Origen may … have been the first church father to study Hebrew, “in opposition to the spirit of his time and of his people,” as Jerome says; according to Eusebius, he “learned it thoroughly,” but there is reason to doubt the accuracy of this report. Jerome, however, was rightly celebrated as “a trilingual man” for his competence in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and Augustine clearly admired, perhaps even envied, his ability to “interpret the divine Scriptures in both languages.” […] But it seems safe to propose the generalization that, except for converts from Judaism, it was not until the biblical humanists and the Reformers of the sixteenth century that a knowledge of Hebrew became standard equipment for Christian expositors of the Old Testament. Most of Christian doctrine developed in a church uninformed by any knowledge of the original text of the Hebrew Bible.
Whatever the reasons, Christian theologians writing against Judaism seemed to take their opponents less and less seriously as time went on; and what their apologetic works may have lacked in vigor or fairness, they tended to make up in self-confidence. They no longer looked upon the Jewish community as a continuing participant in the holy history that had produced the church. They no longer gave serious consideration to the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament or to the Jewish background of the New. Therefore the urgency and the poignancy about the mystery of Israel that are so vivid in the New Testament have appeared only occasionally in Christian thought, as in some passages in Augustine; but these are outweighed, even in Augustine, by the many others that speak of Judaism and paganism almost as though they were equally alien to “the people of God” — the church of Gentile Christians.
Surely this de-Judaizing is the most important (and troubling) way in which the era of the early Church Fathers differed from the Apostolic beginnings of the Church. It is fascinating to contemplate an alternate history of Christendom in which Jews and Christians remained in regular conversation and debate.
Lately I’ve been posting in How to Think mode — HTT as the tag here calls it: I’ve been writing about various common-all-too-common errors in reasoning and how they might be avoided. But I’m about to change direction for a while.
When I was a young faculty member at Wheaton College, a college that prides itself on “the integration of faith and learning,” I quickly realized that there was a fundamental mismatch between my knowledge of my academic discipline, which was fairly sophisticated, and my understanding of the Christian faith, which was woefully underdeveloped. I was only 25 years old when I began teaching at Wheaton; I had not grown up in a Christian home and indeed had only been a Christian for around five years; I had a lot to learn. But at least I grasped that point.
And I was richly blessed in my neighbors, for I worked in the same building with Mark Noll, Roger Lundin, Bob Webber, and Arthur Holmes, among others. I relentlessly peppered them with questions, and especially sought recommendations for books I could read to give me an adequate understanding of the full range of Christian thought. I did not understand that I was asking for something that I couldn’t achieve in a lifetime. Gradually it dawned on me that Christian thinking about the arts and humanities was richer and deeper and more extensive than I could have imagined; and then, also gradually, my scholarship and non-scholarly writing too became more and more informed by and rooted in that great and complex tradition.
My experience was somewhat like that of the Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, who when invited to teach and write about pastoral care could but draw on what little he knew about then-contemporary models of psychological counseling. It was only when he asked himself whether Christians, who had been doing pastoral care for 2000 years, might know a little bit about the subject that he began the great series of books on pastoral theology for which he is best remembered. Like me, Oden discovered that the Christian tradition in his chosen field was more extensive and powerful than he had anticipated, and he drank deeply from the well of that tradition for the rest of his life.
Well, for me one thing led to another, and I now have one of the longest job titles in the American academy: the Jim and Sharon Harrod Endowed Chair of Christian Thought and Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program. The second half of that title I’ve had for a decade now; the first half is new. I am pleased and honored and excited by the prospect of becoming an official advocate for the great Christian tradition that I have been talking about in this post.
Partly because of this new role, and partly by accident, I am this semester — for the first time, in a teaching career that now exceeds forty years — teaching only Christian writers. (I have had many semesters in which I didn’t teach any Christian writers at all, though usually there’s been a mix.) I am teaching, for Baylor’s Great Texts program, a course called Great Texts in Christian Spirituality; and I am teaching a new course, one I designed to express my chief interests as the new Harrod Chair: The Christian Renaissance of the Twentieth Century.
The new course is devoted to exploring the extraordinary outburst of distinctively Christian creativity — in all the arts and humanities — that occurred especially in the first half of the twentieth century, but has continued in certain forms ever since. It is a ridiculously ambitious and indefensibly wide-ranging course, since we will look (sometimes briefly, sometimes in detail) at painting, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, philosophy, and filmmaking. Basically we’ll go from G. K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain to Marilynne Robinson, Arvo Pärt, and Terrence Malick. (Though as it happens, on Day One we’ll discuss Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil.) It’s gonna be utterly insane, and also, I think, a lot of fun. I hope to learn much in this first iteration that I can apply when I teach the course again — and I hope to teach it every year, student interest permitting.
Between that course and the Christian Spirituality one — which will go from the Didache and Maximus Confessor to Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm — I will have on my mind, for the next few months, an vast agglomeration of works in Christian theology, philosophy, and all the arts. There will be a lot to process, and this here blog is where I do much of my processing, so — if you like that kind of thing, then this will be the kind of thing you like. If not … well, sorry about that.
Francis Spufford on picking through the ruins of Christendom:
Those of us who, despite everything, think there’s something precious in the words jumbled-up now among the rubble, do not do so because we are pro-tyranny or anti-self discovery. We do so because we know that what was written on those towering walls wasn’t the credo of an authoritarian certainty at all. But instead — mixed up, yeah, with some heterogenous other stuff over the centuries, some questionable — a song of liberation, a startling declaration that power, that love, that justice, that order, that God the creator of all things, weren’t what we thought they were, but came closest to us in paradoxes. Wisdom, in foolishness; strength, in weakness; sovereignty over the immense empire of matter, in helpless self-sacrifice, in a choking man brought to death by a shrugging government. What’s written on the bricks still has the power to shock, when you join them together. GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS turns out to lead to, THAN THAT HE LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR HIS FRIEND. Not very positive, is it? LOVE YOUR EN- continues, -EMY, AND PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE YOU. What’s that about? How will that help me to be thinner, richer, stronger, more sexually successful? It won’t. It will only help you to be kinder, braver, more tolerant of our inevitable imperfections, and more hopeful; more convinced that the worst than can happen to us, as humans, is not the last word, because there is a love we should try to copy in our small ways, which never rests, never gives up, is never defeated.
In introducing the writings of George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis made a fascinating point which can only be quoted at length:
What [MacDonald] does best is fantasy — fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. The critical problem with which we are confronted is whether this art — the art of myth-making — is a species of the literary art. The objection to so classifying it is that the Myth does not essentially exist in words at all. We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version — whose words — are we thinking when we say this?
For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone’s words. No poet, as far as I know or can remember, has told this story supremely well. I am not thinking of any particular version of it. If the story is anywhere embodied in words, that is almost an accident. What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish me if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all — say by a mime, or a film. And I find this to be true of all such stories. […]
Most myths were made in prehistoric times, and, I suppose, not consciously made by individuals at all. But every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius — a Kafka or a Novalis — who can make such a story. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know. But I do not know how to classify such genius. To call it literary genius seems unsatisfactory since it can coexist with great inferiority in the art of words… . Nor can it be fitted into any of the other arts. It begins to look as if there were an art, or a gift, which criticism has largely ignored.
Lewis is prompted to this reflection in part by the fact that MacDonald was not a very good stylist — his prose is often clunky or awkward. But the myths he made were to Lewis extraordinarily powerful. I think that Lewis is right not only about Macdonald but also in his more general point, and that the phenomenon deserves more reflection that it has received.
I may come back to this intriguing idea some day, but I only mention it now because it gives me license to tell briefly, in my own words, one of MacDonald’s stories, “The Gifts of the Child Christ.”
The story centers on a six-year-old girl named Sophy — “or, as she called herself by a transposition of consonant sounds common with children, Phosy.” Phosy’s mother died giving birth to her and her father has recently remarried. He had been in various ways disappointed with his first wife and now he is well on his way to becoming disappointed with his second wife; and he neglects Phosy because she reminds him too much of the wife whom he had lost, and who had not made him happy.
Phosy’s stepmother is pregnant and that means that Phosy is ignored even more than usual; but she doesn’t seem to expect anything else. When at church with her parents she hears a preacher telling the congregation that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth,” Phosy wants the Lord to love her and therefore prays that he will chasten her, for this will prove His love. She is too young and too innocent to realize that her life is already a kind of chastening, though one she does not deserve. Phosy becomes obsessed as Christmas draws near with the idea that on that day Jesus will be born — Jesus is somehow born anew each year on Christmas day, she thinks, and she hopes that when he comes again this year he will bring her the gift she so earnestly desires.
