrote of his experience defending the traditionalist view on homosexuality at the Society for Biblical Literature conference:

I was slow to understand what went on in our session at ETS; the Rottweilers were out in some force, and challenging Megan and Bill [who were arguing for affirming same-sex relationships] on their understanding… But there was repeatedly an extra step stated or implied in the questions, from ‘this is wrong’ to ‘you are not a Christian’. I admit I did not understand where this was coming from.

Then someone came up to me at the end, and asked why I had been defending my friends. I began to say some stuff about love and loyalty but he cut across me, ‘They are leading people onto the highway to hell!’

I’ll set aside my difficulties with serious use of the phrase “highway to hell” in our post-AC/DC era, and just note that I have heard this before from my fellow theological conservatives: that people who teach that same-sex unions can be affirmed are not just wrong but are “false teachers” — people teaching something clearly other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore to be denounced and cast out rather than treated as brothers and sisters with whom we disagree.

I think this is the wrong way to look at the situation and want to explain why. (Let me also add that I affirm with my whole heart the rest of Holmes’s post, and his further reflections in the comments thereupon. The affirmations I share with him are useful context for my views on this particular matter.)

Let’s begin by positing a few assumptions, because the argument I want to explore only arises when the following assumptions are granted: (1) that the Church must, in order to carry out its mission, confront theological and moral error; (2) that Holy Scripture is our authoritative guide to theological and moral truth and falsehood; (3) that sexual behavior is taken very seriously throughout the NT and that erroneous teaching about it must therefore be seen as profoundly consequential; (4) that the traditionalist side is correct on the merits, and the affirming side incorrect; (5) that there really are “false teachers” whose message is something other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And perhaps one other assumption should be noted as well: that it is our place to decide who the false teachers are and to denounce them, something I have raised questions about here.

Now: onward.

As far as I can tell the two passages that are foundational for the concept of the “false teacher” are 2 Peter 2 and 1 Timothy 4. I assume that Peter’s pseudodidaskaloi are pretty much the same as Paul’s didaskaliais daimoniōn, though perhaps the latter are even worse. That is, we could have three categories of error (teachers who are sometimes wrong, false teachers, demonic teachers) — but I suspect there are just two, and the latter two categories should be seen as one.

It is interesting, I note in passing, that 2 Peter coins pseudodidaskaloi by explicit analogy to pseudoprophētai, the latter being a far more common term in the NT. But clearly false teaching and false prophecy are distinct things, though if what I say in my previous paragraph is right they have a common origin: didaskaliais daimoniōn would also be anolagous to prophētai daimoniōn.

In any case, all this is foundational to a NT anatomy of error, it seems to me.

So — setting aside as irrelevant to this canonically-based inquiry the question of whether Peter wrote 2 Peter — let’s look at the famous dispute between Peter and Paul about the “circumcision party.” Paul says he told Peter to his face that he was wrong about this, and of course Paul’s view won out at the Council of Jerusalem (where, I have always thought comically, Peter presents it as his own view, with no reference to Paul having corrected him). Now, clearly, this is a foundational issue in relation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if the circumcision party had won out it would have been the death of the Church in its infancy. So it is scarcely possible for Peter, assuming that he did at one time hold this view, to have been more catastrophically wrong. Does this then mean that for a time Peter was one of the pseudodidaskaloi?

That’s not quite what Paul says when describing the disagreement in Galatians 2. Instead, he says that in the circumcision party there was a failure to “walk correctly” (orthopodousin) in relation to “the truth of the Gospel.” A fascinating turn of phrase. Here interpreters will surely differ, but it seems to me that Paul is not treating Peter as a false teacher, but rather a brother, even though a brother who has made a terrible error — for if Peter is right, the conclusion of Paul’s argument says in verse 21, then “Christ died for nothing.” Paul does not anathematize Peter, but strives to correct him as one apostle to another, not questioning his place as one of the “acknowledged pillars” (v. 9) of the Church.

So perhaps the pseudodidaskaloi and didaskaliais daimoniōn are going further and questioning or denying the most elementary and foundational teaching of all: that Jesus is Lord, according to the Christology of John 1 and Colossians 1:15-20. This would be supported, I think, by the description of the false teachers in 2 Peter: they have “licentious ways,” “destructive opinions,” and “deceptive words,” none of which are spelled out except to say that “they will even deny the Master who bought them” — which may give us some hint about how deep the errors are here and therefore what qualifies as pseudodidaskaloi. Peter, by contrast, was not — not any longer, after his shameful behavior on the night Jesus was taken away! — denying the Master who bought him, but was mistaken about what the saving power of that Master meant for the Mosaic law.

So if you can be as wrong as Peter was about something foundational for the Gospel and still not be denounced as a false teacher, then I think it follows that if people do not “walk correctly” in relation to biblical teaching about sexuality, they likewise need not be treated as pseudodidaskaloi but can be seen as brothers and sisters whom those who hold the traditional view patiently strive to correct, without coming out from among them, speaking with the patience and gentleness commended in 2 Timothy 3:24-25.

The Sacraments and the Honey of Love: A Second Bleat

In one of his posts on the possibility of a Benedict Option for Christians, Rod Dreher made a really, really important point:

This is not the fault of mainstream culture. This is the fault of the church. We have done a dismal job preparing our kids, and preparing ourselves, for the postmodern, post-Christian world in which we live. We have to do better — a lot better. These are not normal times. Once the faith departs, it’s very hard to recover it.

I have two points to make about these sentences, one brief and one long and complicated.

The brief one: in response to Rod’s statement that “these are not normal times,” a number of people have said that these are too normal times, or that these are pretty good times for Christians, or that the times are never normal for Christians. Any or all of these may be true, and there could still be the need for a Benedict Option — because whatever it is we’re doing clearly isn’t working very well. Even the Christians who do the best job of making their communities attractive for both longtimers and newcomers aren’t succeeding by any reasonable standard of communal health. So “normal times” or not, it’s time to rethink our standard practices in the hope of genuinely thriving.

And now to the long one. I want to describe a case study in pastoral care, in the Episcopal Church. It involves a gay married couple in Orlando who want to have their child baptized but have met resistance from those who believe that the couple is disobedient to classic Christian teaching about sexuality and therefore cannot really affirm the whole Baptismal Covenant. For instance — so the argument goes, as I have heard from people closer to the situation than I am — those who are openly living in sexual sin cannot honestly answer “Yes” to the question, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

I think that child in Orlando should have be baptized (and indeed, eventually he was). I’d like now to spell out my reasons, in a way that would also suggest a Eucharistic theology.

My understanding of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, which I take to be a standard (if not the only standard) Anglican understanding, is that they are not just signs but means of grace: “spiritual food and drink,” as is said in the prayer book. It is by and through the sacraments that we are enlightened and empowered to be the body of Christ in and for the world. And of course it is only through the sacrament of Baptism, in which we die along with Christ, paying the due penalty for our sin, and are then raised to new life in Him, that we are so reconciled with Him that we may participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. And as John Wesley wrote, “The chief of these means [of God’s grace to us] are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.”

