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dare to make a Daniel

In a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Adrian Vermeule offers an alternative to Deneen’s plea for a renewed localism, and to the related counsel of Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option. Vermeule sees in a handful of biblical figures a model of civic engagement for Christians to follow:

Joseph, Mordecai, Esther, and Daniel, however, mainly attempt to ensure the survival of their faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession. They do not evangelize or preach with a view to bringing about the birth of an entirely new regime, from within the old. They mitigate the long defeat for those who become targets of the regime in liberalism’s twilight era, and this will surely have to be the main aim for some time to come. In the much longer run, it is permissible to dream, however fitfully, that other models may one day become relevant, in a postliberal future of uncertain shape. One such model is St. Cecilia, who, forced into marriage against her vows, converted her pagan husband; their joint martyrdom helped to spark the explosive growth of the early church. Another is of course St. Paul himself, who by the end of Acts of the Apostles preached the advent of a new order from within the very urban heart of the imperium.

Here too there is no hint of retreat into localism. There is instead a determination to co-opt and transform the decaying regime from within its own core. It may thus appear providential that liberalism, despite itself, has prepared a state capable of great tasks, as a legacy to bequeath to a new and doubtless very different future. The vast bureaucracy created by liberalism in pursuit of a mirage of depoliticized governance may, by the invisible hand of Providence, be turned to new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.

This is a powerful and in many ways beautiful vision. Perhaps the most attractive element of it, to me, is the commendation of limited goals on our part — the mere “attempt to ensure the survival of [our] faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession” — that may, in the providential wisdom of God, lead to something much greater: the transformation of a “decaying regime” into a “great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.” One should never expect something like that but it is meet and right to hope for it.

But I think Vermeule’s vision is missing one absolutely essential element. My question for him is: Where will these Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels come from? People who are deeply grounded in and deeply committed to their faith tradition who are also capable of rising to high levels of influence in government and education don’t exactly grow on trees. Vermeule’s model reminds me of someone who says he knows how I can become a billionaire and begins by saying, “First, get a million dollars.” Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels can indeed do great things — if we can come by them. But how are Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels produced?

What Vermeule is overlooking, it seems to me, is the simple fact that the liberal order catechizes. One of the wings of the liberal order that does this especially effectively is graduate school. Time and again over the years I have seen idealistic young scholars-in-training say, “Oh, I don’t really believe all that stuff they try to inculcate you with in grad school; I’ll just learn the language and use it until I get my PhD, and then I’ll be free to be myself.” But then “until I get my PhD” becomes “until I get a job”; and then “until I get tenure”; and then “until I get promoted to full professor.” Sooner or later — and often sooner — the face becomes indistinguishable from the mask. And this kind of gradual transformation of personal sensibility happens in a thousand different ways, in a thousand different cultural locations.

So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West – all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse across the board of participation in church life.

What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis. Who will do that, and how will they do it? The likely answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the very localism that Deneen and Dreher advocate and that Vermeule rejects. Though I also might reject certain elements and emphases of the communities that Deneen and Dreher advocate, I don’t see a likely instrument other than highly dedicated, counter-cultural communities of faith for the Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels to be formed. Those who do see other means of such rigorous formation need to step up and explain how their models work. Otherwise we will be looking in vain for the people capable of carrying out Vermeule’s beautiful vision.

My David Bentley Hart Problem

Though I think David Bentley Hart is a brilliant man, and I have learned a great deal from reading him, I also believe he has some bad intellectual habits, and here I want to explain what I think his chief bad habit is.

Here’s the first paragraph of a recent essay by Hart:

If I seem to take N.T. Wright as an antagonist in what follows, he functions here only as emblematic of a larger historical tendency in New Testament scholarship. I can think of no other popular writer on the early church these days whose picture of Judaism in the Roman Hellenistic world seems better to exemplify what I regard as a dangerous triumph of theological predispositions over historical fact in biblical studies — one that occasionally so distorts the picture of the intellectual and spiritual environment of the apostolic church as effectively to create an entirely fictional early Christianity. Naturally, this also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish bible, and precociously conformed to later rabbinic orthodoxy — and, even then, this last turns out to be a fantasy rabbinic orthodoxy, one robbed of its native genius and variety, and imperiously reduced to a kind of Protestantism without Jesus.

Here, then, are the primary claims that Hart wants to make:

  • There is a strong “historical tendency in New Testament scholarship” that he wants to call attention to;
  • That tendency is largely the product of Protestant scholars (a point only implied here, but made explicit later in the essay);
  • That tendency is utterly wrong;
  • The wrongness results from the “dangerous triumph of theological predispositions over historical fact in biblical studies”; and, finally,
  • The work of N. T. Wright is characteristic of this erroneous tendency.

Hart will develop these points by claiming that Wright and scholars like him are in the grip of “the Cartesian picture of things” and that only if one manages to “take leave” of that picture may one get a historically accurate grip on first-century Judaism — and therefore on the New Testament documents which emerge from it.

I do not want to contest any of these claims. For what it’s worth, they have some prima facie plausibility to me — I have myself complained about what in shorthand we might call Wright’s Cartesianism, though my complaints have focused on hermeneutical method rather than historical judgment. My frustration with Hart’s essay is simply that he provides no evidence for his claims: no evidence whatsoever.

Consider this passage:

In the New Testament, “flesh” does not mean “sinful nature” or “humanity under judgment” or even “fallen flesh.” It just means “flesh,” in the bluntly physical sense, and it often has a negative connotation because flesh is essentially a bad condition to be in; belonging to the realm of mutability and mortality, it can form only a body of death. Hence, according to Paul, the body of the resurrection is not one of flesh and blood animated by “soul,” but is rather a new reality altogether, an entirely spiritual body beyond composition or dissolution. And this is how his language would have been understood by his contemporaries.

Is the view that Hart criticizes here widely held by New Testament scholars (Protestant or otherwise)? Here’s what Hart says:

the early editions of the New International Version of the Bible, where the word “flesh” was in many cases rendered as something like “sinful nature” (I would check the exact wording, but that would involve picking up a copy of the NIV).