So she’s anxious as the day draws near, and her parents are also anxious, but for a different reason: her stepmother’s pregnancy is coming to term. On Christmas morning the stepmother gives birth to Phosy’s little brother, and in all of the stress and anxiety — and, as it turns out, tragedy — of the event, Phosy is completely forgotten. So she dresses herself and comes downstairs and wanders into a spare room of the house … and she sees lying there, alone and still, a beautiful baby boy. It is, she knows, the baby Jesus, come to give her the gift of Himself, and, she devoutly hopes, his chastening also. So she takes the little boy in her arms: he’s perfectly beautiful, but he is also, she realizes, very cold. And so she holds him close to herself to give him her warmth — and it is in this position that her father finds her. And for the first time Phosy weeps. She weeps because there was no one to care for the baby Jesus when he came, and so he died.
It is an extraordinary image that George MacDonald has conjured here, for this is of course a Pieta. It is Mary bearing the body of her dead son, conveyed to us through a small English girl bearing the body of her dead baby brother. Here superimposed on Christmas Day, that most innocently festive of days, is the immense tragedy of Good Friday.
But we do call it Good Friday, do we not?
When Phosy’s father sees her holding her infant brother he sees something in Phosy that he has never noticed before: he discerns the depth and the intensity of her compassion. And he has already been altered in his attitude toward his wife by seeing her grief at the loss of her child. Throughout this story he has only thought of the women in his life as either meeting or failing to meet — though in fact always failing to meet — his expectations; but when he sees his wife and daughter so wounded, their tenderness of heart draws out his own, and a great work of healing begins in this damaged family, a family damaged above all by the absence of paternal love.
“Such were the gifts the Christ-child brought to one household that Christmas,” says MacDonald. “And the days of the mourning of that household were ended.” A knitting up of their raveled fabric begins, and the extraordinary thing is that the chief instrument of that mending is death: the death of Jesus as a man on a cross, or the death of Jesus as an infant in Victorian London, it is one Sacrifice. This is what Charles Williams pointed to when he wrote that the Christian way is “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.”
In his beautiful book Unapologetic Francis Spufford has Jesus say, “Far more can be mended than you know.” And this is what “The Gifts of the Child Christ” tells us also. George MacDonald made for himself a personal motto — an anagram of his name, imperfectly spelled because in this world things that are mended still show the signs of their frayed or broken state. Mended but not yet perfected are the things and the people of this world, at their very best. MacDonald’s motto was:
The richest of Christmas blessings to you all.
But the new rule made clear that a blessing of a same-sex couple was not the same as a marriage sacrament, a formal ceremonial rite. It also stressed that it was not blessing the relationship, and that, to avoid confusion, blessings should not be imparted during or connected to the ceremony of a civil or same-sex union, or when there are “any clothing, gestures or words that are proper to a wedding.”
What does it mean to bless a couple without blessing that couple’s relationship? Millions of words will be expended in the coming months to try to explain this, but I can guarantee that none of them will make sense. The Pope has put his church in a completely untenable, incoherent, radically unstable position. From here it will have to go back to the traditional teaching or ahead to something wholly unprecedented. And I can’t imagine a retreat, not by this Pope.
Francis has not spoken ex cathedra here — this is not like, for instance, Munificentissimus Deus. But it’s a big thing, and if the incoherence is rectified by further acceptance of same-sex unions, then some really fancy theological dancing will have to be performed to avoid having to admit that the historic dogma on sex and marriage was simply wrong. And if a future Pope walks this back, then a similarly complicated dance will have to be done to reconcile the repudiation of Francis’s teaching with the dogma that the Pope is guided and directed by the Holy Spirit even when making ordinary — not ex cathedra — arguments and policies. It’s hard to see how historic Catholic teaching on marriage and historic Catholic teaching on papal authority can emerge unscathed from this.
Is Francis now the most consequential pope in the history of Roman Catholicism? I am inclined to say Yes.
This is an except from my least-read book, a small treatise on narrative theology called Looking Before and After. Much of the book concerns the question of what it means, if it means anything coherent, to say that I have a “life story.” At one point I tell a bit of my own story, as I understand it, and that’s what follows.
The summer before I was to begin high school, my family moved from one end of Birmingham, Alabama, to another. “Zoning” had begun in Birmingham a few years before, and had we remained in our old neighborhood I would have been one of ten or so white students in a high school with a total population of more than a thousand. My parents didn’t believe that would be such a good thing for their son, so we moved to an all-white neighborhood within the “zone” of a mostly white school. My parents considered that the move encouraged fresh starts in other ways too, so within a few weeks they had picked out a nearby church, 85th Street Baptist, and we became fairly regular attendees — at least on Sunday mornings. (Sunday evening services or Wednesday prayer meetings remained well beyond the scope of our discipline.) This lasted only about a year before we lapsed back into our old habits of rare attendance, but in the meantime I got myself saved. Or so I think.
Southern churches — I have learned that this is a source of amusement to many of my fellow Christians from outside the South — often schedule revivals, bringing in guest evangelists to stir up the faithless and backslidden. But even with a revival a week away, our pastor, Brother McKee, still conducted his usual invitation at the end of the Sunday morning service. (I was an adult living in the Midwest before I ever heard the term “altar call.”) I had sat throughout the service with my friends, giggling and whispering as usual, and in silent moments doodling on the little magazine of devotional articles for teenagers that had been handed out in Sunday school an hour earlier and for which I was always thankful, since it provided fifteen minutes or so of distraction. The sermon eluded my attention, but I stood up with everyone else as the choir sang “Softly and Tenderly” — or perhaps it was “Just As I Am.” I was thirteen years old.
At that moment the Holy Spirit, with overwhelming force, called me to walk down the aisle and make my profession of faith. My will was clearly being commanded by something not me — something I knew could only be God. When, years later, I read John Wesley’s account of how in a meeting his heart was “strangely warmed,” I thought I knew just what he meant: I seemed for those moments to be heated from within. I had never experienced anything remotely like it before; nor, I must say, have I since. It was all I could do not to run down the aisle; but I did not run down the aisle. In fact, I remained fixed in my place. I stood as the choir and congregation sang, gripping the pew in front of me fiercely — I can see even now, in my mind’s eye, my knuckles going white with the effort of restraining myself from flying toward the pastor.
I was ashamed. I knew that I had paid no attention during the service, that I had snickered with my friends, and I feared their mocking judgment and that of any adult observers of my antics. I felt certain that if I walked down the aisle and “made my profession of faith,” everyone would be puzzled — they would wonder if I was joking, or, worse, mocking. So I stayed rooted at my pew.
Nevertheless, the experience shook me. I tried all week to forget it and was able occasionally to put it from my mind; but I could not pretend that I had any other explanation for what had happened to me — I knew that the power that had invaded me was not me, and I knew its real name. The sense of being strangely warmed remained with me through the week.
The following Sunday, as I walked once more with my parents into the church, a large banner outside proclaimed that the revival would begin that evening. Our pastor’s sermon topic, in his last message before the revival, was an interesting one: he said that sometimes God gives you only one chance to repent; we cannot presume upon his grace, we cannot count on His offering endlessly repeated opportunities to turn aside from our evil ways and dark paths. He told a story about a young man who rejected an opportunity to repent and was almost immediately thereafter struck by a car and killed — not as punishment, mind you: it was just that the fellow’s time was up, and he had wasted all of his chances.
The service drew to a close; we sang a final hymn; and Brother McKee did not issue an invitation, but merely dismissed us with a prayer and a reminder of the evening service.
At home, over lunch, I told my parents that I thought I would like to go to the revival that evening. They looked blankly at me. My father shrugged; my mother said, “Well, good for you.” I walked the eight blocks to the church, taking extreme care when crossing streets; I arrived early and took a seat on the right side, in the second row. I heard as little of this sermon as I had of the one preceding my unexpected Call, though for very different reasons. When the preacher began to intone the familiar words of invitation from what I now think of as the Southern Baptist revival liturgy — “with every head bowed and every eye closed” — and asked for a show of hands from those interested in repenting, my arm shot upward. At the first opportunity I bolted for the front. A few Sunday evenings later I was baptized.
And that was all. I had my insurance; if I wandered into the street and got hit by a car, I would be OK. Before long we stopped going to church. I gave God no thought for another six years.
When you blog for a long time, as I have done, you inevitably repeat yourself. Sometimes this is conscious and intentional, as you work to develop themes: I have listed some of the main themes of this blog here. At other times you just forget that you’ve said something before.
But there’s a third kind of repetition: the kind that arises when similar events prompt you to respond in similar ways. This has a good side and a bad side. If you do respond to these related provocations consistently, that suggests a certain stability of outlook; you’re not just blown about by the winds of mood or whim, you have a genuine point of view. On the other hand, you could’ve just saved yourself some time and effort by citing one of your earlier posts on the subject. “I refer the honorable gentlemen to the reply I gave some months ago.”