Therefore to deny people the sacraments is to deny them one of the primary means by which they can receive the enlightening and empowering grace by which they can come to know God and follow Him. For the Anglican with a high sacramental theology, it is to deprive them of the “spiritual food and drink” that should be our regular diet. This strikes me as a massively dangerous thing to do. How can we expect people to think as they should and act as they should if we are denying them access to this empowering grace? If we could think and act as mature Christians without regular access to the sacraments, then what need do we have for those sacraments?

So on what grounds might one deny Holy Baptism to that child in Orlando?

I presume the argument is a prudential one based on church discipline: People who openly disobey the Church’s moral teachings cannot be given the sacraments until they repent and promise to alter their ways. To do otherwise is to empty out the authority of those teachings. I don’t think that’s a strong argument for several reasons:

  • It is extremely unlikely that any of the people involved have been well-catechized in the Faith. We all need to face up to the fact that almost no churches in the Anglican tradition, conservative as well as liberal, have taken catechesis seriously for a long time. To deny the sacraments to people the Church has failed to catechize is to make others suffer for the failings of the Church’s leadership.
  • Almost everyone in our society — with the exception of monastics, the Amish, and a few fundamentalist Protestants — has been deeply and persistently catechized by the mass media into a very different model of sexuality than the Christian and biblical one. We should have the same compassion for them as we would for people who have been raised in a brainwashing cult.
  • I cannot see the justice or lovingness of denying a child the sacrament of initiation into Christ’s body because of any shortcomings of his or her parents, especially if those parents have not themselves been well-catechized. Not only is the child being denied initiation, but the congregation is being denied the sacramental task of praying that child into full Christian faith. (Some may say, “Well, they can pray anyway” — which they can: but if that’s the whole response, then what good is Baptism? In my understanding, it is the wedding garment that allows entry to the Great Feast; the person who lacks it is in a dangerous place, and even the prayers of the faithful cannot wholly compensate for that lack.)
  • Moreover, even in cases where church discipline is called for, the denial of the sacraments is the “nuclear option” of discipline — the most severe penalty a church can administer. This seems to be wholly out of proportion to the sins involved.
  • The model of Jesus is here, as everywhere, vital: the man who scandalized the Pharisees because of his willingness to have fellowship, indeed table fellowship, with sinners. We should remember that Jesus did not say to Zaccheus, “Repent and I will come to your house tonight.” Rather, his determination to sit at table with Zaccheus was what prompted Zaccheus’s repentance.

My concern here is that Anglican leaders whose theological instincts are sound and good, who feel the enormous pressure by our society (including many in the Church) to alter ancient Christian teaching to suit contemporary preferences, are allowing their pastoral theology and pastoral practice to be warped by these controversies. We are surrounded by sexual revolutionaries who insist that sexuality is fundamental to identity, is the most important thing imaginable — and in order to resist them we end up agreeing with them, and elevating disputes on sexuality to a level of importance which properly speaking only should belong to credal questions.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that sexuality is something that Christians can “agree to disagree” about — it is too important for that, affects too many lives too profoundly — but rather that our disagreements on these issues should not lead to the “nuclear option” of denying people the sacraments. (I would note that questions surrounding what Christians do with their money are just as important, and in historical terms even more contested, and yet never lead to the denial of sacramental participation.)

To put the matter briefly and bluntly: I fear that in rightly attempting to “hold the line” on sexuality we are in serious danger of allowing something very close to a Donatist spirit to creep into our pastoral theology and practice. And I think this is very dangerous indeed — dangerous to us and to the people whom we would deny sacramental participation. We cannot stress too strongly, it seems to me, that none of us is worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under the Lord’s Table. And we should remember that the task of re-catechizing the Church is going to take a very long time — decades, perhaps centuries — and in the meantime we must be generous and loving to those who have been brainwashed by the world, and not prevent those who desire it from taking the true spiritual food and drink on which we were meant to live. As Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Honor and glory belong to God alone, but God will receive neither if they are not sweetened with the honey of love.”

Anglicanism and Eucharistic Discipline: A Bleat

For some time now I’ve had reflections on theological and pastoral controversies — some in the Anglican world, some the evangelical, some in both — sitting on my hard drive. I’ve decided to post three of them, not so much because I’m sure they’re all right, but rather in the hope that I can cease to chew these issues over and move on to other things. This is the first of my three bleats.

Anglican practices of Communion have historically been quite variable, with different parishes in different regions at different times choosing to make Holy Communion or Morning Prayer the usual Sunday morning service. But the conditions for admission to Communion have not varied so much. Typically, people baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity who are not “notorious evil livers” and who are at peace with their neighbors are eligible. When there has been a practice of Confirmation — not universal among Anglicans — then that may also have been a condition, though more recently it has been left to the discretion of parents to decide whether to have their children come to the Communion rail.

I might add that when Confirmation has been a prerequisite for Communion, that Confirmation has often been connected to the brief and beautiful catechism of the 1662 BCP, with its elegant invocation of three central texts of Eucharistic and daily worship: the Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Communion practices are a useful point of focus to explore a development that concerns me greatly: what looks to me like the abandonment, among all varieties of North American Anglicans, of certain longstanding Anglican practices.

Before I go any further, let me pause to note that I have no stature to debate these matters. I am neither a bishop nor a priest not a biblical scholar nor a liturgist nor a theologian. I am just a layman of some years’ standing — one of the sheep. But, as C.S. Lewis said in his great essay on “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” a sheep at least can bleat. Consider what follows as my bleat.

When an Anglican complains about the abandonment of longstanding practices, he or she usually has the Episcopal Church (TEC) in mind. And indeed many TEC parishes and dioceses have been jettisoning their Anglican, and more generally Christian, inheritance as fast they can manage. One of the key abandonments here has been ceasing to make Trinitarian Baptism a prerequisite for admission to the Lord’s table, and I can’t imagine a more thoroughgoing practical rejection of the Christian message than open Communion. For, if the traditional view is that Baptism is the sacrament of reconciliation and Communion the sacrament of the reconciled, open Communion effectively denies that we need to be reconciled to God: God is perfectly happy with all of already, so — in defiance of the parable of the Wedding Feast — we’re all automatically welcome at His table, wedding garment be damned.