I am not sure what Hart means by “early editions” here: editions prior to Today’s New International Version in 2005, perhaps? One can’t be sure, because Hart doesn’t specify, and indeed makes a point of letting us know that he hasn’t even checked a copy of the NIV to make sure that he has the wording right.

But let’s assume that he does have the wording right. Even so, I would ask whether the NIV (a translation closely associated with evangelicalism) is characteristic of Protestantism tout court. How do other translations produced wholly or largely by Protestants translate σάρξ (sarx, flesh)? I would further ask: How do we know that the NIV’s choice is wrong? What evidence supports Hart’s claim that in Paul σάρξ “just means ‘flesh,’ in the bluntly physical sense”? Or that “this is how [Paul’s] language would have been understood by his contemporaries”? Many scholars — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike — have argued about these points for centuries, and have amassed a great deal of evidence about how key Pauline terms were used in the Hellenistic world — including in the Septuagint, from which Paul sometimes diverges in what appear to be highly significant ways — and how such “typical” usage might shape our understanding of Paul. Hart doesn’t cite any of these scholars. Hart doesn’t cite any non-biblical use of σάρξ. He doesn’t note that in addition to σάρξ Paul also uses the word σῶμα (soma, body), which would seem to be very nearly a synonym for σάρξ if Hart is right — and yet the two words seem, to many readers, to have very different functions in Paul. (Indeed, one might become vaguely aware of this divergence even in the parts of the essay where Hart discusses bodies, the σώματα ἐπίγεια and σώματα ἐπουράνια of 1 Corinthians 15.) Hart doesn’t cite, he doesn’t argue, he doesn’t provide evidence: he just asserts.

Now, to be sure, Hart quotes passages from N. T. Wright’s translation of the New Testament that he finds objectionable. But he does not quote any of the scholarly works in which Wright has exhaustively — to my mind exhaustingly — made his case for how he understands Paul’s use of flesh, spirit, and soul. Hart writes, “Wright has his own understanding of resurrection, one more or less consonant with the casually presumed picture today, even if it is one entirely alien to the world of first-century Judaism and Christianity. His categories are not those of Paul — or, for that matter, of the rest of the authors of the New Testament.” Not only does Hart fail to quote Wright on these matters, one would not even guess from his statement that Wright has written an enormous book on just this subject, called The Resurrection of The Son of God that explores all of the categories, terms, and authors that Hart invokes. Nor does Hart quote any other scholars who represent this putative Protestant tradition of eisegesis that he deplores. He just tells us what’s what.

The whole essay is like this. Another example:

If we could hear the language of πνεῦμα [pneuma, spirit] with late antique ears, our sense of the text’s meaning would not be that of two utterly distinct concepts — one “physical” and one “mystical” — only metaphorically entangled with one another by dint of a verbal equivocity; rather, we would almost surely hear only a single concept expressed univocally through a single word, a concept in which the physical and the mystical would remain undifferentiated.

But would we? Would we all hear that one concept? Are all “late antique ears” the same, in this respect? Maybe; but before I accept that judgment I’d like to have something more than one scholar’s word for it.

There’s another, related, issue I want to explore. Though Hart doesn’t mention it, the very position he stakes out in the passage I just quoted was articulated ninety years ago in what would become a very famous book, Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction. Barfield claims that “the study of the history of meaning”

assures us definitely that such a purely material content as “wind”, on the one hand, and on the other, such a purely abstract content as “the principle of life within man or animal” are both late arrivals in human consciousness… We must imagine a time when “spiritus” or πνεûμα, or older words from which these had descended, meant neither breath, nor wind, nor spirit, nor yet all three of these things, but when they simply had their own old peculiar meaning, which has since, in the course of the evolution of consciousness, crystallized into the three meanings specified.

It’s possible that Hart hasn’t read Barfield; it is more likely that he has read him but has forgotten that Barfield made this argument. For the record, I do not believe that Hart is intentionally concealing his intellectual debts, at least not in the sense that he seriously wants us to believe that he came up with these ideas all by himself. But I do think that his habit of assertion — this “rhetoric of authority,” as Frank Lentricchia once called it in writing about a very different figure of great intellectual appeal — leads him to neglect his debts in ways that are counterproductive to his arguments.

One might reply that in what is after all merely a brief essay one cannot expect scholarly documentation. Point taken; though I would add that it’s an essay that doesn’t hesitate to get into some fairly deep philological weeds. But be that as it may, Hart manifests the same habit elsewhere. Consider this passage from my favorite of Hart’s books, The Experience of God:

Our brains may necessarily have equipped us to recognize certain sorts of physical objects around us and enabled us to react to them; but, beyond that, we can assume only that nature will have selected just those behaviors in us most conducive to our survival, along with whatever structures of thought and belief might be essentially or accidentally associated with them, and there is no reason to suppose that such structures — even those that provide us with our notions of what constitutes a sound rational argument — have access to any abstract “truth” about the totality of things. This yields the delightful paradox that, if naturalism is true as a picture of reality, it is necessarily false as a philosophical precept; for no one’s belief in the truth of naturalism could correspond to reality except through a shocking coincidence (or, better, a miracle).

That last word makes me suspect that Hart knows perfectly well that he has just summarized the argument that C. S. Lewis makes in the third chapter of Miracles. But he doesn’t cite Lewis anywhere in The Experience of God. Nor does he cite the people Lewis probably got the argument from, Arthur Balfour in Theism and Humanism and G. K. Chesterton in the “Suicide of Thought” chapter of Orthodoxy. (I say Lewis “probably” derived his argument from those sources because, as it happens, he doesn’t cite them either. There may be a lesson here.) I’m inclined to think that Hart also knows that that chapter of Miracles has prompted a whole subgenre of philosophy devoted to evaluating the claim that philosophical naturalism is self-refuting, in the course of which the core idea has been traced all the way back to Epicurus — see, e.g., this article.

My point here isn’t to chastise Hart for failing to document his sources. As it happens, I am quite sympathetic to a mode of argument that is less dependent than academic scholarship usually on citation and documentation. But when you ignore the scholarly context as completely as Hart often does, you can end up leaving your reader with the suspicion that your case is little stronger than “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” Documenting your sources can be a powerful way to strengthen your argument.