I just realized recently how often I have responded in very similar ways to the desperate-times-demand-desperate-measures Christians, the ones who believe that our current circumstances are so horrific that we have to throw out our historic practices and habits out the window. To cite just one common topic of recent years: There are a great many Christians who say that Tim Keller’s approach to evangelism and apologetics might have been okay Back In The Day — you know, fifteen years ago, in a previous geological era — but simply won’t work in our current Negative World. I have of course questioned the Negative World thesis — I’ll return to that in a moment — but more than that I have insisted that such people are making a category error: the question to ask is not whether this or that approach works, but rather whether it’s faithful, whether it’s obedient to Jesus. As I said in that post,
To think only in terms of what is effective or strategic is to fight on the Devil’s home ground. As Screwtape said to Wormwood about the junior tempter’s patient: “He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’, ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous — that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.” Christians who evaluate Keller not by asking whether his message is faithful to Jesus’s message but rather by asking whether it’s suited for this moment are inadvertently following Screwtape’s advice.
And in another, closely related, post, I called attention to this challenging statement from George Macdonald: “Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because He said, Do it, or once abstained because He said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in Him, if you do not do anything He tells you.”
That is what counts, whether this is a Negative World or a Positive World or any other kind of world. Our obligations remain the same in every world. What we need is to stop trying to read the tea-leaves of politics and instead learn to be idiots.
Obedience is both difficult and boring; and the boring part is especially challenging in our neophilic age, in which we cannot readily perceive the renewing power of repetition. It’s no wonder that people would rather think about plans and strategies than to strive to practice obedience. But “strategic thinking” is the classic excuse for disobedience.
Finally, I have consistently found it useful (or sometimes just fun) to see the various stances I’ve described here as exemplified by characters from The Lord of the Rings, e.g.:
- Denethor: the evangelist of despair who’d rather blow everything up than be faithful through hard times;
- Boromir: one who thinks that if he could just seize the reins of power then everything would be great, because he is committed to all the Right Things and therefore couldn’t possibly rule badly or tyrannically;
- Faramir: one who has immersed himself in ancient lore and by so doing has learned humility and mercy;
- Aragorn: one who understands that we must judge between “good and ill” today as we have ever judged; they don’t change their character, nor is the need for discernment ever abrogated;
- Gandalf: one who is content to be a steward rather than a ruler, and to strive to give to the next generation “clean earth to till.”
Okay, thus endeth the summing up. Now whenever these issues come up again in the future, I will try to remember to link to this post, rather than write a new one that makes the same points.
The risk of attempting such a thing is that one will appear unserious and will accordingly begin to lose the professional and social advantages that slowly began accumulating throughout all those years of pretending to be an adult. I don’t mean to overdo the curious parallels between art and faith, but it does seem to me that to be willing to take this risk is somewhat analogous to the choice Saint Paul said one must make to become a “fool for Christ”. The sixteenth-century Muscovite saint known as “Basil Fool for Christ”, for whom the world’s most iconic onion-dome church is named, was also known as “Basil the Blessed”: it comes out to the same thing.
I want, I mean, to spend the rest of my life, consciously and willfully, as a fool, at least in those domains that matter most to me. Of course I can still “clean up real nice” whenever the circumstances require, but I now see those circumstances more or less in the same way I see filing taxes or updating my passwords — just part of the general tedium of maintaining one’s place in a world that pretends to be built around the interests and expectations of sober-minded grown-ups, but that in the end is a never-ending parade of delirious grotesques.
I have in effect undergone a double conversion, then, to both faith and art, which in the end may be only a single but two-sided conversion, to a mode of existence characteristic of children and fools.
A friend wrote in response to my addition, at the end of my most recent newsletter, a quote from Robert Farrar Capon. My friend asked about how I see the relation between Capon’s picture of what we might call the absolutism of grace and, on the other hand, the call to the spiritual disciplines made by people like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. Here’s my reply:
I think you’re right to be attracted by both parties, because, properly understood, the two parties are talking about two very different things. Capon is talking about our ideas of finding favor with the Lord — about the universal human belief that we can and should earn our favor with the Lord, and that those of us who more successfully practice the various virtues will have more favor from the Lord that those who do less. (There’s a kind of implicit scarcity model at work here: God only has so much favor to go around, so we want to get more for ourselves, leaving less for our neighbors.)
What Capon wants us to understand is that our favor with the Lord is completely the result of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. Completely. Because of what Christ has done for us, because of the favor that he has earned for us, then we can be confident that we will be received on the last day. (I’ve reason to believe we all will be received at Graceland.) We are therefore free and the question then becomes: What do we do with our freedom?
And this I think is where the disciplines come in. We practice the various spiritual disciplines, not in order to earn God‘s favor, but in gratitude for having already received it. We practice them because we want to draw nearer to the God who has saved us, or let him draw nearer to us, and because we want to be like Jesus. We want it, we don’t have to do it in order to earn our salvation. Jesus already did that. So if we don’t practice those disciplines today, God isn’t frowning on us. And if we know he isn’t frowning on us, that “when we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” then I think we have more incentive, not less, to do better tomorrow. It’s less terrifying because our salvation does not hinge on it.
In June, 2020, Keller announced that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. One of his final projects, completed earlier this year, was an eighty-three-page white paper he called “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church.” It offers a wide-ranging set of prescriptions for what he viewed as the profound afflictions of the evangelical movement, including its anti-intellectualism, its problems with race, and the politicization of the church that has “turned off half the country.” The document is an exhaustive blueprint, but the question now is who will carry it out.
That is precisely the question.
(Also, maybe I should annotate that white paper the way I annotated the terrific new essay on postrationalism by Tara Isabella Burton.)
Well, this is a day for tears. I don’t know Tim intimately, but he is a friend, and his presence in my life has been a great gift. When I look back through Tim’s emails to me over the years, the thread that runs through them is encouragement. The last words of his last email to me: “Main thing I wanted to say is how much I appreciate all you are doing.”
The main thing Tim wanted to say was always about someone other than himself: his mind seemed always to be focused on his family, his friends, those he pastored and mentored, and above all the God who is known to us in Jesus Christ. The criticism he received — almost all of it irrational and misinformed — slightly bemused him but otherwise left him unaffected; he had more important things to think about than his own reputation.
In one of his last books he wrote of
Christianity’s unsurpassed offers — a meaning that suffering cannot remove, a satisfaction not based on circumstances, a freedom that does not hurt but rather enhances love, an identity that does not crush you or exclude others, a moral compass that does not turn you into an oppressor, and a hope that can face anything, even death.
All I can say is Amen to that.
Above I spoke of my friendship with Tim in the present tense, for a good reason. I don’t know Tim intimately; but I hope to some day. Until then, I will miss him very much.
In his great book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Wilken writes:
In an age in which thinkers of all kinds, even poets, are creatures of the academy, it is well to remember that most of the writers considered in this book were bishops who presided regularly at the celebration of the Eucharist, the church’s communal offering to God, and at the annual reception of catechumens in the church through baptism at Easter. The bishop also preached several times a week and could be seen of a Wednesday or Friday or Saturday as well as on Sunday seated before the Christian community expounding the Sacred Scriptures. Some of the most precious sources for early Christian thought are sermons taken down in shorthand as they were being preached in the ancient basilicas. In them the bishop speaks as successor of the apostles to a community that looks to him as teacher and guide. For intellectuals of this sort, even when they were writing learned tomes in the solitude of their studies, there was always a living community before their eyes. Faithfulness, not originality, was the mark of a good teacher.
This reminds me that his his biography of Lesslie Newbigin, Geoffrey Wainwright comments that the bishop-theologian was once a common type of Christian intellectual, indeed in some senses the characteristic type — but that is no longer the case:
Christian theology is more immediately a practical than a speculative discipline, and such speculation as it harbors stands ultimately in the service of right worship, right confession of Christ, and right living. Right practice demands, of course, critical and constructive reflection, and the best Christian theology takes place in the interplay between reflection and practice. That is why honor is traditionally given to those practical thinkers and preachers who are designated “Fathers of the Church.” Most of them were bishops who, in the early centuries of Christianity, supervised the teaching of catechumens, delivered homilies in the liturgical assembly, oversaw the spiritual and moral life of their communities, gathered in council when needed to clarify and determine the faith, and took charge of the mission to the world as evangelistic opportunities arose. A figure of comparable stature and range in the ecumenical twentieth century was Lesslie Newbigin.
I have often written about the ways in which the modern university is built on perverse incentives, and, putting that together with these comments on bishops, I am mulling over two questions:
- Should Christians look primarily to scholars and thinkers outside the academy for theological leadership?
- Should our society in general look primarily to scholars and thinkers outside the academy for intellectual leadership?
Or, more concisely: Where are the thinkers who always have “a living community before their eyes”?