But I fear that ACNA, or at least some of the parishes and dioceses of ACNA, in their eagerness to differentiate themselves from TEC, have also set aside Anglican tradition, just in an opposite way. I live in Waco, Texas, which places me in ACNA’s Diocese of Forth Worth, and this diocese will admit to Holy Communion only those baptized Christians who affirm the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Now, the teaching of the Real Presence is a strong element in Anglican theology since Hooker, and something that I affirm with all my heart and soul and mind; but to make it a requirement for admission to the Eucharistic feast strikes me as just as un-Anglican as open Communion. Affirmation of the Real Presence is not even in the Articles of Religion, and those were meant to be binding only on ordained clergy. To ask ordinary laypeople to make affirmation that priests were historically never required to make, or else bar them from the great meal of the Church, seems to me indefensible from any historically Anglican point of view. (And I am setting aside the question of whether apprehension of the Real Presence is actually possible outside the experience of its benefits. That Christ is truly present in the sacrament is indeed a truth-claim, but not one that we apprehend in the same way that we apprehend that 2+2=4. But again, we can set that aside for now.) And, equally, to deny that meal to faithful and validly-baptized Christians from traditions that do not acknowledge the Real Presence strikes me as a massive failure of hospitality in one of its most important senses. St. Paul’s notion of the “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) seems immensely relevant here.

Presumably the exegetical defense here would be that those faithful Baptists and other are “those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). But to make access to Communion contingent on holding a particular interpretation of a single extremely obscure verse is surely un-Anglican at best — especially since so many not qualify under this particular interpretation. Could Richard Hooker — who wrote “The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament” — receive Communion in the diocese of Fort Worth? Could Jeremy Taylor? (“CHRIST is present in the Sacrament to our spirits only, i.e. not present to any other sense but that of faith.”) Could John Stott?

It might be objected that this is a diocesan mandate, not a more broadly denominational one. But that is a very large part of the problem. On an essential matter of the basic practice of the church — essential especially in our age, in which Communion is offered at least weekly and perhaps more frequently than that — a bishop can be dictatorial while the denomination as a whole remains agnostic. (By a similar logic though in a different venue, ACNA priests have the option in their parishes to remove the filioque from the creed. The filioque, about which there have been such bitter and tragic disputes over the centuries, reduced to a parish-level decision — as though it is pure adiaphora!)

I have noted that there are historic relations that link admission to Communion with Confirmation and Confirmation with a Catechism. ACNA is equally Janus-faced about this matter as well. In what the chair of the Catechism Committee, J.I. Packer, admits is a deviation from Anglican tradition, To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism is longer, more detailed, and more complex than its predecessors. This, Packer says, is because the new document “is intended as a more comprehensive catechetical tool” to be used in a variety of instructional contexts. In general, the new catechism is well-made, though sometimes it inadvertently gets into disputed or ambiguous territory. For instance, when it says that “when the Lord Jesus Christ returns, the world as we know it will come to an end,” that is only accurate under certain meanings of “as we know it” and “come to an end.” Which makes me wonder whether this is a matter that belongs in a Catechism.

That, however, is not a question I can answer without having a better understanding of how the Catechism is to be used, and that’s hard to tell from the document itself. In his prefatory letter, Archbishop Bob Duncan says that “the degree to which it is used directly for instruction, and the amount of memorization asked of individual catechumens, is left up to the catechist to determine by context and circumstance.” It seems, then, that Archbishop Duncan does see this catechism as an element of preparation for Confirmation — but perhaps only if individual priests choose to use it? It’s hard to tell. And of course nothing is here said about the link between Confirmation and admission to Communion.

So on the one hand ACNA clearly wants to be more rigorous than TEC, not to make the parent denomination’s mistakes again; but, like so many children who rebel, it ends up replicating some of the problematic tendencies of the previous generation. Here’s a detailed and specific Catechism — but only use it when you want to, and in the way you want. Being a faithful baptized believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is enough to get you welcomed to the Eucharistic feast — well, in many dioceses, anyway. Parish priests may add or subtract the filioque at will. There is the appearance of rigor but, on the diocesan and sometimes the parish level, about as much of a choose-your-own-adventure model as there is in TEC.

In the Anglican way at its best, affirmations, expectations, and definitions are kept clear, minimal, and firm. That’s why my favorite Anglican documents are the 1662 Catechism and the Lambeth Quadrilateral. When TEC showed itself unwilling or unable to enforce even the most minimal commitments for belief and practice, ACNA responded with a series of expanded rubrics and statements — most of which are made optional and therefore lack power to compel and unify. Given that ACNA is trying to hold together a diverse constituency, this may be understandable. But that is of little comfort to the poor confused sheep bleating from the pews.

It seems clear to me that the one thing the clergy of ACNA have been able to agree on is that they want to avoid the wishy-washiness that emptied out the doctrine (and the pews!) of TEC. They concluded that in order to avoid such a fate they needed to make their own affirmations more specific and more detailed. But they have not so far been able to agree on what those more detailed statements must be. So increased strictnesses are put on the table — but only as options, at either the diocesan or the parish level.

I am inclined to think that this approach was bound to fail and indeed was misbegotten. The problem with the TEC isn’t that there aren’t enough rules, or sufficiently specific ones, but that the existing rules are so often flouted. Parishes opened Communion and ceased to be bound in their public readings by the lectionaries, or even the Bible. Bishops openly defied the doctrine and discipline of the church they had pledged to defend.

Is it too late for ACNA to rethink all this? I fear it is. But still, I plead: be brief, be blunt, be straightforward. Tell us what the Nicene Creed is, without offering substitutions on the menu. Keep the requirements for admission to the Lord’s Table minimal but clear, and police them firmly. (Remember that this is the “spiritual food and drink” on which the followers of Jesus are meant to feed, and that we do not function as well when we lack access to it.) Beware of extraneous forms of strictness, especially if they’re only optional. Be willing to sacrifice some of your own preferences in order to bring peace and understanding to your sheep. Such rules and disciplines as are formulated, obey. In non-essentials let there be liberty, in essentials unity, in all things charity … and in a great many more things clarity.

Here endeth the bleat. Those of you who can instruct and correct me, please do so.

wisdom for Christians from Jacques Maritain

It is not enough for a population or a section of the population to have Christian faith and be docile to the ministers of religion in order to be in a position properly to judge political matters. If this population has no political experience, no taste for seeing clearly for itself nor a tradition of initiative and critical judgment, its position with respect to politics grows more complicated, for nothing is easier for political counterfeiters than to exploit good principles for purposes of deception, and nothing is more disastrous than good principles badly applied. And moreover nothing is easier for human weakness than to merge religion with prejudices of race, family or class, collective hatreds, passions of a clan and political phantoms which compensate for the rigors of individual discipline in a pious but insufficiently purified soul. Politics deal with matters and interests of the world and they depend upon passions natural to man and upon reason. But the point I wish to make here is that without goodness, love and charity, all that is best in us—even divine faith, but passions and reason much more so—turns in our hands to an unhappy use. The point is that right political experience cannot develop in people unless passions and reason are oriented by a solid basis of collective virtues, by faith and honor and thirst for justice. The point is that, without the evangelical instinct and the spiritual potential of a living Christianity, political judgment and political experience are ill protected against the illusions of selfishness and fear; without courage, compassion for mankind and the spirit of sacrifice, the ever-thwarted advance toward an historical ideal of generosity and fraternity is not conceivable.