Again, I am quite sympathetic to the case that Hart makes in this essay. Hart moves towards his peroration by appealing to the Gospel of John. He acknowledges that “Nowhere in scripture … is this fundamental opposition between flesh and spirit given fuller theological (and mystical) treatment than in John’s gospel; and nowhere else is the promise that the saved will escape from a carnal into a spiritual condition more explicitly or repeatedly issued.” But he continues, in a long paragraph I’m going to cite the whole of,

At the same time, of course, no other gospel places greater emphasis upon the physical substantiality of the body of the risen Christ — Thomas invited to place his hands in Christ’s wounds, the disciples invited to share a breakfast of fish with him beside the Sea of Tiberias — but even this is perfectly compatible with Paul’s language. It is, as I say, extraordinarily difficult for modern persons to free their imaginations from the essentially Cartesian prejudice that material bodies must by definition be more substantial, more concrete, more capable of generating physical effects than anything that might be denominated as “soul” or “spirit” or “intellect” could be. Again, however, for the peoples of late Graeco-Roman antiquity, it made perfect sense to think of spiritual reality as more substantial, powerful, and resourceful than any animal body could ever be. Nothing of which a mortal, corruptible, “psychical” body is capable would have been thought to lie beyond the powers of an immortal, incorruptible, wholly spiritual being. It was this evanescent life, lived in a frail and perishable animal frame, that was regarded as the poorer, feebler, more ghostly of the two conditions; spiritual existence was something immeasurably mightier, more robust, more joyous, more plentifully alive. And this definitely seems to be the picture provided by the gospels in general. The risen Christ, possessed of a spiritual body, could eat and drink, could be felt, could break bread between his hands; but he could also appear and disappear at will, unimpeded by walls or locked doors, or could become unrecognizable to those who had known him before his death, or could even ascend from the earth and pass through the incorruptible heavens where only spiritual beings may venture.

It’s magnificent stuff. But I can’t resist noting that this is the very picture — of σώματα ἐπίγεια (“terrestrial bodies,” as Hart has it) being simply less real than σώματα ἐπουράνια (“celestial bodies”) — that forms perhaps the chief conceit of Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Now, I am not suggesting that Hart needs to quote Lewis. Good old St. Jack already plays too large a role in our image of what orthodox Christianity is, and quoting him can often be counterproductive. But then, Lewis didn’t come up with this conception himself. Where did he get it? You can’t expect him to footnote a work of fiction; but when Hart uses the same concept in an essay, then maybe a citation or quotation of some kind would be appropriate and indeed helpful. For Hart to acknowledge that his understanding of Christ’s resurrection is not wholly original would, I think, enable him to make the case more plausible. (As I have suggested, had he made sure to cite his “antagonists” accurately and fairly — or at all — that would have helped too.)

It’s curious that Hart seems so consistently disinclined to do this kind of thing, and given how exceptionally intelligent Hart is, I cannot help thinking that the tendency is strategic. Hart is Orthodox, and Orthodoxy is almost defined by its account of Holy Tradition; which means that one can, if one is so inclined, dismiss the argument made by an Orthodox philosopher/theologian as a mere deference to that Tradition. It is perhaps in order to avoid being dismissed in this way that Hart disdains appeals to authority, whether religious or scholarly. One might in this context note that the core of his complaint about Wright et al. is that they sacrifice “historical fact” to “theological predispositions.” And Hart insists, in his eloquent and rather inspiring Introduction to his own translation of the New Testament, that he wants it to be “pitilessly literal” and as free from theological presupposition as he can make it — though of course he knows that he cannot erase history from his own mind.

So there may be strategic reasons for Hart to maintain a certain reticence about his intellectual inheritance. The question — for me, anyway — is whether that reticence can be maintained without falling into the “rhetoric of authority” that may win over certain kinds of readers but makes others, myself included among them, intensely suspicious.

after Catholic fusionism, what?

Kevin Gallagher’s essay on “The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism” is elegantly written, incisive, and largely quite persuasive. I commend it to you, and hope you read it straight through.

[Pause while you read it straight through.]

Now, I want to call attention to the essay’s final paragraph, breaking it into two parts. Here’s the first part:

Across the political spectrum, electoral dislocations and popular discontent have persuaded many that the liberal intellectual consensus of the last century is crumbling and unhelpful; what will succeed it is nowhere yet clear. But the resurgent discourse of identity suggests that the era of the naked public square is over, and political arguments made with baggage attached — representing a particular tradition, nation, or tribe — may now be admitted to the bar.

I have a question: Whose bar? Because the idea that there is a permanent, viewpoint-neutral court in which disputes can be adjudicated is the governing fiction of the very liberal order that Gallagher says is now collapsing. That belief in such a bar did indeed govern, and was indeed a fiction, was convincingly shown many years ago by Stanley Fish in the pages of First Things, back when First Things was the parish magazine of fusionism:

If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable.

The collapse of the liberal order means the collapse of the very category that Gallagher invokes here: “arguments made with baggage attached.” After liberalism all arguments are understood to have baggage attached, which means that the relevant question becomes: What baggage are you carrying? And the baggage carried by Catholics is simply not welcome at the bar of the New Just City. Gallagher is implicitly rehashing here the old saw that “postmodernism brings a level playing field,” when in fact it relieves the rulers of the obligation to level that field. Under the ancien regime of liberalism people needed to come up with reasons for dismissing religious positions, and typically did so, even when the reasons were very badly formed indeed; now the reasons are unnecessary. “You’re a bigot” does the job just fine. As I once heard Richard Rorty say, “The theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen.” There may be, and indeed I think there are, good reasons to abandon fusionism, but the idea that in our current order integralist and other post-fusionism arguments will have greater purchase than fusionism did is, I fear, a fantasy.