I just finished teaching Susanna Clarke’s marvelous Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and probably my favorite scene in that book comes in the third volume, at a moment when magic, after several hundred years of absence, is rapidly returning to England. Many think this portends the return of the greatest magician and greatest King in the history of Northern England, John Uskglass, the Raven King, who in the Middle Ages reigned for three hundred years before suddenly disappearing — and, it seems, taking the strength of English magic with him. As Mr. Norrell, his cynical companion Lascelles, and his manservant Childermass make their way from London to Yorkshire — the county of which Norrell and Childermass are natives, and to which Lascelles is a stranger — Lascelles declares that it might be time to launch a renewed attack, in a periodical for which he writes, on the Raven King, a new declaration of his pernicious influence. Then:
“If I were you, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass, softly, “I would speak more guardedly. You are in the north now. In John Uskglass’s own country. Our towns and cities and abbeys were built by him. Our laws were made by him. He is in our minds and hearts and speech. Were it summer you would see a carpet of tiny flowers beneath every hedgerow, of a bluish-white colour. We call them John’s Farthings. When the weather is contrary and we have warm weather in winter or it rains in summer the country people say that John Uskglass is in love again and neglects his business. And when we are sure of something we say it is as safe as a pebble in John Uskglass’s pocket.”
Lascelles laughed. “Far be it from me, Mr Childermass, to disparage your quaint country sayings. But surely it is one thing to pay lip-service to one’s history and quite another to talk of bringing back a King who numbered Lucifer himself among his allies and overlords? No one wants that, do they? I mean apart from a few Johannites and madmen?”
“I am a North Englishman, Mr Lascelles,” said Childermass. “Nothing would please me better than that my King should come home. It is what I have wished for all my life.”
Among the most neglected biblical images — neglected in comparison to its importance — is that of the Return of the King. When your King has gone on progress, or for some other reason has left the kingdom or left the capital city, then you patiently but attentively await his return. You look for his appearance on the horizon and while you are waiting, you prepare the way of the Lord. You make a highway for him in the wilderness; you make the crooked places straight and the rough places plain; and then when you see him in the distance, you come out to meet him and escort him home. That’s how it’s done.
A failure to understand this essential practice is the primary cause of the wholly mistaken idea of the Rapture. Paul tells the Thessalonian church: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The assumption of Rapture theology is that when believers go up to meet the Lord in the air, he immediately does a 180 and heads back to heaven, taking them with him. But that’s not what the text says, because it wouldn’t make any sense. Why would he come halfway between heaven and earth only in order to turn around? He could just summon them to heaven if that’s where they’re meant to be going. But the faithful, patient believers are not meeting the Lord in the air so that they can then go to heaven with Him. They’re meeting the Lord in the air so they can escort him into his Kingdom, what will become the New Earth, with its capital the New Jerusalem, where he shall reign for ever and ever.
It’s in response to this story that N. T. Wright wrote a delightful little essay, “Jesus Is Coming – Plant a Tree!” You plant a tree because every tree that you plant is a token of faith in the New Creation, and a means of preparing for the New Earth. Christians don’t often think that way because they assume that the idea of the New Creation means that everything that currently exists will simply be destroyed and then God will start all over from scratch. But that can’t be the case, because the first fruit of the New Creation is the resurrected Lord Himself, and His resurrected body bears upon it the marks of his crucifixion. Therefore his resurrection body is a glorified body, yes, but continuous with the body that was born into this world, and that left this world by means of crucifixion. Indeed, a different body might be glorious, but not glorified.
When you look at matters in that light, then, if you are a Christian, you have a very specific reason to practice repair. Every act of repair is a means of preparing the way of the Lord. Every act of repair is a preparation for and a contribution to the New Creation. Every act of repair is a step towards the renewal of this broken world. And that’s what God intends to do — make all things new, not simply erase them, not simply delete them and start over ab initio. Make them new.
P.S. If you understand this practice of greeting the returning King, then you will grasp what may be the most important element in the story of the Prodigal Son: the fact that when the disconsolate, dissolute, and broken young man decides to come home and beg to be no more than a slave in his father’s house, his father sees him a long way off – and comes running to greet him, to escort him home. The son thinks that his sins make him worthy to be no more than a slave, and that may be, in the world’s accounting, a sound judgment. But that’s not how the Kingdom of Heaven works. In the upside-down logic of the Kingdom of Heaven, a righteous father sees his self-ruined son – sees him from a long way off — and runs as a slave might run to greet his Lord, seeing the young man not as a debauched sinner to be judged and found wanting, but as a cherished and beloved one in whose honor a great feast must be held.
P.P.S. Only after posting this did I remember that, three years ago, I wrote about the same passage from Clarke, but in the context of what Jung might have called the Shadow — tragic or farcical, it’s hard to say which — of this longing for the King.
This essay by Brad East is very smart, and takes the Christianity-and-culture conversation usefully beyond H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories. But I have one big question: What is “culture”?
Almost everyone who writes on this subject treats it as unproblematic, yet it is anything but. In the late 18th century Herder wrote of Cultur (the German spelling would only later become Kultur): “Nothing is more indeterminate than this word, and nothing more deceptive than its application to all nations and periods.”
I suspect that (a) when most people use the term they have only the haziest sense of what they mean by it, and (b) no two writers on this subject are likely to have a substantially similar understanding of it.
I certainly don’t believe Niebuhr had any clear idea at all what he meant by “culture”: though he devotes many pages to defining it, he also uses it interchangeably with both “civilization” and “society,” which is, I think, indefensible. And he writes things like this:
Culture is social tradition which must be conserved by painful struggle not so much against nonhuman natural forces as against revolutionary and critical powers in human life and reason.
So “revolutionary and critical powers in human life and reason” are not part of culture? Coulda fooled me. Brad says that Niebuhr’s book “stubbornly resists … dismissal,” but I — waving my elegantly manicured hand through the haze of smoke from my expensive cigar — I dismiss it. I think its influence has been wholly pernicious: it has confused and distracted.
Brad’s essay, for all its virtues, suffers from its reluctance to dismiss the eminently dismissable Niebuhr. He doesn’t straightforwardly say what he means by “culture,“ but he begins his essay thus: “Christendom is the name we give to Christian civilization, when society, culture, law, art, family, politics, and worship are saturated by the church’s influence and informed by its authority.” This suggests that culture is something distinct from the other items in the list, but if culture does not include “society, … law, art, family, politics, and worship” I’m not sure what’s left over for it to be.
In his still-magisterial book Keywords, Raymond Williams famously wrote that “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” And near the end of his entry on it, he writes,
Between languages as within a language, the range and complexity of sense and reference indicate both difference of intellectual position and some blurring or overlapping. These variations, of whatever kind, necessarily involve alternative views of the activities, relationships and processes which this complex word indicates. The complexity, that is to say, is not finally in the word but in the problems which its variations of use significantly indicate.
Indeed. That entry, along with Williams’s book Culture and Society: 1980-1950, ought to be the the starting points for any discourse (Christian or otherwise) about culture. Another helpful orienting element: the distinction between “private culture” and “public culture” that James Davison Hunter makes in Chapter 2 of Culture Wars.
A quotation from Hunter
Both public culture and, for lack of a better term, “private culture” can be understood as “spheres of symbolic activity,” that is, areas of human endeavor where symbols are created and adapted to human needs. At both levels, culture orders our experience, makes sense of our lives, gives us meaning. The very essence of the activity taking place in both realms — what makes both public and private culture possible — is “discourse” or conversation, the interaction of different voices, opinions, and perspectives. Yet, while public and private culture are similar in constitution, they are different in their function — one orders private life; the other orders public life.
If we can agree on some boundaries for this elusive concept we might be able to have a more profitable conversation. I’m trying here to start a conversation, not to conclude one, but I will just end with this: More often than not, when Christians oppose Christianity to or distinguish it from culture, what they mean by “culture” is what Foucault famously called the power-knowledge regime. And if that’s what you mean, that’s what you should say — because there is no form of Christian belief or practice that is not cultural through-and-through.
In his Apologeticus — written almost certainly in Carthage around 197 AD — Tertullian writes about the persecution suffered by Christians throughout the Roman Empire:
If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves, who can suffer injury at our hands? In regard to this, recall your own experiences. How often you inflict gross cruelties on Christians, partly because it is your own inclination, and partly in obedience to the laws! How often, too, the hostile mob, paying no regard to you, takes the law into its own hand, and assails us with stones and flames! With the very frenzy of the Bacchanals, they do not even spare the Christian dead, but tear them, now sadly changed, no longer entire, from the rest of the tomb, from the asylum we might say of death, cutting them in pieces, rending them asunder. Yet, banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to, though, if it were held right among us to repay evil by evil, a single night with a torch or two could achieve an ample vengeance? But away with the idea of a sect divine avenging itself by human fires, or shrinking from the sufferings in which it is tried. If we desired, indeed, to act the part of open enemies, not merely of secret avengers, would there be any lacking in strength, whether of numbers or resources? The Moors, the Marcomanni, the Parthians themselves, or any single people, however great, inhabiting a distinct territory, and confined within its own boundaries, surpasses, forsooth, in numbers, one spread over all the world! We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you — cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum, — we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods…. Yet you choose to call us enemies of the human race, rather than of human error. Nay, who would deliver you from those secret foes, ever busy both destroying your souls and ruining your health? Who would save you, I mean, from the attacks of those spirits of evil, which without reward or hire we exorcise? This alone would be revenge enough for us, that you were henceforth left free to the possession of unclean spirits. But instead of taking into account what is due to us for the important protection we afford you, and though we are not merely no trouble to you, but in fact necessary to your well-being, you prefer to hold us enemies, as indeed we are, yet not of man, but rather of his error.