— Jacques Maritain, Christianity and Democracy, 1944 (emphasis added)

But of all the marvellous and mighty acts related of Him, this altogether surpasses human admiration, and is beyond the power of mortal frailness to understand or feel, how that mighty power of divine majesty, that very Word of the Father, and that very wisdom of God, in which were created all things, visible and invisible, can be believed to have existed within the limits of that man who appeared in Judea; nay, that the Wisdom of God can have entered the womb of a woman, and have been born an infant, and have uttered wailings like the cries of little children! … Since, then, we see in Him some things so human that they appear to differ in no respect from the common frailty of mortals, and some things so divine that they can appropriately belong to nothing else than to the primal and ineffable nature of Deity, the narrowness of human understanding can find no outlet; but, overcome with the amazement of a mighty admiration, knows not whither to withdraw, or what to take hold of, or whither to turn. If it think of a God, it sees a mortal; if it think of a man, it beholds Him returning from the grave, after overthrowing the empire of death, laden with its spoils. And therefore the spectacle is to be contemplated with all fear and reverence, that the truth of both natures may be clearly shown to exist in one and the same Being; so that nothing unworthy or unbecoming may be perceived in that divine and ineffable substance, nor yet those things which were done be supposed to be the illusions of imaginary appearances. To utter these things in human ears, and to explain them in words, far surpasses the powers either of our rank, or of our intellect and language. I think that it surpasses the power even of the holy apostles; nay, the explanation of that mystery may perhaps be beyond the grasp of the entire creation of celestial powers.

Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John

The Gospel of Life

Today is the Feast of Saints Basil & Gregory Nazianzen, which reminds me that some years ago I wanted to write a book for the church that took the Cappadocians as our models. I never got beyond the proposal, in part because the editors I talked to weren’t enthusiastic; my idea seemed neither fish nor fowl, too churchy for an intellectual audience and too intellectual for a churchy audience. So I set the idea aside and am not likely, now, to return to it. In lieu of that I’m posting the proposal here.

Heroes. One of my heroes is Paul Farmer. Farmer is a physician who teaches at Harvard, co-edits a journal called Health and Human Rights, and leads an organization he founded called Partners in Health. That last role leads him to spend much of his time in Haiti, Rwanda, and other parts of the world where health care for the poor has traditionally been poor or nonexistent. For a couple of decades now Paul Farmer has done as much as anyone in the world to save the lives of people whom the world in general thinks not worth saving. And key to his devotion is his lifelong Catholic Christian faith.

I have other heroes. Some of them work for Care Net, an organization founded in 1975 by evangelical Christians to provide pregnant women with alternatives to abortion — and to provide counseling and compassionate attention to women who have had abortions. The people of Care Net also share the good news of the Christian gospel with the women whom they serve.

I have at times been in groups of people who know and respect the work of Care Net, but if in those contexts I mention my admiration for the work of Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, I am liable to get some suspicious looks. Paul Farmer’s theology is on the liberal end of the spectrum, as are his politics: for instance, he is a vocal admirer of the Cuban government’s health care system. He has had a book written about him by Tracy Kidder, also a political liberal and a thoroughly secular writer; Sixty Minutes, even, has done an admiring segment on him. He’s the liberal elite’s ideal do-gooder. What does that have to do with Christianity?

In other groups, people join enthusiastically in my praise for Paul Farmer — but become nervous when I mention my admiration for Care Net. They hear of an organization trying to provide women with alternatives to abortion and they think of large photographs of bloody fetuses held aloft by abortion-clinic protestors; they think of reactionaries who want to control women’s bodies and keep them barefoot and pregnant; they think of a conservative evangelical church in thrall to the Republican Party. If they saw the institutional history Care Net provides on its website they would be even more worried: “Care Net was influenced by the evangelical leadership of former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop and Christian apologist, Dr. Francis Schaeffer.”

And yet both Partners in Health and Care Net are pursuing the Biblical mandate to care for the weakest and most helpless among us. In so many ways they are doing the same work, and even are dedicated to the same goal — the preservation and healing of the lives of people made in the image of God. Why must we see them in opposition to each other? (And for all I know they may even see themselves in opposition to each other.) Such an attitude is simply tragic.

And the cause of the tragedy is this: that the categories of American politics determine the way that many American Christians think about ministry, mission, and service. The talking points and platform statements of the two major political parties provide the guidelines that many Christians use to judge things of the Gospel. Simply put, many American Christians have been intellectually formed by our political debates — especially as they are digested and interpreted on television news programs — far more than by immersion in Scripture or the great movements and figures of Christian tradition.

There have of course been attempts to bridge this political gap, primarily through Catholic social teaching. The late Joseph Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago was particularly associated with the notion of the “seamless garment” of life, the necessarily interwoven character of all attempts to promote human survival and human flourishing. Others have adopted the phrase “consistent life ethic” to indicate much the same emphasis. But often these voices have been ignored because they have been perceived as coming from a particular “side” in the already-existing political debate. (Similar criticisms have been directed against Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics: many a reviewer has commented that God’s politics seems to be indistinguishable from that of recent Democratic Party platforms.) Moreover, these movements tend to be grounded very specifically in Catholic theology, in ways that can be daunting or confusing for people who do not know that tradition well.

What is needed at this moment is a way of approaching these immensely complex yet utterly essential issues that evades our usual and comfortable political categories. We need to be taken out of our own time and place, so that we might see what a real Gospel of Life looks like to Christians who didn’t look much like us, think much like us, or live much like us. We need to travel to Cappadocia during the time of the Church Fathers. There we will find one family who, among themselves, practiced the Gospel of Life in all its fullness.

The Cappadocians. Cappadocia is a region in what is now central Turkey. In the time with which we are concerned, it was an economically and culturally vibrant place. To the north is the district of Pontus and the Black Sea. To the west are the shores of Asia Minor, then dotted with great cities — Ephesus particularly well known to us because of Paul’s visit and letter to the churches there. Due south one would have found Tarsus, Paul’s home town, whose great Mediterranean harbor was even then silting up and landlocking it. To the southeast is Palestine. In the late Roman world, Cappadocia was a great crossroads.

Sometime around the year 270, probably in the Pontus region, a woman was born named Macrina. Later she married — we don’t know her husband’s name — and had children. She was a faithful Christian, which it was not good to be in that time and place, for in the year 303, when Macrina’s son Basil would have been around eight years old, the Roman Emperor Diocletian and his colleagues Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius began issuing a series of repressive edicts aimed directly at the Christians of the empire. Eusebius, the great historian of the early church, who was around forty when the persecutions began, described the situation in this way:

This was the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian, in March, when the feast of the Saviour’s passion was near at hand, and royal edicts were published everywhere commanding that the churches should be razed to the ground, the Scriptures destroyed by fire, those who held positions of honor degraded, and the household servants, if they persisted in the Christian profession, be deprived of their liberty.