Now on to the second half of that paragraph:

For Catholics, this is an invitation to boldness, to parrhesia: there is no point in watering down traditional teachings to comply with the norms of a decaying liberal discourse. And for non-Catholics, it offers the possibility of new political alignments, based not on a false equation of Catholicism with any other school of thought, but on the identification of genuinely shared goals. As Catholics become less diffident about the politics their religious commitments imply, they can be more selective in their alliances, seeking allies that not merely pay the Church occasional lip service, but genuinely engage with her ideas. Catholics, of course, hold these ideas to be true. But even nonbelievers may have reason to welcome a more intellectually assertive Catholic politics. In this ideologically unstable era, the tradition of the Church offers an alternative to moribund liberal modes of political thought, an alternative that may avoid many of the errors and illusions that confound contemporary society. As that ideology loses its grip, as liberalism loses credibility, there is less profit than ever in a scheme of fusionist accommodation. To participate in this no-longer-neutral public square, the Catholic tradition must be prepared to speak in its own voice.

Again, I agree with the conclusion but not with the reasons stated to support it. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Catholic particularism will have any more “credibility” to the society at large than Catholic fusionism did. “The Catholic tradition must be prepared to speak in its own voice” not because that will be more credible or effective but because it is the Catholic tradition’s own voice. Calculations of political effectiveness are misplaced in a social environment where all substantive (and hence exclusive) religious stances are indistinguishable from the grossest bigotry. The dogma living loudly within you won’t win many friends or influence many people. But it ought to live loudly within you anyway.

Which leads me to my chief point: earlier I pointed out that Gallagher was employing a category (“arguments that carry baggage”) that in our moment has become invalid, and now I’m going to point out one that’s absent from his essay but I think has some use. That category is “Christian.” Note that Gallagher writes of “non-Catholics” and then, a little later, writes of “nonbelievers” in a way that suggests he sees the two terms as synonymous. I suggest that they aren’t. But Gallagher’s essay contains only the vaguest of hints that non-Catholic Christians exist.

This means that he doesn’t note that one of the natural outgrowths of Catholic fusionism was a certain attention to ecumenism. If, as a Catholic, you could make common cause with free-market conservatives, then you certainly ought to be able to make even more common cause with free-market conservative Protestants, especially if they also shared your views on abortion. Thus the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project, which began, more or less, here and is now moribund.

For many years I tried to persuade reluctant or indifferent Catholics that this kind of ecumenism is not just feasible but mandatory. I typically did so by citing, enthusiastically and in great detail, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (See an example of this kind of argument here. I was so innocent then.) But eventually it dawned on me that the Argument from Catechism was wholly ineffective. For liberal Catholics, it is a product of the very Magisterial authority that they try hard not to think about; for integralists and other traditionalists, its close association with the much-loathed Second Vatican Council — very large chunks of the Catechism are copied and pasted from the documents of Vatican II, and this is especially true of the sections dealing with the “separated brethren” — tends to make it even less appealing to them than it is to liberals.

I just wish I had realized this about a decade earlier than I did.

So I am left with a few questions for integralists and other traditionalists. Without asking that you in any way compromise your integralism or traditionalism, I wonder:

  • Does the category “non-Catholic Christian” mean anything to you theologically?
  • If not, why not?
  • If so, what does it mean?
  • Does the category “non-Catholic Christian” mean anything to you politically, and especially in the American context?
  • If not, why not?
  • If so, what does it mean? Do you think of these particular matters in ways distinct from the fusionists?

episcopal feelings

One of the more curious aspects of the fallout from the recent revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy is the emergence of a certain language of emotion. For instance, Richard Malone, Bishop of Buffalo, wants his flock to know that when he took his recent vacation his “time away for R&R was clouded by the challenges we are facing right now in our diocese.“ He found that his mind was “preoccupied” and his heart was “troubled.” He had feelings. We know that he cares, we know that he takes these “challenges” seriously, because of the feelings he had — even at the beach.

The idea that underlies this kind of communication is made quite explicit in this interview with Fr. Hans Zollner, “a member of the Vatican Commission against paedophilia and president of the Child Protection Centre established at the Pontifical Gregorian University.” The key moment comes when Zollner is asked if the Church is doing enough to protect children and to respond to its past failures to protect them. Zollner’s response: “If we talk about these cases and remain shocked, it means we are taking them seriously.” He goes on in the usual vacuously bureaucratic way to describe the scheduling of “meetings and workshops,” but really the whole substance of his response is this: What matters is how we the clergy feel.

Were your children abused? Well, just look at how “shocked” I am. There. Better now?

When conservative and traditionalist Catholics talk about changes in the Church since Vatican II, one of their most constant themes is the near-disappearance of Confession, of the sacrament of Penance. You can find plenty of commentary on this phenomenon not just in Catholic venues — here and here, for instance — but also in Slate and the Washington Post. (That last piece, from 2007, is about a big push for a return to Confession in the Archdiocese of Washington by its then-newly-appointed archbishop, Donald Wuerl.) There are many speculations about why confession has fallen into such disfavor, but I won’t get into those here, because I have a different point to make.

One could argue that the really key thing about the historical, now almost lost, understanding of penance is this: it’s not something you feel, it’s something you do. There’s an excellent moral realism in this emphasis. Feelings come and go; feelings can be manufactured or pretended-to. But actions — you either do those or you don’t. You say your paternosters or you don’t say them. You wear sackcloth and pour ashes on your head, or not. You take the road to Canossa or you stay home.

Now, to be sure, these actions can be taken for impure reasons. Maybe you wear the sackcloth because you want people to see how holy you are; maybe you kneel before the Pope because you want to keep your crown. But you’re putting yourself to trouble, maybe to some really significant trouble. Moreover, as Bertolt Brecht noted, “weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” There are costs to acts of penance, some known, some unknown and unanticipated.

The declaration of feeling, by contrast, is cost-free. Nothing is easier than to say that one’s heart was troubled at the beach, or that one is shocked — shocked! — by further revelations of abuse. Which is why so many Christians are begging the bishops to do something, something that enacts penitence, or at least grief. But the most the bishops, who themselves seem wholly unaware of the enacted grammar of penance, are willing to do is to speak of their feelings.

Oh wait, they also schedule workshops. My bad. Complaint retracted.

on sharpness and gentleness

I appreciate this from Joe Carter on the times when theological correction needs to be “sharp” — which I think is a better term than “harsh,” the term Joe uses through most of his post. (“Harsh” almost always has pejorative connotations.) But of course I have some doubts about the argument.