It’s clear from the context that Christians were charged with being “enemies of the human race,” but no, Tertullian says, we wish only to offer a better understanding of our relationship to (and our alienation from) God. There are a great many of us, Tertullian says, and though “we are but of yesterday,” we’re everywhere in your society — except of course in the temples of your gods, whom we do not and will not worship — so if we were to rise up in violence you’d have a big problem on your hands.
But we don’t rise up in violence. You persecute us, you torment us, you even kill us; and instead of answering violence with violence, we pray for you. We constantly intercede for you with God so that the demonic forces you (wittingly or unwittingly) invoke will not destroy you. The very strength you employ against us you possess because of our prayers for you. Sometimes it feels that all of you are our declared enemies; and if so, well, then, we must love all — for we are forbidden to hate our enemies and commanded to bless them. So be it.
And your persecution in any event will not work: as Tertullian famously says elsewhere in his treatise, semen est sanguis Christianorum — the blood of Christians is seed. From it new spiritual life emerges.
A great many American Christians these days want to “take back their country,” dominate their enemies, and then “enjoy the spoils of victory.” Tertullian shows us what the real spoils of victory look like. Who wants them?
Gregory Nazianzus: “Yesterday I was crucified with Christ, today I am glorified with him; yesterday I died with him, today I am made alive with him; yesterday I was buried with him, today I rise with him. But let us make an offering to the one who died and rose again for us. Perhaps you think I am speaking of gold or silver or tapestries or transparent precious stones, earthly matter that is in flux and remains below, of which the greater part always belongs to evil people and slaves of things below and of the ruler of this world (John 14:30). Let us offer our own selves, the possession most precious to God and closest to him. Let us give back to the Image that which is according to the image, recognizing our value, honoring the Archetype, knowing the power of the mystery and for whom Christ died.”
Forthcoming from my friend and colleague Philip Jenkins. A kind of intro or overview here. I’m excited that this is coming.
Over at Plough, the tag is: Another life is possible. This ought to be a mantra for most of us. We can live in defiance of the mandates of technocracy and metaphysical capitalism; we can’t make those demonic Powers go away, and we probably can’t live uninfluenced by them — but we can reduce their power over our lives, one small step at a time. Independence is not gained in an instant, but I think there’s a growing body of people who want it.
There’s a funny passage in James Pogue’s recent report on right-wingers relocating to the West:
Resistance to “globalism” is a new organizing force of right-wing politics. “These people at the World Economic Forum,” DeSantis told the National Conservatism Conference in September, “they just view us as a bunch of peasants. I can tell you, things like the World Economic Forum are dead on arrival in the state of Florida.” It could have been Alex Jones talking.
Well, maybe. But it certainly could’ve been Bernie Sanders talking. And isn’t that noteworthy?
It would be nice if people found it so. Recently Michelle Goldberg wrote about recent studies showing the damage that social media platforms are doing to the mental health of young people — but as soon as some politicians on the right called attention to those studies, reactive nitwits on the left, of which there are many, fled to alternative explanations. Because Josh Hawley can’t be allowed to make a valid point about anything, now can he? Goldberg:
The idea that unaccountable corporate behemoths are harming kids with their products shouldn’t be a hard one for liberals to accept, even if figures like Hawley believe it as well. I’m not sure if banning social media for young people is the right way to start fixing the psychic catastrophe engulfing so many kids. But we’re not going to find any fix at all if we simply start with our political priors and work backward.
If people — people on social media all the freaking time, naturally — could manage to take a few minutes’ break from their Pavlovian virtual cages, they might discover the possibility of consensus — consensus on the vital necessity to restrain the predatory megacorporations that are destroying our society, and, if their recent adventures in chatbots are any indication, are very much looking for new worlds to ruin.
Any day I can take a step back from my political priors, take a step back from absorption in Technopoly, take a step back from the commodification of myself, is a good day. That some of us find that extremely difficult is perhaps a good Lenten meditation.
In the morning, one of the prisoners who hadn’t yet lost track of the calendar recalled, “Today is Easter Sunday.”
Wilmore, Kentucky, is the kind of quaint town (population 6,027) you might drive through and forget. Perhaps if you stop at the intersection of Main Street and Lexington Avenue you may notice a white Presbyterian chapel and a redbrick Baptist church on opposite corners — reminders of a bygone era when America was staunchly Christian.
Maybe someone should tell The Economist that those churches are not museums devoted to “a bygone era” — people today actually attend them.
If you’re going to read only one piece about the Asbury revival, make it this one by Ruth Graham. (I won’t let the fact that Ruth was once my student prevent me from saying that she’s the best religion reporter in this country, and it’s not close.)
I don’t have anything further to say about this event, though. Whether this is a genuine fruit-bearing revival is something that can’t be discerned now, and perhaps won’t ever be discernible. As George Eliot teaches us in the famous concluding words of Middlemarch, we don’t really understand the causes of the changes in our lives: sometimes the most important influences, and the most important people, work in ways too subtle for us to perceive. Maybe — and please, Lord, let it be so — this will be a great revival with lasting effects; but we’re unlikely to know what those effects are or how they have shaped people’s hearts. God works in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.
As she pondered and internalized the meanings of slavery, affliction, and humility, Weil stumbled upon a central Christian idea: when he was incarnated, Jesus Christ took “the form of a slave” (morphē doulou), as we learn from St. Paul in Philippians 2:7. Weil went into the factory to find out more about the social conditions of the modern worker in capitalism. Instead, she found Jesus Christ.
Weil may have been raised in a secular Jewish home, but her whole education was shaped by France’s Catholic mindset. In the factory she started to use Christian notions, symbols, and images liberally to make sense of what she was going through. First among them was affliction itself, which defines both the slave condition and the Christian experience. In her “spiritual autobiography,” she describes how the “affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul.” Because of her profound empathy for the oppressed, she felt the suffering around her as her own. That’s how she received la marque de l’esclavage, which she likens to “the branding of the red-hot iron the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves.” That’s also how she was transformed: “Since then,” she wrote, “I have always regarded myself as a slave.”
An intense religious experience, which occurred soon after her factory stint, sealed the transformation. Finding herself in a small fishing village in Portugal, she witnessed a procession of fishermen’s wives. Touring the anchored ships, they sang “ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness.” Weil froze in place. There, a conviction was “suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is preeminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among them.” Nietzsche, too, had said that Christianity was the religion of slaves. He was right, but for all the wrong reasons.
Everybody is talking these days about the decline of the West, and with good reason. Some people think that Christianity should have something to say about this: that as the faith was the rock on which the West was built, so the faith should rebuild it again, or defend it against its enemies. We need a Muscular Christianity! they insist in the comment sections. Bring on the Christian knights! they shout on YouTube. But I don’t think this is how it works. When the last empire collapsed, the Christians of Europe weren’t trying to build, let alone defend, some construction called “Christendom.” They didn’t plan for the dome of St. Peter’s or the Battle of Lepanto. They were just trying to do the humblest and the only thing: to worship the true God, and to strip away everything that interfered with that worship. They took to the deserts to follow Christ and to battle the Enemy. Their work was theosis. They had crucified themselves as instructed. What emerged as a result, and what it turned into — well, that wasn’t up to them.
In a time when the temptation is always toward culture war rather than inner war, I think we could learn something from our spiritual ancestors. What we might learn is not that the external battle is never necessary; sometimes it very much is. But a battle that is uninformed by inner transformation will soon eat itself, and those around it. Why, after all, were the cave Christians so sought after? Because they were not like other people. Something had been granted to them, something had been earned, in their long retreats from the world. They had touched the hem. After years in the tombs or the caverns or the woods, their very unworldliness became, paradoxically, just what the world needed.
I think the importance of [Katelyn Beaty’s Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church] is the conversation it opens about ethics in institutions, not (just) pious personal practices. The scandal at the heart of her book is not the celebrity pastors; their corruption and scandal is the least interesting and most predictable part of the package. The scandal is the enabling organizations and the collapse of institutional ethics — a dangerous pragmatism married to a startlingly idealistic naïveté.
Thus the need for the repair of institutions, something that I think requires the cultivation of piety.