And such was the first decree against us. But issuing other decrees not long after, the Emperor commanded that all the rulers of the churches in every place should be first put in prison and afterwards compelled by every device to offer sacrifice [to the old Roman gods]. Elsewhere in the Empire, particularly in the far west and north, these edicts were enforced half-heartedly or not at all; but in Cappadocia and Pontus the officials pursued Christians with real, and frightening, enthusiasm. Macrina and her family fled into the countryside, probably to the shores of the Black Sea, and waited out the persecutions.

The attempts to suppress Christianity waned over the next few years and were officially ended in 313, when Constantine the Great and his co-emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed religious freedom for Christians. Pontus and Cappadocia were safe again, and Macrina raised her children in the Pontine city of Neocaeserea. Later her son Basil would marry a devout Christian woman named Emmelia — her father had been martyred in the persecutions — and move to Ceasarea, which would become the center of this family’s life. Basil established himself as a teacher of rhetoric and, more important, a lay teacher of the Christian faith, celebrated throughout the city for his wisdom and piety.

Basil the Elder, as he came to be known, and Emmelia went on to have ten children. We know the names of five of them: Macrina, Basil, Gregory, Naucratius, and Peter. We know those five names because all of them became recognized as saints of the church — as did Basil the Elder, Emmelia, and the matriarch Macrina the Elder.

Let us pause to contemplate this for a moment: one family; three generations; eight saints.

What did these people do to earn such lasting fame and praise? Here I will offer just a brief account:

  • Macrina the Elder was canonized for her faithfulness in time of persecution;
  • Basil the Elder for his powerful and influential teaching;
  • Emmelia largely for the extraordinary family she raised, though she may also have had an active role in the ministries of some of her children;
  • Macrina the Younger for her teaching of her younger siblings, and as the founder of a community for widows, abandoned women, and orphans;
  • Basil, later Basil the Great, for his work as priest, bishop, scholar, defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, champion of the poor and hungry, and founder of the Basileion, the first Christian hospital;
  • Gregory, later Gregory of Nyssa, for much the same work as his older brother Basil did, though on slightly less titanic a scale;
  • Naucratius, for his holy life as a hermit and as a servant of, especially, the elderly poor;
  • Peter, later Peter of Sebaste, for his work as priest, monk, bishop, defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, and as partner with his sister Macrina on behalf of the poor.

It’s all really quite overwhelming, and, when related in detail (as this book will do), deeply moving and encouraging. What’s especially noteworthy for anyone interested in the Gospel of Life is how seamless the family’s garment of service is. This can be seen with particular clarity in the career of Basil, who moved so easily from advocating for the poor in the pulpit to building the first hospital to combatting Arianism and other heresies of the time. It was one Gospel to him — and, I think, to the rest of his family — one unified model of human flourishing in Christ.

In order to understand why the way of life offered by this single Cappadocian family is so important an example for us, we might turn to the thirty-fourth chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Here Ezekiel is lamenting the circumstances that led to the collapse of Israel and the carrying off of its people, including Ezekiel himself, into captivity in Babylon. The fault, he says — or the Lord says through him — lies with the “shepherds,” the elders of Israel. The Lord denounces the shepherds thus:

The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. . . . My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

Several things are noteworthy about this passage: the powerful condemnation of sins of omission, for which most of us tend to excuse ourselves; the opposition of ruling “in force and harshness” — domination — to compassionate care; and especially the bringing together of very different forms of suffering.

There are five categories of sufferers in this passage: the weak, the sick, the injured, the strayed, and the lost. It’s pretty clear that the first three apply in equally literal ways to sheep and to people: the Lord is accusing the elders of Israel of neglecting the physical sufferings of the people. But the remaining two categories have an equally clear metaphorical meaning when applied to people, as they do throughout the prophets (“All we like sheep have gone astray”). The Lord clearly says that the elders of the nation have neglected the spiritual as well as the physical needs of the people — they have been shamefully negligent across the board, obsessed instead with maintaining their own power to rule.

The behavior of the shepherds of Israel is a lamentable inversion, then, of the gospel that our Cappadocian family practiced. What the shepherds “did not” the Cappadocians did, like the two groups Jesus contrasts to each other (“those on his right” and “those on his left”) in Matthew 25, a passage that strongly echoes Ezekiel 34. It is by striving to see ourselves in these two distant mirrors — and not by situating ourselves or others on today’s American political map — that we 21st-century Christians can find our proper roles in Christ’s Kingdom, can find the genuine Gospel of Life.

I plan to narrate the story of this great Cappadocian family immediately after the book’s introduction (which will say in more detail many of the things I say in the opening paragraphs of this proposal). The family’s story is a powerful one, and will provide a host of examples that I can draw on throughout the book.

The Image of God. The next stage will start from a question: What was the biblical-theological model that our Cappadocian family was living out? What were their key principles, their core convictions? (Note that for us, as for Basil and his fellow Catholic bishops, sound orthodox theology and reverence for Scripture are indispensable to our lives in the Kingdom, and properly inseparable from the kind of work usually called “social ministry” or “compassionate ministry” — as though it is neither social nor compassionate to preach to all the story of Christ crucified.) My answer will follow a sequence of propositions that follow from the belief that all of us are made in the image of God. As Gregory of Nazianzus said in his great sermon “On the Love of the Poor,” “Do not despise those who are stretched out on the ground as if they merit no respect…. They bear the countenance of our Savior.”

  • To be made in the image of God is to have dominion over creation.
  • To be made in the image of God is to be in communion with God and with one another.
  • Because we are fallen beings, the image of God is defaced in us, but it is not erased. We still show it imperfectly.
  • We sin against the image of God in our neighbors when we fail to see that “they bear the countenance of our Savior,” and try to exert dominion over them instead of embracing communion.
  • To follow Christ, to live in him and be conformed to his image, is to have the image of God in us restored.
  • We are made in the image of God and yet — sometimes because of sin and sometimes because of the variety of created beings — we are all in some sense weak.
  • The Biblical picture of God centers on his compassion for all forms of human weakness.
  • Insofar as we are conformed to the image of Christ, we too will exhibit that compassion for weakness.
  • And we will do so all the more because we too experience weakness and hope that people who are stronger will have compassion on us.
  • To be in communion with one another is to give and receive help appropriate to our weakness — to be blessed through giving and receiving compassionate love.
  • To be in communion with one another is to acknowledge that we are many members (organs) of the body of Christ and will therefore pursue different aspects of the one Gospel of Life.
  • We are not the primary agents in the economy of love: as the Lord says later in Ezekiel 34, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”

The unpacking of those propositions, and their relation to one another, will occupy more than half of this book.

What to do? The last major stage of the argument will simply ask “What do we do now?” The answer will involve five categories of action:

  • Discern the weak among us;
  • Identify the different forms of weakness;
  • Know our own weaknesses;
  • Pray to see the image of God in all other human beings;
  • Trust in the strength of the “great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13).