First, if you’re going to say that St. Paul tells us to be sharp (Titus 1:11–12), you really need also to acknowledge some of his other advice. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col 3:12). “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). “I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling you have received: with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, and with diligence to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3). “A servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome, but he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, and forbearing. He must gently reprove those who oppose him, in the hope that God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24–25). It’s a very strong theme in Paul.

And before any of us presumes to correct anyone, we would do well first to meditate — and I mean very seriously to meditate — on this: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” This doesn’t mean that we never presume to correct; but it definitely does mean that correction can properly be risked only after the would-be corrector has engaged in some serious self-examination and penitence. Even when I do seek to correct my brother or sister, I need to face the very real possibility that I am in greater need of correction than he or she is. (And when it comes, how will I receive it?)

Might that discipline make correction less frequent? Probably. But a dominical commandment is a dominical commandment. We just have to deal with it.

Finally: A great many of intra-Christian disputes these days happen on social media. What do we have more of there? Meekness and gentleness? Or excessive harshness?

The Profumo Option

The other day, in one of his many recent posts on the waves of sexual scandal that are afflicting American churches, Rod Dreher made a passing mention of John Profumo. In the early 1960s Profumo was the British Secretary of State for War and got caught up in a sexual scandal that led to his resignation.

So much so ordinary (sad to say). But what happened afterwards wasn’t so ordinary. Profumo — a very well-connected man with many friends and supporters who would gladly have eased him back into some significant political or business role — simply left public life and never fully returned. He began to work as a volunteer for Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, doing menial work at first and gradually, over the course of decades, becoming a primary fundraiser. He never sought office again. For the rest of his life he worked out of the public eye to serve the poor.

Will a Profumo arise from our current situation? Will even one, single, solitary Christian leader who has been caught doing or enabling or covering for nasty things decide that the proper response is to perform extensive penance? And by performing extensive penance I don’t mean just taking a few months off to plan a comeback tour. I mean, rather, embracing humble service as medicine for the soul.

Will there be even one? Will any our currently disgraced leaders do for even a few weeks what John Profumo did for fifty years?

I doubt it. There are multiple forces conspiring against it. One is a religious-celebrity culture that produces no shortage of people who want to rub shoulders with the famous even when they have become infamous. Another is the almost complete disappearance of penance from the life of the Church — of churches in the west, anyway, including Catholicism, where it remained structurally embedded the longest.

Will anyone take the Profumo Option? I doubt it. But I hope.

an apology

A few days ago I wrote a post in which I sought to express solidarity with what many of my faithful Catholic friends are going through these days. I also sent the link to some of those who have been on my mind. Very few of them responded at all, and among those who did respond, while a small handful were grateful, the predominant tone was one of irritation. I clearly touched a raw nerve, or struck the wrong tone, or something. I honestly do not know what went awry, but something did, and I am sorry for it. I never would have published the post if I had known that it would bring no comfort.

And if you are one of those friends who found my post somehow inappropriate, I would be grateful to you if you wrote to explain where and how I went astray. I will listen with open ears and heart.

the threefold order of ministry

This is a topic I find myself thinking about surprisingly often — surprisingly because it’s so far beyond the scope of my expertise and experience. But hey, if you can’t bloviate on your personal blog, where can you bloviate? 

I believe that the classic threefold order of Christian ministry (bishop, priest, deacon) is indeed embedded in the earliest Christian communities. You can see these roles beginning to form by noting how the letters of the New Testament employ the terms (episkopos, presbyteros, diakonos) — but the evidence is sketchy, and there are few details. The threefold order could have taken different forms that it did, and I’m inclined to think that, as the saying goes, mistakes were made. 

The most lasting and consequential of those mistakes was the decision to model episcopal governance on the administrative structures of the Roman Empire. I say “decision” but I suspect it was an unconscious inclination to mimic the dominant social organization of time, in much the same way that churches today mimic the broader culture’s entertainment and business models. In any case, just as the Roman Empire came to be divided into provincia, each of which contained several or many municipia, so ecclesiastical systems gradually emerged which followed this general practice. These have always differed from place to place, and a Metropolitan in the East may not be precisely the same as an Archbishop in the West, but there are strong family resemblances, and they all follow from the territorial structure of Rome’s Empire. 

An ecclesiastical organization modeled on an administrative organization will inevitably take on an administrative character, and that is what has happened to the episcopacy. Thoughtful and prayerful churchmen have always been aware of the dangers involved in this modeling: for instance, the informal papal title of servus servorum Dei is an attempt at correction and redefinition. But organizational structures exhibit powerful affordances; they constantly press the people who inhabit them into certain practices, into a certain habitus. The pre-existing layout of the Empire may have seemed to the early Church a wonderful gift; but I cannot help seeing it as a poisoned chalice. 

The long, slow, but ultimately irresistible process by which bishops became managers is one of the largest contributing factors in the sex-abuse crisis in the Church today. Very few bishops are wickedly predatory like Uncle Ted McCarrick; but men who have been raised to the episcopacy because they were thought to have managerial competency, and men who clearly lack managerial competency but understand that their job demands that they acquire it, are equally unlikely to think that it’s any of their business to exercise fraternal discipline of someone managing a different department in the same organization. The affordances of the episcopacy as it is currently constituted (more or less throughout the world) strongly dispose it to disciplinary ineffectuality. 

Some Christians will agree with much of this and see it as evidence that the threefold order of ministry needs to be abandoned, or at least to become twofold through the amputation of bishops. I don’t think so. But I think the Church of Jesus Christ needs a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the office of bishop. 

More thoughts about that (and related matters) in another post. 

common prayer

I have many faithful Catholic friends who are hurting right now — who are in deep pain, even anguish. They stay in the forefront of my prayers, along with the victims of clerical abuse. (And of course, many of those victims remain faithful Catholics, though who knows how many have left Catholicism and even the Christian faith altogether.) 