In one sense the question I posed in an earlier post — What are the proper focal practices for a pilgrim people? — has an obvious answer. In a sermon John Wesley wrote that the “chief … means” of God’s grace to us
are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon); and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.
Surely it is true, and has been true as long as Christians have walked the earth, and will always be true, that these three practices are permanently and non-negotiably focal for Christians. If we’re not doing these, then we’re going to be distracted, diffracted, “blown about by every wind of doctrine.”
But if these are the “ordinary channels” by which God conveys grace to us, might there be, in certain times and places, extraordinary channels — channels especially appropriate to a given context? I think so, and in this and future posts will be drawing on Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society to identify some.
In this post I want to talk about intervals. In an especially provocative passage — and in another, later post I’ll discuss its context — Han writes,
Only by the negative means of making-pause can the subject of action thoroughly measure the sphere of contingency (which is unavailable when one is simply active). Although delaying does not represent a positive deed, it proves necessary if action is not to sink to the level of laboring. Today we live in a world that is very poor in interruption; “betweens” and “between-times” are lacking. Acceleration is abolishing all intervals. In the aphorism, “Principal deficiency of active men,” Nietzsche writes: “Active men are generally wanting in the higher activity … in this regard they are lazy…. The active roll as the stone rolls, in obedience to the stupidity of the laws of mechanics.” Different kinds of action and activity exist. Activity that follows an unthinking, mechanical course is poor in interruption. Machines cannot pause. Despite its enormous capacity for calculation, the computer is stupid insofar as it lacks the ability to delay.
Almost everyone at times has the sense that we are not using our technologies but are being used by them. Which is why, in the long run, as Jaron Lanier has pointed out, “the Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?” We therefore come to imitate the distinctive stupidity of machines. If we are to be stupid, at least let our stupidity be human.
So maybe the first focal practice, the one that enables all the others, is simply this: to pause. To create intervals in our busyness. Maybe we will later fill those intervals with prayer, for instance, but just to create them is the first desideratum. Pause, and breathe — that alone declares our humanity and distinguishes us from our machines. The pilgrim pauses along the Way, and in that manner combats the laziness peculiar to a technologically accelerated age.
Kierkegaard, from his Journals:
Christianly the emphasis does not fall so much upon to what extent or how far a person succeeds in meeting or fulfilling the requirement, if he actually is striving, as it is upon his getting an impression of the requirement in all its infinitude so that he rightly learns to be humbled and to rely upon grace.
To pare down the requirement in order to fulfill it better (as if this were earnestness, that now it can all the more easily appear that one is earnest about wanting to fulfill the requirement) — to this Christianity in its deepest essence is opposed.
No, infinite humiliation and grace, and then a striving born of gratitude — this is Christianity.
Here’s a wonderful post by Ian Paul on the Epiphany story — what Matthew and Luke have in common and how they differ; the unconfronted assumptions of many biblical critics; the Parthians’ use of horses and camels. All the good stuff.
In this book, Ralph Cudworth makes the following fascinating argument:
Now the Tabernacle or Temple being thus a House for God to dwell in visibly, to make up the Notion of Dwelling or Habitation complete, there must be all things suitable to a House belonging to it. Hence in the Holy Place there must be a Table and a Candlestick, because this was the ordinary Furniture of a Room … A Table and a Candlestick … suit the Notion of a Dwelling House. The Table must have its Dishes, and Spoons, and Bowls, and Covers, belonging to it, though they were never used, and always be furnished with Bread upon it. The Candlestick must have its Lamps continually burning.
There must be a Continuall Fire kept, in this House of God’s, upon the Altar, as the Focus of it.
Cudworth cites the Hebrew of Isaiah 31:9 — KJV: “the LORD, whose fire is in Zion, and his furnace in Jerusalem” — and renders it into Latin: Qui habet ignem suum in Sion, et focum suum in Jerusalem, or, “Whose fire is in Zion, and his hearth in Jerusalem.”
(I may be getting too deep into the weeds here, but: Cudworth’s rendering differs from the Vulgate, which has: cujus ignis est in Sion et caminus ejus in Jerusalem. Apparently caminus — which is a straight theft from the Greek κάμῑνος — can also mean “hearth” but is more likely to be used to describe a furnace, an oven, or a kiln. It’s only focus, as far as I can tell, that bears the familial associations.)
It’s noteworthy that the Hebrew word that the KJV translates as “furnace” and Cudworth as focus is rendered in the Septuagint as οἰκείους — from the root οἶκος, meaning “household” or “home.” The LORD, whose fire is in Zion, and his household in Jerusalem.
But now, as Christians have always said, through his sacrifice Jesus has himself become the Temple. (See Hebrews 10.) The place of sacrifice has been transformed into a place of feasting — as Paul says in 1 Timothy 3, the ἐκκλησία Θεοῦ (the assembly or church of God) is also the οἴκῳ Θεοῦ (the household of God) — and the focus, the central hearth, of that household is the altar.
I love this notion of the church’s altar as the hearth of the Lord’s House, the place where we gather to warm ourselves and to receive nourishment — the focus of our worship in a distinctively familial and homely sense.
Albert Borgmann talks about the relationship between focal practices and focal things — “things” being a poor choice of words here, because he means something more like “what or whom those practices centrally attend to.” When two people get married they are the central figures in the practice the old Prayer Book calls The Solemnization of Matrimony, but they aren’t things. I don’t know why Borgmann doesn’t just talk about focal practices and foci, but that’s what I will do: Participation in a service of Holy Communion is a focal practice whose focus is in one sense the altar — but in another and deeper sense Jesus Christ himself.
In The Point of View of My Work as an Author Kierkegaard explains why he writes sometimes under his own name and sometimes under pseudonyms. One of his primary goals — or, as he rather curiously puts it, one of the primary goals of “the authorship” — is to attack the illusions under which his fellow Danes are living, the chief among them being that they are living in a Christian society (which means that they believe themselves to have received Christianity as a kind of natural inheritance). The problem, Kierkegaard says, is that such illusions are hard to remove by direct attack — and indeed, the deeper the illusion is the more resistant it is to any direct confrontation.
No, an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed. If it is an illusion that all are Christians — and if there is anything to be done about it, it must be done indirectly, not by one who vociferously proclaims himself an extraordinary Christian, but by one who, better instructed, is ready to declare that he is not a Christian at all….
There is nothing that requires such gentle handling as an illusion, if one wishes to dispel it. If anyone prompts the prospective captive to set his will in opposition, all is lost. And this is what a direct attack achieves, and it implies moreover the presumption of requiring a man to make to another person, or in his presence, an admission which he can make most profitably to himself privately. This is what is achieved by the indirect method, which, loving and serving the truth, arranges everything dialectically for the prospective captive, and then shyly withdraws (for love is always shy), so as not to witness the admission which he makes to himself alone before God—that he has lived hitherto in an illusion.
I especially adore this: “for love is always shy.” See also the magnificent tale of the king and the lowly maiden in the Philosophical Fragments.
There is much more that could be said about this, and how it relates to, for instance, Leo Strauss’s case for the value of esoteric writing in philosophy (something I have often mused on when engaged in my own writing). But for now I simply want to ask this question: What can I do to remove my own illusions?
I think it was A. J. Ayer — one of those 20th century Oxford philosophers anyway — whose highest praise of any other philosopher was “Yes, he’s very well defended.” I think almost all of us are well-defended against the dispelling of our illusions. This is why Kierkegaard said that the person whose life is governed by some powerful illusion must be as it were approached from behind. But how could I approach myself from behind? After all, as I recently wrote, the most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves. Shouldn’t I take seriously my own position?
Well, for the past couple of years I’ve been trying to do just that. I’m not any less interested in theological reflection (or in being a Christian!) that I used to be, but I’ve been reading theology for so long that it’s hard for me to be surprised by it — hard for me not to assimilate whatever I’m reading to my existing categories. So I’ve been trying to read more stuff that evades those categories, that forces me into a less predictable and (ideally) more creative response.
That’s why I’ve been trying to learn from Russian socialists and Daoists and anarchists — they’re all people who are trying to address the same social and ethical issues that concern me, but who do so from different perspectives and with the use of different intellectual tools. But I’m now thinking that, having been fortified by my encounters with those traditions of thought, it may be time to return to my specifically theological concerns and see what they look like in light of what I’ve learned. For instance:
- What does Christian peaceableness look like in light of Alexander Herzen’s melioristic approach to social change?
- Is there really, as I have suspected, a kind of familial resemblance between Daoism and Franciscan spirituality?
- Can the “emergent order” of anarchism be a key to the building of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community”?
In short: Can I, through these oddball explorations, remove the illusions that prevent me from seeing what I should see about myself and the world? Can I learn through these exercises to think more wisely and act more justly? I dunno. I hope so.