With our hearts encouraged by the example of one great ancient family, and our minds fortified by the theological principles they embraced, and our wills committed to the necessary forms of action, we twenty-first century Christians will be prepared to live out the real, the full, Gospel of Life.

on hermeneutical democracy

Rod asks about “hermeneutical democracy” and one scholar’s insistence that Protestants “own their Protestantism” by accepting that they have no guide but their individual consciences. The hermeneutical challenges of Protestantism have been a regular concern of mine over the years — see for instance this essay from 2003:

When King James commissioned his Companies of Translators, the people most thoroughly educated in the various humanistic disciplines were also those most learned in the biblical tongues. The celebrated “poetic” or “literary” qualities of the KJV are a function of this long-lost union. But in the last two centuries the training of biblical scholars in what has come to be called the “grammatical-historical” method has assumed a character alien to the literary and rhetorical education rooted in the schools of the Roman Empire. A model of Christian learning shared — not altogether but to some degree — by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin had virtually disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century.

This happened largely as a result of Protestant theologians’ responses to Catholic charges that they, lacking guidance and correction from a Magisterium, were liable to say pretty much anything about the Bible. The charge stung: What was to prevent this or that Protestant leader from offering a bizarre interpretation of some passage of Scripture and claiming as warrant for it the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? From the need to answer this charge arose the characteristic trait of Protestant biblical scholarship: an obsession with method. Method would be the Protestant scholar’s Magisterium — that is, his or her principle of constraint and limitation; therefore, ultimately, training in biblical exegesis would become training in the kinds of intellectual skills that could be described in methodological terms: grammar, textual history, historical philology, and so on. Sensitivity to metaphorical nuance is perforce not a part of this training; nor is general literary knowledge.

The elevation of method to magisterial principle was supposed to make it possible for scholars to discern, and then agree on, the meaning of biblical texts. Instead it merely uprooted them from Christian tradition and Christian practice — as Michael Legaspi has shown in a brilliant book — and left many of them unequipped to understand the literary character of biblical texts, while doing nothing to promote genuine agreement on interpretation. In fact, the transferring of the guild of interpreters from the Church to the University, given the University’s insistence on novelty in scholarship, ensured that no interpretative consensus would be forthcoming.

There really is no way to promote general agreement among Christians about the interpretation of Scripture without some doctrine of Holy Tradition.

Bonhoeffer and the Song of Songs

This is the text of a lecture I gave several years ago at an American Academy of Religion meeting. I’ve never known what to do with it. Its a purely amateurish effort, and probably not worthy of being published anywhere reputable. But I have often over the years returned to some of the ideas in it, wishing I had the skills and knowledge to develop them further. So I’m posting it here, with a few links in lieu of proper footnotes, just in case anyone finds it interesting.


The most famous of all statements about the Song of Songs was uttered by Rabbi Akiba. It occurs in the Mishnah, in tractate Yadayim, which is concerned with the washing of hands and therefore with what is holy and defiles the hands, so that they must be washed. This leads, curiously but inevitably, into a discussion of the canon of Scripture. Says one rabbi,

All the holy writings defile the hands. Shir ha-Shirim and Qoheleth [Ecclesiastes] defile the hands. Rabbi Yudah said, “Shir ha-Shirim defiles the hands, but Qoheleth was in dispute.” Rabbi Yose said, “Qoheleth does not render unclean the hands, but there is a dispute about the Song of Songs.” … But Rabbi Akiba said, “God forbid! No one in Israel disputed the fact that Shir ha-Shirim defiles the hands, for the entire world does not compare with the day that Shir ha-Shirim was given to Israel. All the writings are holy, but Shir ha-Shirim is holiest of all.” (Midrash Yadayim 3:5)

The “writings” to which Akiba refers are, of course, the kethuvim, the Biblical texts other than the Torah and the Prophets. So Akiba is giving the Song of Songs a higher place than, for instance, the Psalms. But his celebration of the Song is contingent upon the understanding that it be interpreted as a poem about the love between Israel and its God. Thus the Tractate Sanhedrin says, “Our Rabbis taught: He who recites a verse of the Song of Songs and treats it as an air [that is, a secular poem], and one who recites a verse at the banqueting table unseasonably, brings evil upon the world. Because the Torah girds itself in sackcloth, and stands before the Holy One, blessed be He, and laments before Him, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Thy children have made me as a harp upon which they frivolously play.’” This passage suggests that one who treats the Song of Songs as an erotic poem not only insults it, but insults Torah — since in this little story, Torah identifies with the Song: “thy children have made me as a harp.” The relationship between the Song of Songs and Torah is developed both in further rabbinical commentary that associates the Song with the Exodus — one tradition has it that the Song is a transcription of words that passed between Yahweh and Israel at the Red Sea — and in Jewish worship, since the Song is read at Passover. It is within such a context that Akiba and like-minded teachers celebrate the Song; to treat it as something other than a part of the covenant history is to “bring evil upon the world.”

In a June 1944 letter to Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “While you’re in Italy I shall write to you about the Song of Songs. I must say I should prefer to read it as an ordinary love song, and that is probably the best ‘Christological’ exposition.” This intriguing comment comes right in the middle of the most famous sequence in the letters, in which Bonhoeffer explores the possible avenues for Christian faith in a “world come of age” and in which he so forcefully repudiates a “God of the gaps” and a Christ who comes to “solve our problems.” But it appears that he never wrote the promised letter, so we have to guess what he meant. I want to suggest, first, that we can make a pretty good guess; second, that that guess leads us into productive theological territory; and third, that Bonhoeffer’s provocative idea leads us back to the Song, and to Akiba’s deep concern that it be rightly read.

In short, I am trying to see what happens when I put Akiba and Bonhoeffer in conversation with each other. I think that conversation will lead to the awareness that we are not confined to a simple choice between a literal and an allegorical meaning, and will enable a way of seeing erotic love as a benefit of the Covenant itself.

As I have noted, the immediate context of Bonhoeffer’s comment about the Song of Songs is the great letters of May and June 1944, when he finds opening up before him wholly new possibilities of theology, and indeed of the Christian life — possibilities that emerge from “the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today” (279). But there is another level of context that matters here just as much, one that leads us back to the Advent season of 1943. At this point Bonhoeffer was still hoping that his release from prison would come soon, perhaps even before Christmas; but that hope was beginning to fade, and in a long letter to Bethge (dated December 18th) he confesses his “homesickness” and “longing” — longing especially (though he does not say so explicitly) for his fiancée Maria. He wishes “above all” to avoid self-pity, but as he thinks of one of the most common Christian ideas used to counsel those who suffer in this world — the Pauline reminder that “this world is not our home” — he has some doubts, not about the truthfulness of the claim (“That is indeed essential”) but about the ways in which we use it. And quickly what emerges is the unfortunate effect such a reminder can have, not so much on the one who suffers, but on the one who (like Bethge) is blessed with freedom and the presence of loved ones.