I am also praying for the clerical abusers and their enablers, my primary emphasis being that they find true repentance and express that repentance publicly. For what it’s worth, I wholly (and quite seriously) endorse Sohrab Amari’s suggestion

But the first step is, as I say, sackcloth and ashes. I mean that quite literally. Following ancient Israel’s footsteps, the early Church adopted ashes as an expression of sorrow for sin. Depending on the sin, public penitents were required to wear ashes and sackcloth. The Church should bring back such practices. Whatever criminal and civil consequences await McCarrick, he should also be called to Rome and forced to circle Saint Peter’s Square in sackcloth and ashes, perhaps while the pope observes from the steps of the basilica. Or how about having McCarrick spend hours kneeling at a prie-dieu while Pope Francis looks upon him with anger and contempt? Others have proposed corporal punishments. I’m not opposed to these, either. The point is that the old apologies and settlements won’t do. 

But I am not dwelling on the clerics. It’s those who are wounded by clerical sin and crime who primarily concern me. 

And, I think it essential to say, these are not the wounds of Roman Catholicism. These are the wounds of the Body of Christ. Insofar as we are members of that Body those wounds are ours. This is no time for those of us who belong to the Reformation traditions to be smug (as though we have a leg to stand on anyway). This is time for every Christian to weep with those who weep. This is the time to confess our own sins of omission and commission. This is a time to ask God to reveal to us all that we have done and left undone that pride and complacency and fear do not allow us to perceive. This is a time to bear one another’s burdens. This is a time to pray a common prayer, and die a common death. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” 

do not make room for the devil

Wesley Hill:

If you’ve never been told by your fellow Christians that the personal object of your desire — not just what you might want to do sinfully with that person, but rather the personal object him- or herself — is wrong for you to have, period, then this might not resonate with you as much as it does with me. But for those of us who have been told that, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways — for those of us who have been told that the way to godliness is by removing ourselves altogether from the kinds of friendships in which we might be tempted — it comes as healing balm when you’re told instead, “Christianity… is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections.”

Bear with me as I (seem to) digress: This reminds me of something that happened to me long ago, when I was a youngish teacher at Wheaton College. In those days — and for that matter until I moved to Waco — I played basketball several days a week, and one morning I almost got into a fight. A guy on the other team said something snarky to me after fouling me pretty hard, and I completely lost my temper, called him him some choice names, and tried to punch him. (It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t, because he was younger and stronger than me and could certainly have kicked my ass.) 

This was a pickup game mainly populated by faculty, staff, a few graduate students, and a handful of undergrads, and later that day I found myself wondering what they thought of me. Here I was, a faculty member at a Christian college, cursing like a sailor and trying to slug someone who offended me. What kind of Christian witness is that? I thought and prayed and decided: If I can’t behave any better than that on the basketball court, then I should give up basketball. No matter how much I love it, I need to give it up if it’s standing between me and a decent public life as a Christian. 

I also decided that I was going to tell my students about my decision, on the “confession is good for the soul” principle — and because I wanted them to see that (supposedly) more mature Christians can struggle too. And maybe, if I am honest, also because I wanted them to see how humble I was. So the next day in class I told the story and explained my decision — expecting, I suppose some admiration for my Christian commitment. 

I was therefore quite disconcerted to see, in my first class, as I related my edifying tale, a student sitting in the front row and, in obvious discomfort, shaking his head. That student was an older student, an ex-con named Manny Mill — you can read a bit of Manny’s story here. His head-shaking was very odd, because Manny was exceedingly, even excessively, respectful of me. I managed to get through my story and teach the class, and when we were done Manny bolted to the front and asked — in his Cuban accent and with what was in those days a pronounced stutter — if he could talk to me. I couldn’t see him that day, but we made an appointment for the following one. 

When he came to my office, Manny began by apologizing repeatedly for being so bold, but then took a deep breath and said: “Dr. Jacobs, please do not make room for the Devil.” I found this statement incomprehensible, but he went on, nervous and stammering, to explain. He asked me if I enjoyed playing basketball. I told him that I loved it. Then, he replied, I should not allow the Evil One to take a good thing I love away from me. By giving up basketball, I was saying, whether I meant to say it or not, that that part of my life belonged to the devil, was impervious to God’s grace, was an arena in which God could not win. Manny asked when, if I were still playing basketball, I would next play, and I told him that it would be the very next day. He then pleaded with me to get back out there on the court — but do so only after having prayed for patience and a peaceable spirit. 

This was strange news to me. I had thought that “not making room for the Devil” was the very principle I had followed in giving up my favorite recreation, but if Manny was right I was accomplishing the opposite of what I hoped to accomplish: I was ceding territory to my Enemy — an enemy who does not give territory back. By going back onto the basketball court I was putting myself in moral danger, wasn’t I? Surely I was. But what if the alternative to moral risk, especially for Christians, is ceding spiritual territory you can’t get back? 

I did what Manny asked. And I have always been very, very glad I did. 

When I reflect on such matters, I remember Don Quixote, who once stops on the road a man who is transporting lions in a cage and orders him to open the cage so that he, Don Quixote de la Mancha, can perhaps have the opportunity to fight a lion or two. After the lions, remarkably, show no interest in fighting the knight, Don Quixote considers his honor satisfied. He then addresses an observer of the scene: 

“Who can doubt, Señor Don Diego de Miranda, that in the opinion of your grace I am a foolish and witless man? And it would not be surprising if you did, because my actions do not attest to anything else. Even so, I would like your grace to observe that I am not as mad or as foolish as I must have seemed to you….

It was my rightful place to attack the lions which I now attacked, although I knew it was exceedingly reckless, because I know very well what valor means; it is a virtue that occupies a place between two wicked extremes, which are cowardice and temerity, but it is better for the valiant man to touch on and climb to the heights of temerity than to touch on and fall to the depths of cowardice; and just as it is easier for the prodigal to be generous than the miser, it is easier for the reckless man to become truly brave than for the coward; and in the matter of undertaking adventures, your grace may believe me, Señor Don Diego, it is better to lose with too many cards than too few, because ‘This knight is reckless and daring’ sounds better to the ear of those who hear it than ‘This knight is timid and cowardly.’”

Ours is not a spirit of fear. 

the church in Imminent America

My colleague Philip Jenkins:

So just as an intellectual exercise, let’s make a bold prophecy for the 2040s or so. Imagine a near future US where a state’s population corresponds to its degree of urbanization, and thus to its relative secularity. Imagine the most thriving regions of church loyalty being concentrated strongly in The Rest, those 34 states containing thirty percent of the nation’s people, especially in the Midwest and the Upper South. The metroplexes, in contrast, are very difficult territory indeed for believers of any kind, a kind of malarial swamp of faith. A situation much like contemporary Europe, in fact.