Grief can be seen as a kind of exalted state where the person who is grieving is the closest they will ever be to the fundamental essence of things. You either go under, or it changes you, or, worse, you become a small, hard thing that has contracted around an absence. Sometimes you find a grieving person constricted around the thing they have lost; they’ve become ossified and impossible to penetrate, and, well, other people go the other way, and grow open and expansive.
Arthur’s death literally changed everything for me. Absolutely everything. It made me a religious person. I am not talking about being a traditional Christian. I am not even talking about a belief in God, necessarily. It made me a religious person in the sense that I felt, on a profound level, a deep inclusion in the human predicament, and an understanding of our vulnerability and the sense that, as individuals, we are, each of us, imperilled. Each life is precarious, and some of us understand it and some don’t. I became a person after my son died.
J. Ayodeji Adewuya is a professor of New Testament at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Tennessee. He saw his share of miracles in his home country, Nigeria — including, he believes, the raising of his stillborn infant son after he spent 20 minutes shouting and pacing the room in prayer. “I joke, you don’t really need to pray the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us our daily bread,’ when you have everything provided by Walmart and your fridge is full,” he told me. “When you’re in a place where you have nothing, the only thing you can do is depend on God, and at that point you’re expecting something. The average white evangelical Christian doesn’t expect anything.”
Western skeptics have disregarded witness testimony from places like Nigeria at least since David Hume complained in his 1748 essay on miracles that “they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.” Such dismissal is more awkward for 21st-century secular liberals, who often say that Westerners should listen to people in the Global South and acknowledge the blindnesses of colonialism. “Some people claim that the best thing to do is to listen to people’s experiences and learn from them,” Dr. Chinedozi said. “Yet these people will be the first to find a way to disprove experiences in other cultures and contexts.”
He’s not wrong.
For some reason I haven’t thought about this passage in years, though it is one of the most glorious things I know:
God made Sun and Moon to distinguish seasons, and day, and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons: But God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumne, his mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask panem quetidianum, our daily bread, and God never sayes you should have come yesterday, he never sayes you must againe to morrow, but to day if you will heare his voice, to day he will heare you. If some King of the earth have so large an extent of Dominion, in North, and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions, so large an extent East and West, as that he hath day and night together in his Dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgement together: He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupified till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.
That’s John Donne’s glorious sermon for Christmas Day 1624, wonderfuly explicated by Joe Mangina here.
The Church universal also has a set of overlapping responsibilities, but how these responsibilities are translated into the work of individual churches is a tension of its own. Local churches are first obligated to their own members, to preach, worship, disciple, and administer the sacraments. Adding anything beyond this to any individual church is tying on a burden too great to bear. Yet the Body of Christ spread across the world is also responsible for sending messengers of the Gospel to places that have not yet heard it, meeting the needs of the poor (local and distant), and advocating for justice in whatever society they find themselves in. (I would draw primarily from Isaiah 58 as the source of the lattermost impetus.) The Body of Christ also has an obligation to be in communication with itself such that the hand can know if the eye is suffering and then do something about it.
This task might seem impossible, but the power of the Holy Spirit among God’s people allows us to order ourselves according to the moral obligations we have to one another and to the world. We seek in prayer to know which people in need we ought to be in proximity to, and we obey accordingly as we embark on whichever road to Jericho we are called to. Some may physically remain wherever they are; others may move across town, across the country, or across the world. The wealth of believers, once yielded to the direction of the Holy Spirit, also has centripetal and centrifugal forces acting upon it but should in general go to where there is the greatest need and the least knowledge of the Gospel.
A long, complex essay, incisive and provocative. Every thoughtful Christian should read it. I hope to comment more fully later.
In for a penny, in for a pounding, I always say. I really don’t want to talk about the whole “three worlds” thing again, but I’m going to, because it allows me to segue into something I do want to talk about. I just completed a book project, so I’m gonna take the time to do this stuff. Buckle up; it won’t be brief.
My friend Brad East claims that the “negative world” thesis is self-evidently true: “publicly professing to be a Christian in the 1950s was — on balance, no matter who you were or where you lived, with relatively minor exceptions — more likely than not to enhance your reputation and/or social status and/or professional-political-familial-marital-financial prospects.” In response to that I would again emphasize the distinction between the profession of faith and actual Christian living. As far as I’m concerned, a world in which the public profession of faith is rewarded but serious Christian practice is discouraged is not a positive world. It’s a Whited Sepulcher World.
I would also add that the exceptions are not “relatively minor” unless you consider the experience of Black people in America to be minor. White Americans, especially but not only in the South, have long been suspicious of what gets taught in Black churches. In her Incidents in the Live of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs narrates how the slaveholding leaders of her community demolished the church the local Blacks had built with their own hands, and then made sure they were taught by preachers whose only biblical text was “Slaves, obey your masters.” And then, of course, if you were a churchgoing Black family in my home town of Birmingham during the supposedly “positive world” era you might find that your church is bombed and your children killed. Again, this isn’t ancient history to me: the girls killed in that bombing were born less than a decade before I entered this vale of tears, which I did in a hospital about two miles from their church. I lived close enough to that church that I could have heard or felt the explosion, though I don’t remember whether I did.
So in the simplistic three-world formulation the word “world” is doing a lot of work, work it’s not capable of doing. A “positive world” for middle-class conservative white people who don’t speak out against the evils of segregation and naked hateful racism is not a positive world for Christians tout court. You can actually see Brad implicitly acknowledging that the whole debate is too vague when, at the outset of his post, he does what Aaron Renn does not do and narrows the frame of reference to the attitude of the “nation’s elite institutions” – which institutions, of course, are not our whole world.
But even if you do that, the story is more complicated than the three-worlds framework suggests. For instance, though a lunatic fringe insisted (and still insists) that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, millions of American voters were clearly reassured by his longstanding church membership and open affirmation of the Christian faith. There’s no way he could have been elected President without being explicitly Christian – and I think it’s fair to say that the Presidency is an “elite institution.” America has never elected an avowed atheist as President, nor a Jew, nor a Muslim, and indeed the electorate taken as a whole still seems to think of some profession of Christian faith an important qualification for office. (That may well change in the future, of course.) But the kind of straightforward profession of belief in Jesus Christ that we saw in Obama, and before him in Jimmy Carter, would at any previous time in our history have been a red flag. Too much religiosity!
So there are many vectors here of varying power and varying directionality. Let me turn, then, to Derek Rishmawy’s response:
Nevertheless, it does not seem inane, politically, or pastorally irrelevant to ask the question: is there a coherent sense in which one could say the Roman world shifted to a “neutral” or “positive” stance with respect to Christian practice and confession before or after Constantine’s Edict of Milan? Is that a question that is relevant to Christian political witness and pastoral practice?
I’m gonna say No. I’m gonna say that the question is indeed irrelevant, and for several reasons. First, because within the Empire conditions for Christians varied from time to time and place to place. Even at the height of Christian power there were pockets of pagan dominance; and let’s not forget that the reign of Julian the Apostate came after Constantine. Historians may be able to look back and see clear patterns, but no one at the time could have had that kind of assurance. No one knew that Constantine’s support for Christianity would succeed, or that Julian’s opposition to it would fail. Christians then had to face whatever reality confronted them in any given place, at any given moment — as do Christians today. And sometimes adherence to an abstract account of the-situation-in-general can obscure what’s right in front of your face.
I’m emphasizing how contextually variable the circumstances of Christians always are because simplistic accounts lead to strategies. The most profound problem with the three-worlds account is not that it’s wrong, though it is wrong, but that it’s supposed to yield a strategy. And let me be blunt about this: Whenever Christians decide that they need a strategy, they’re writing a recipe for disobedience to the Lord Jesus. As Stanley Hauerwas has always said in response to people who say that the Church needs a social strategy, “the Church is a social strategy.” And here’s Lesslie Newbigin:
When our Lord stretched forth His hand to heal a leper, there was no evangelistic strategy attached to the act. It was a pure outflow of the divine love into the world, and needed no further justification. Such should be the Church’s deeds of service.
The Church’s job is to be the Church, and the Christian’s task is to be like Christ, and strategies invariably get in the way of both. In fact, I believe that, generally speaking, though the people who hold them typically don’t realize this, that’s just what they’re designed to do.
One of the more curious ways Christian “strategic thinking” plays out these days is in the use, by people who hold some version or another (there are several) of the negative-world hypothesis, of the example of Israel. It seems to me telling that the Catholic integralist strategy for infiltrating the corridors of power relies exclusively on Old Testment examples. Likewise this recent post by Kirsten Sanders critiquing Tim Keller’s Areopagocentric emphasis on the need for Christian persuasion:
Certainly such a view on persuasion is one way to read the biblical text. But there are other biblical accounts, too, where Israel encountered a changed world and needed to learn how to live there. Israel in Babylon wasn’t doing a whole lot of cultural exegesis or persuasion. They were learning how to pray while they longed for home.