I believe that we ought so to love and trust God in our lives, and > in all the good things that he sends us, that when the time comes (but > not before!) we may go to him with love, trust, and joy. But, to put > it plainly, for a man in his wife’s arms to be hankering after the > other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God’s > will. We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if > it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly > happiness, we mustn’t try to be more pious than God himself and allow > our happiness to be corrupted by presumption and arrogance, and by > unbridled religious fantasy which is never satisfied with what God > gives… . Everything has its time, and the main thing is that we > keep step with God, and do not keep pressing on a few steps ahead — > nor keep dawdling a step behind. It’s presumptuous to want to have > everything at once — matrimonial bliss, the cross, and the heavenly > Jerusalem, where they neither marry not are given in marriage. “To > everything there is a season.” (168f)

This is a fascinating adumbration of an idea that would become his obsession six months later. Its most famous expression goes like this:

Christianity puts us into many different dimensions of life at the > same time; we make room in ourselves, to some extent, for God and the > whole world. We rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those > who weep; we are anxious ( — I was again interrupted just then by the > alert, and am now sitting out of doors enjoying the sun —) about our > life, but at the same time we must think about things much more > important to us than life itself… . We have to get people out of > their one-track minds; that is a kind of preparation for faith, or > something that makes faith possible, although really it’s only faith > itself that can make possible a multi-dimensional life, and so enable > us to keep this Whitsuntide, too, in spite of the alarms… . God is > no stop-gap; he must be recognized at the centre of life, not when we > are at the end of our resources; it is his will to be recognised in > life, and not only when death comes; in health and vigour, and not > only in suffering; in our activities, and not only in sin.

But now we get to the heart of the matter, for the very next sentences Bonhoeffer writes are these: “The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He is the centre of life, and he certainly didn’t ‘come’ to answer our unsolved problems. From the centre of life certain questions, and their answers, are seen to be wholly irrelevant… . In Christ there are no ‘Christian problems.’ That is, only in the encompassing and all-illuminating light of the Christ-event does this embrace of all life make sense. It is, strangely enough, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that make it “bad taste” for a man to long for the transcendent when in his wife’s arms. And this gives us a strong indication of why Bonhoeffer thinks the literal interpretation of the Song of Songs is the most Christological one. But of course the logic here is not obvious — at least not to me — so let’s back up a bit and look at the more specifically theological context in which Bonhoeffer makes these claims.

This whole section of the letters is scattered with references to two theologians, Bultmann and Barth, both of whom he sees as deficient. Bultmann’s problem is that his theology is liberal rather than radical: he merely “abridges the Gospel,” to which Bonhoeffer contrasts his own project: “I’m trying to think theologically” (285). There is just too much of life — and indeed of theology itself — which Bultmann gives up on having anything theological to say about. Barth, by contrast — and it’s significant that Bonhoeffer doesn’t seem, here at least, to think any more highly of Barth than of Bultmann — stresses a “like it or lump it” “positivism of revelation” (286), in which the doctrines of Christian theology are simply to be received rather than integrated with the world of human thought and experience. Charles Marsh, in his book Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gets to the heart of the matter — at least as it affects my argument here — by noting that, in Bonhoeffer’s account, “for Barth the world is ultimately depleted by revelation” (21).

This “depletion” of the world by revelation is something that can be seen in Barth’s treatment of Agape and Eros in the Church Dogmatics (IV/2). Though Barth is willing to say that “this other love” — that is, eros — “can claim some of the greatest figures in the history of the human spirit,” he makes this acknowledgment only in order to deny it any theological significance whatsoever. When he writes, “Nor can Christian love be fused with this other to form a higher synthesis,” he is referring to Anders Nygren’s book Agape and Eros, which explores the “caritas synthesis” which medieval thinkers and poets achieved — often by means of a version of the Platonic scala amoris, which one can see a refined, subtle form of in Dante and a coarse, simplistic form of in the “romantic theology” of C. S. Lewis’s friend Charles Williams. Whether refined or coarse, Barth is having none of it. “Man loves either in one way or the other, and he has to choose whether it is to be in the one way or the other. If in fact he loves in both ways at the same time, as is often the case even with the Christian, this can only be with … disruption, [a] “falling out”… . There can be only conflict and not compromise between Christian love and this other.” Indeed, Barth goes so far as to say that “erotic love is a denial of humanity.”

Now, to a certain extent Barth and Bonhoeffer — who were of course not talking to each other, about this issue anyway — are talking at cross purposes here. Barth can condemn eros so thoroughly because of the way he has chosen to define it: as either a needy, possessive, grasping desire or an idolatry of the beloved (Barth gets positively Platonic here, in an excursus on the way that eros makes eidola). For Barth, the only genuine alternative to such sinful practices is agape’s “regard for the other.” As Barth so often tells us, on such a wide range of subjects, one must simply make one’s choice. But Bonhoeffer does not define erotic love in Barth’s way — or rather, Bonhoeffer is willing to consider a wider range of possible choice. No doubt he would reject eros as defined by Barth as firmly as Barth himself does. But is the embrace of a loving couple — especially a Christian loving couple — an illustration of that eros? No doubt it can be, but is it necessarily so? And if not, is it then simply an example of agape’s “regard for the other”? If so, it is a very peculiar kind of “regard,” and one which (so Church and Scripture teach us) it is inadvisable to practice indiscriminately. For Bonhoeffer, then, Barth’s position is oddly similar to Bultmann’s, in that he too was, however inadvertently, giving up on having anything theological to say about something, that something being married love. As a Tom Stoppard character says, “It is the third thing when you thought there were only two.” By insisting on there just being two, Barth depletes the world.

But it is important to insist that in his comments on sexual or romantic love Bonhoeffer is clearly not trying to resurrect the old “caritas synthesis,” or to construct a ladder by which we may ascend from erotic love to holy love. Nor is he seeking general approval for sexual desire and experience. Instead, he is trying to imagine a more radical possibility: that through Christ and in Christ erotic love is justified as itself, not requiring a transformation into something “holy.” On the other hand, neither is such love immune from the need to be justified. The canonical place of the Song of Songs would, on this account, be as a witness to the power of God in Christ to dwell “at the centre of life.” Bonhoeffer later says that “the difference between the Christian hope of the resurrection and the mythological hope is that the former sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way… . he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ” (337). This is true — and here is Bonhoeffer at his most radical and provocative — even when “the earthly cup” is sweet to the taste. “The world must not be prematurely written off,” he writes, and to write it off while in the midst of great pleasure is not only in bad taste, not only an attempt to be “more pious than God himself,” but a deep perversity.

Just how it happens that the Christ-event justifies marital love as itself — and therefore how, precisely, the literal interpretation of the Song of Songs is the most Christological one — Bonhoeffer never got the chance to explain. I do not think I can explain it either; but the heart of it must lie in focusing on Christ’s death and resurrection not primarily as the means by which sinners are justified, but rather as the beginning of the redemption of the whole of Creation from its bondage, the beginning of its reclaiming of its original glory.