Catholics, of course, face special issues in this Imminent America, and all depends on how far they can retain the loyalty of that very large Latino presence.

Hmm, planning a church for the hyper-urban future ….

These are enormously complex demographic issues that every thoughtful Christian should be considering. I wonder whether the existing national structure of Christian denominations can survive a future in which the 16 states of Metroplex America and the 34 states of The Rest experience greater and greater cultural divergence. It might be that the forms of faithful Christian living in the one context look very different than those in the other, even when there is substantial theological agreement. 

I’m inclined to think that every church that wants to live into the urban future should read the work of Mark Gornik, especially his book on African Christianity in New York City — an amazing tale. Very few people would believe just how many Christians there are in New York, especially (but not only) from the African diaspora. There are wonderfully thriving Christian communities that fly wholly under the radar of our cultural attention, and will probably never be noticed by the culture at large. But Christians who want to bear witness into the future ought to notice them. 

And City Seminary, of which Mark was a founder, should be observed also, especially as a model for how to train bivocational Christian leaders for a world in which full-time ministry will, in all likelihood, be rarer and rarer. 

suffering and not triumph

Are we then to deduce that we should forget God, lay down our tools, and serve men in the Church – as though there were no Gospel? No, the right conclusion is that, remembering God, we should use our tools, proclaim the Gospel, and submit to the Church, because it is conformed to the kingdom of God. We must not, because we are fully aware of the internal opposition between the Gospel and the Church, hold ourselves aloof from the Church or break up its solidarity; but rather, participating in its responsibility, and sharing the guilt of its inevitable failure, we should accept it and cling to it. — I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me in the Holy Ghost, that I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart. This is the attitude to the Church engendered by the Gospel. He who hears the gospel and proclaims it does not observe the Church from outside. He neither misunderstands it and rejects it, nor understands it and – sympathizes with it. He belongs personally within the Church. But he knows also that the Church means suffering and not triumph.

— Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

Principalities, Powers, and BLM

Eugene Rivers:

For the most part, BLM activists – like the post-1965 SNCC activists, the Black Panther Party, and assorted other radical black groups before them – exhibit little interest in, or comprehension of, the larger lessons of history. This is because they lack the deep spiritual and moral insight that must be the grounding for any sustainable movement. Having rejected the God of their fathers, they have also rejected the fatherhood of God.

This philosophical rejection is an act of spiritual and cultural suicide. Failure to discern the demonic character of white supremacy limits these activists’ ability to understand the fight they are engaged in, and hinders their efforts to develop long-term strategies. They can only describe the sadistic violence they witness and never fully understand or conquer it, so long as they ignore its spiritual source.

More importantly, they fail to use the only means of combatting the demonic: intercessory prayer. Instead, they are easily sucked into the spirit of the demonic themselves as they resort to violence, anger, and hate – a failing less common in the BLM movement than in Antifa, though the danger applies to both.

signed with that cross

Al Raboteau:

African-American Christianity has continuously confronted the nation with troubling questions about American exceptionalism. Perhaps the most troubling was this: “If Christ came as the Suffering Servant, who resembled Him more, the master or the slave?” Suffering-slave Christianity stood as a prophetic condemnation of America’s obsession with power, status, and possessions. African-American Christians perceived in American exceptionalism a dangerous tendency to turn the nation into an idol and Christianity into a clan religion. Divine election brings not preeminence, elevation, and glory, but — —as black Christians know all too well — —humiliation, suffering, and rejection. Chosenness, as reflected in the life of Jesus, led to a cross. The lives of his disciples have been signed with that cross. To be chosen, in this perspective, means joining company not with the powerful and the rich but with those who suffer: the outcast, the poor, and the despised.

the whole of the law

Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes a similar argument: “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” 

But when Obama was president the relevant biblical passage wasn’t Romans 13:1, it was Acts 5:29. The goalposts have moved — and when there’s a another Democratic president and/or Congress, they’ll move again. Conservative Christians would never have countenanced electing a president who has been divorced — until Reagan came along. When Bill Clinton was president, character in the occupant of the Oval Office was everything; now it’s nothing, or, really, less than nothing. 

The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them. The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning. Or summarize a Sunday-school story that they clearly don’t understand, as when they compare Trump to King David because both sinned without even noticing that David’s penitence was even more extravagant than his sins while Trump doesn’t think he needs to repent of anything. But hey, as a Trump supporter once wrote to me: “Now we are fused with him.” 

And that’s it, that’s the law, that’s the whole of the law

But I think Jeff Sessions actually knows that the position he and Sanders articulate is inadequate. In his statement he lets slip one dangerous word: “I do not believe scripture or church history or reason condemns a secular nation state for having reasonable immigration laws. If we have them, then they should be enforced.” 

Ah, you shouldn’t have let that word sneak in there, Mr. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.  It might lead people to ask questions, to wit: 

Start going down this road and you could end up sitting at your kitchen table trying to parse the way Martin Luther King Jr. distinguishes just and unjust laws in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” And we wouldn’t want that, would we? Better simply to say “Romans 13:1 says it, I believe it, and that settles it” — at least until the Democrats get back in power. 

Karl Barth to his critics

Wesley Hill posted this recently. It’s a brilliant letter, and below I am going to put in bold the most important passages — and the ones that are most relevant to an age of social-media boundary-policing.

Dear Dr. Bromiley,

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put.

To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed.

Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the Church Dogmatics where they might at least have found out—not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. —where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions.

I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like [G.C.] Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. I can then answer him in detail. But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to Church Dogmatics IV/2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.” These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.

With friendly greetings,

Yours,

KARL BARTH

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today

It seems to me that far, far too many disputes among Christians — especially (God help us) on social media — resemble the approach American fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals took to Barth. What seem to be questions are usually veiled accusations (though often enough the accusations are explicit); the questioners have not worked to discover what the person they suspect really thinks; they (therefore) neglect actual quotation in favor of tendentious and inaccurate summaries in the form of what I call “in-other-wordsing”; and they show no signs of “seeking the truth that is greater than us all,” but rather seem merely to want to declare other people wrong in the name of doctrinal boundary-policing. There is no way to have a conversation under such terms, and no one should even try.

seeds of renewal

(I had a great time last month speaking at the Mockingbird conference in Noo Yawk City. What follows is an excerpt from the second of the two talks I gave there.)

The world really does seem different now; there are, in many Western nations, legal as well as social impediments to active religious belief and practice; it is hard to see a way back to some earlier state of affairs at which (supposedly) it was easier to believe and easier to display one’s belief in the public square. The point might be argued; but let’s not argue it. Let’s assume that there really isn’t a way back for religious believers in the West and especially in America. Might there, though, be a way forward? And if so, what would it look like?

We’re not going to be able to do this unless we are the kind of people who can do this kind of thing. But what does that mean? To answer, I’m going to read you a Gospel lesson and preach you a sermon. (Just think of it as the Revenge of the Laity.) My text comes from Luke 9 — plus the cognate passages in the other synoptics — where Jesus commissions the twelve. Our predecessors, that is. Let’s look at the basic structure of the narrative at this key transitional moment in the Gospels.

  • Jesus commissions his followers, explaining to them what their job is
  • Jesus does great miracles (feeding the five thousand)
  • Jesus is glorified on the Mount of Transfiguration
  • Jesus returns from the mountain and “sets his face towards Jerusalem,” warning his followers what is to come

So that’s what Jesus does. What do his disciples do?

  • The leader of them gets really excited about being on the mountain and wants to stay there
  • Later he “takes Jesus aside and rebukes him” for all this talk about going to his death
  • They argue about which of them is coolest and best
  • They don’t understand his talk about death and are afraid to ask him what he means
  • They get really mad when they see someone else healing people in Jesus’s name and want to stop that bad person
  • They also get really mad when people in a town won’t listen to Jesus and want to call down fire from heaven and blast those chumps to cinders because isn’t that what prophets do (Elijah did it, after all) and we’re, like, way better than Elijah now, right?

So basically Jesus has chosen as his followers a bunch of seven-year-olds. He wants them to preach, heal, and embrace patiently the suffering that accompanies following Him. They, by contrast, want to be victorious, receive praise, and smack down people they feel disrespect them or want to muscle in on their territory. (In the next chapter they want to destroy a Samaritan village because the inhabitants wouldn’t listen to Jesus, but he again “rebukes them.”) The contrast between what He wants and what they want could scarcely be more dramatic.

I especially want to zero in on the the Twelve’s love of policing the people they think of as their enemies, because, as my friend Freddie de Boer says, these days everyone’s a cop. In my talk yesterday I explained why I think the characteristic sin of our moment is not lust or anything else sexual but rather wrath, and the Twelve exemplify that. Rather than doing what they’re told to do, which requires being loving towards others and the conquest of their own fear and pride, they are continually attentive to what they think everyone else is doing wrong, whether it’s ignoring Jesus or following Him from the wrong social location.

This is a problem throughout the Gospels. Disciples and lookers-on alike are far more interested in other people and what God is going to do to those other people than to the state of their own souls.

  • People ask whether many will be saved or only a few, and Jesus replies, Why don’t you work on entering through that narrow gate?
  • They ask whether those people the Tower of Siloam fell are were especially bad sinners and Jesus says, They were no worse than you.
  • When Jesus tells Peter how he will die, Peter says, “Well, okay, but what about John?” — to which Jesus replies, What is that to you? How is that any of your business?
  • And, to cover the whole general phenomenon, Jesus ask, Why are you worried about the specks in other people’s eyes when you have logs in your own?

And the answer is clear: we really and truly believe that we’re the ones with the specks and they’re the ones with the logs. But Jesus tells us otherwise. Why don’t we try believing him and see how that works? How about if we

  • preach
  • heal
  • train ourselves to bear patiently whatever suffering comes our way as followers of Jesus
  • pray for the logs to be removed from our eyes
  • and then, if we have any time left over but not otherwise, worry about policing other people. How about that? Can we agree to that?

I am absolutely convinced that unless we get this matter straightened out, until we learn to get beyond the pre-adolescent attitudes of the Twelve, we will not be able to plant the seeds of spiritual renewal.

Reclaiming Jesus

This is a great statement, and I agree with every word of it. But how I wish it were possible for Christians to speak prophetically to the abortion regime in this country in the same way they can speak — so confidently, with such unity — to the evils of racism and sexism. I wonder if the subject even came up during the Ash Wednesday gathering that led to this statement. I suspect it did not, because I suspect that everyone there understood that abortion was an issue that would threaten their agreement on other points.

“I like this God”

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.

Eugene Genovese in The New Republic (1992)

Christianity and Evangelicalism

Kristin du Mez:

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.

excerpts from my Sent folder: the Mortara case

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.

the just and redemptive image of God

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.

Michael Eric Dyson

Craigie Aitchison, Crucifixion 9

Madonna della Misericordia

(click image for more details)

religion and public life revisited

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.

the pilgrimage towards Home

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. 

Pope emeritus Benedict

“That’s the reality”

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.

The Bible you carry

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.

Rachael Denhollander

religion as politics, part 2

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.

religion as politics, part 1

Daniel Cox writes on FiveThirtyEight.com that

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.

the future of Christian educational institutions

Carl Trueman writes about the future of Christian higher education:

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.

“The Lord is with you”

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.

Amen.

the politics of long joy

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.

Catholicism and Protestantism

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)

reconsidering “evangelical”

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.

accountable

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.

the “decline of religion”

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. 

the rad-trads and ecumenical hope

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.

Another Week Ends (in Charlottesville) 

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.

David Zahl

the post-Christian culture wars

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.

ways and means of debate

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.

orthodoxy, heresy, and definitions

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. 

“Why is this even a question?”

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.

on sexuality and the grammar of orthodoxy

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.

a homily to remember by Jessica Martin

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?

Amen.

“I have Calculated and the time is nigh”

— Brenna Bychowski, via John Overholt on Twitter

the healing to come

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

Handy-Dandy Benedict Option Flowchart

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.

 

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