(In his Ethics Bonhoeffer protests against the insistence in Catholic teaching that when it is inadvisable for a married couple to have children, they must abstain from sex altogether rather than use artificial means of birth control. Bonhoeffer’s concern is that this takes away the “bodily union” which is one of the chief features and purposes of marriage. This teaching avoids the “unnatural act of preventing conception” only by instituting the “unnatural state of a marriage without bodily union.” The invocation of the category of the “natural” is of particular interest here, since it invokes the possibility of a redeemed Creation operating within its sovereign sphere and according to its own self-governance. If unpacked this notion might be key to understanding his point about the Song.)

But I will leave that speculative line of thought and turn back, this time a little more attentively, to the Song of Songs itself. Because the logic of Bonhoeffer’s point in his letter, if I have discerned it rightly, enables us to see certain features of that text in a new way, and perhaps even enables us to offer some assistance (if we may be so bold) to Rabbi Akiba.

One thing that strikes the “literary” reader of the Song is that its images of beauty and excellence so often come from the local landscape — that is, the landscape specific to the land of Israel. I am not thinking of the frequent references to grapes, apples, gazelles and doves — it is hardly noteworthy that a poet’s images of the natural world would be taken largely from the flora and fauna he sees every day. It is the incessant geographical references that are noteworthy: the “tents of Kedar” (1:5), the “vineyards of Engedi” (1:14), the famous rose (or crocus) of Sharon (2:1), the “slopes of Gilead” (4:1), the “tower of David” (4:4), the mountains of Lebanon, Amana, Senir, Hermon (4:8). The beloved woman is “beautiful as Tirzah, … comely as Jerusalem” (6:4). In the most extended passage of this kind, in Chapter 7, we hear of this woman,

Your eyes are pools in Heshbon,
by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon,
overlooking Damascus.
Your head crowns you like Carmel,
and your flowing locks are like purple;
a king is held captive in the tresses.

As Francis Landy points out, this passage “is in fact a single extended metaphor of the Beloved as the kingdom… . The face evokes peripheries: Lebanon is in the north, Heshbon on the east, Carmel in the west. The landscapes complement one another: the mountain fastness matches the city on the edge of the desert and promontory overlooking the sea. Each suggests power and prosperity in its dealings with the outside world: the tower of Lebanon watches over Damascus; the ‘gate of the many’ in Heshbon is the focus of busy traffic; the sea is dominated by the Carmel, and from it is extracted the royal purple” (314–15).

This is the sort of passage that seems strongly to invite an allegorical reading: the beloved woman does not just remind us of Israel, she is Israel. It is as though the land itself has been animated, transformed into a beautiful reclining woman, so that every feature of the landscape becomes is given life as a part of her body. It is interesting in this context to note that, according to Elsie Stern, “the Song was a popular biblical text for the early Zionist movement” (introduction to the Tanakh translation). Look at 4:11: “honey and milk are under thy tongue,” a clear reminder of Palestine as the land of milk and honey. (A similar strategy is used by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, where the sleeper whose dreaming thoughts comprise the book is also figured as a reclining giant who is the living cityscape of Dublin at night.) But despite the temptations to read the relentless geographical troping of the poem in this allegorical way, allegory is not the only way to take full cognizance of the phenomenon.

As Robert Alter notes, “the imagery of the Songs of Songs is a curious mixture of pastoral, urban, and regal allusions.” I want to suggest that this division of metaphorical labor is highly purposeful. The pastoral images indicate Israel as the land given to the people, the urban images the building-up of that land by the people (especially in Jerusalem), and the regal ones the rise of Israel to full nationhood under the kingship of David and his son Solomon, who is of course repeatedly invoked in the poem. This threefold edifice of tropes points us always to the assured beauty of the Promised Land, as given by Yahweh and as built up by the children of Israel; the beauty of the beloved is derivative of that. Or, to put it another way, the beauty of Israel is what enables the lovers to live in such a way that they can discern and enjoy each other’s beauty.

I find this idea appealing in part because it is so essential to another great work of antiquity, Homer’s Iliad. In the speeches of the Trojan warrior Hector and his wife Andromache a clear message emerges, one that is extended and confirmed by the detailed description in Book 18 of the great shield that the smith-god Hephaestos makes for Achilles. The message is that the safety and security of the city guarantee the blessings and pleasures of its citizens. Andromache laments her husband’s entry into the battle because she fears that the city is doomed and therefore if he defends it he too will be doomed; and Hector laments the imminent destruction of Troy chiefly because it means the end of the life he shares with his beloved wife. So in the Iliad — just as in the Song of Songs — there is an intimate connection between the public world of the city, or the homeland, and the familial and private loves of the people who live in it. In a world in which civilization is hard-earned and fragile, it is more greatly valued as the guarantor of an environment in which love can be cultivated.

The difference between the two poems, in this respect, is that for Hector and Andromache the value of Troy is purely instrumental — that is, it matters only insofar as it provides for the private joy of their marriage. Hektor says quite bluntly that it is not the destruction of Troy itself that grieves him nearly as much as the fate of Andromakhe, who he knows will be taken into slavery. In the Song of Songs, by contrast, though the security and power of Israel make the lovers’ wooing possible, the land is by no means merely instrumental to the realm of private joy. (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem… .”) Instead, as I have already indicated, it is the greatness of Israel that is certain, and, because it is certain, provides the anchor of metaphorical value for the descriptions of the beloved.

It is clear that Rabbi Akiba’s praise of the Song as a celebration of the covenant love of Yahweh and Israel, and the Sanhedrin’s general opposition to a “literal” reading as a nearly blasphemous failure to acknowledge that meaning, assume a necessary opposition of the literal (which is, as St. Paul would later put it, “carnal”) and the allegorical or “spiritual.” But if we are right to see the health and strength of the nation of Israel as the guarantor of a social space in which erotic love can be safely pursued, then the literal reading can also be a covenantal and therefore “spiritual” one.

And this way of reading the poem would be, I think, still more potent in the context that Bonhoeffer points us towards, the Christian one in which not the land of Israel but the cross of Christ is the guarantor of value for the realm of erotic love as expressed in Christian marriage. In this account, the Song of Songs celebrates God’s power in Christ to restore relationship, to redeem Creation in such a way that the love which Adam and Eve shared in Eden can be continually imagined and made the object of human striving. In the Cross of Christ lies the power to restore the Edenic conditions of sexual, marital love, if not in full present actuality, at least in hopeful anticipation. The love celebrated in the Song of Songs is a memory of Eden and an implied teleology for every marriage, grounded in the transforming power of the Gospel. In contrast to Rabbi Akiba and the Sanhedrin, I think we must say that this is a “spiritual” meaning which is only liberated for our use by a “literal” reading. It is in this sense that Bonhoeffer was surely right to say that the literal interpretation of the Song of Songs is the most truly Christological one.

Adiaphora: As a Theologian One Can Never Be Great

Adiaphora: As a Theologian One Can Never Be Great

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