Indeed – but this neglects the essential fact that Israel were recipients of a Promise, while the Church, while inheriting that same Promise, has also been given a Commission. Jews typically don’t proselytize because they aren’t asked to. It’s always useful for Christians to look to “captive Israel” for consolation and example, but not at the expense of heeding the Commission that led Paul to Athens and the Areopagus.
Moreover, where would we Christians be if the Apostles and the holy martyrs had adopted the negative-world strategy? We would not be, is the answer. I don’t know whether there can be bitter laughter among the company of heaven, but if the martyrs know that we American Christians, beneficiaries of extraordinary legal protections for our professions of faith and inheritors of centuries of faithful stewardship, are complaining that we can’t try to persuade people because our world is too negative, then they are certainly laughing, and not in a way that would be musical to our ears.
So if having a strategy is wrong, what’s right? This is the part I actually want to talk about. What follows may seem personal to the point of self-centeredness, but if you bear with me I think you’ll eventually see why I take this path.
A while back a friend, another Christian writer and scholar, paid me a visit and as we sipped our whisky commented, “You know, Alan, I can’t think of anyone else who has had a career remotely like yours.” And it’s true: I have had – for good or ill or (more probably) both – a very strange career. Just a few weeks ago I met with a group of Christians leaders, leaders in various fields quite different than mine, who wanted me to explain to them how I have ended up writing for the publications I write for. My response came in two parts. The first part was this: I asked them to reflect on the fact that they were the very first people ever to ask me that question. And the second part was this: The key, I said, is that I have never had a plan.
A while back some Christian writers and editors stirred up an online contretemps by criticizing other Christian writers for seeking publication in “more prestigious” secular outlets. I didn’t weigh in because every online contretemps is definitionally stupid and anyway I had already made my views on this matter clear. But for those who haven’t memorized my blog history, here’s the story: I was perfectly content when I wrote my non-academic essays almost exclusively for Books and Culture and First Things, but then First Things started turning down everything I sent them and Books and Culture was shut down. I was asked to write for Christianity Today but when I suggested topics I was told that they were too academic. So when Alexis Madrigal encouraged me to write for the Technology channel of the Atlantic, and then, later, Chris Beha asked me to write for Harper’s, I did. I didn’t have a plan or a strategy – I just stopped knocking at the doors that had been slammed in my face and started going through the doors that were opened to me in welcome. Obviously there are limits to such a practice – if the Nazi Herald Tribune had asked me to write for them I would have declined – but I didn’t see anything wrong with writing for the Atlantic and Harper’s, especially they have always allowed me to make my Christianity known.
Whether I have been a good Christian witness in the public sphere I am not in a position to say. It’s very possible that I have totally wasted my opportunities, and I have often prayed that this topic not come up when I go before the Judgment Seat. But whether I have used those opportunities wisely or not, I got them precisely because I didn’t have a strategy. Instead, I had certain commitments – commitments that I wouldn’t abandon, some of which were overtly Christian and others of which were implicitly so: for instance, I wanted to write rigorously but also as elegantly as I could manage, I wanted to be deeply scholarly but also fair-minded and honest, and while non-Christians can do all those things, I am committed to them because I believe that I have been entrusted with the stewardship of certain gifts that come from God. That conviction also helps me to perceive that maybe, just maybe, if I get interested in something that doesn’t appear to be directly related to my Christian faith I may in the end discover connections I could not have anticipated. (See e.g. my persistent fascination with Daoism and anarchism.)
My conviction, for what it’s worth, is that Christians should have commitments without strategies, but instead tend to have strategies without the requisite commitments. Let me tell you what I think that leads to.
Thomas Aquinas says that hope is the virtue that lies between the two vices of presumption (praesumptio) and despair (desperatio).
Integralists, by and large, are presumptuous: they want to rule the world, but decline to ask whether they are fit to rule the world. They think being on the right side is all the justification they need. It isn’t. (Like Boromir, they cannot think of Power as anything but a gift to them.) When Thomas Merton was Master of Novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani, he would constantly remind those novices that they were in monastic life not because they were too pure for the world — which they thought they were: big stars for Team Catholic — but because they were too weak to flourish there. Christian formation begins and, I think, ends in the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
By contrast, those who decline to try to persuade others of the hope that is in them on the grounds that the “world” is too “negative” for that are in the grip of a kind of despair – not in relation to themselves (presumably they do not doubt that God is gracious to them) but in relation to their neighbors. To those people, I would just say that if God can speak through Balaam’s donkey He can speak through you.
Thomas says that the presumptuous and the despairing alike have something important in common, which he calls the status comprehensor – they are fixed, immobile. The despairing don’t think they can go anywhere; the presumptuous don’t think they need to go anywhere. Having a strategy pushes you towards such a stasis: by choosing in advance a particular path to follow, you are foreclosing on all the other possible paths. You are making yourself deaf to God’s unexpected calls upon your life.
What characterizes the hopeful Christian, Thomas says, is the status viator – the state of being a wayfarer. Thus Josef Pieper refers to “the wayfaring character of hope.” Wayfarers know their destination but aren’t sure how to get there; all along the way they look for signs indicating the best path, and seek help both from their companions and from those they encounter on the road. They know that they have to be flexible and agile; they know that their enemies are Aimlessness and Fixity. They trust in a Guide they cannot see; they listen for His still small voice. Maybe things will be better than they expect; maybe worse; unquestionably different. But they make their way along the pilgrim road, because they hold firm to this twofold truth about Jesus Christ: “As God, he is the goal; as man, he is the way” (Augustine, City of God XI.3).
As a wayfarer you must have a destination but you must accept the inadequacy of any strategy. You must be willing to sprawl.
Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
Reprimanded and dismissed,
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
And thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.
“He’s somebody who is very committed to the Christian tradition and he uses it to think with, he uses it as a structure – a Christian year, the round of festivals and commemorations, for him is woven into the round of the calendar year as it would have been for generations before him,” Williams says. “You can think more freely and you may be able to feel more deeply if you’re confident that there’s this steady backdrop. You don’t have to keep making things up. There’s a world you can inhabit, your feet are on the ground, and that means you can walk around, breathe deeply and look slowly. That’s faith.”
Richard Mabey, in his introduction to the new collection of Blythe’s writings that Williams also contributes to, writes:
Ronnie’s knowledge and practice of scripture are evident in many of his writings. But only in these Wormingford columns does he openly declare his quite unselfconscious, unquestioning, sometimes irreverent, and just occasionally pagan-tinged Christian faith. And as a friend but a non-believer I have to make a reckoning with this. By unspoken common consent we have never discussed religion. But at a dinner with village friends once, I betrayed my metropolitan prejudices by insisting that the church no longer had any influence on everyday social life. Ronnie turned to me and said, quietly, ‘Richard, you don’t know what you are talking about.’ And as far as Wormingford is concerned he was quite correct, as these pages abundantly show. It was the closest we have ever come to a row.
Here’s something people have been asking me to weigh in on for quite a while, but I’ve been putting it off, because … well, what’s the point? But here at last I am.
You know that argument by Aaron Renn about “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism”? Well, it’s wrong. Let me explain … no, there is too much. Let me sum up.
I can sum up just by quoting one of the first parts, because that is where the argument goes wildly off the rails:
Positive World (Pre-1994): Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity. To be known as a good, churchgoing man remains part of being an upstanding citizen. Publicly being a Christian is a status-enhancer. Christian moral norms are the basic moral norms of society and violating them can bring negative consequences.
The “pre-1994” timeframe is obviously wrong. Few of the Founding Fathers held anything remotely approximating orthodox Christian faith; Abraham Lincoln had famously unknowable and shifting religious beliefs, and never joined a church. At the time of the Founding probably no more than 10% of Americans belonged to any church. You can get the details on all this in Mark Noll’s magisterial America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln; America became a markedly more religious country in the 1950s, a process described by George Marsden in another authoritative history, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment. Turns out that for much of America’s history, and in most of America’s places, whether someone was demonstrably a Christian or not really didn’t matter all that much. You can find that out, if you take the time.
So, you see, we’re already in the midst of major difficulties. Renn has begun with a big historical claim that is demonstrably untrue. If instead of “Pre-1994” he had written “1945-1994” then we could at least have proceeded. So let’s pretend he did and come to his first sentence.
That sentence is the general claim, the next three unpack it. Sentence 2 strikes me as being generally correct, but irrelevant or ambiguous in import. (Was Jesus considered “an upstanding citizen”?) Sentence 3 would be correct if the phrase “being a Christian” were replaced with “professing Christianity.” Sentence 4 would be correct if its first word were “Some,” but because it isn’t, the sentence is incorrect, and incorrect in a way that destroys the entire argument.
Here’s what I mean: Some Christian moral norms carried social authority in many though not all parts of America. For instance, generally speaking, a married person could not openly conduct extramarital affairs, nor could an unmarried one be openly promiscuous. Certainly homosexuality was almost always seen as a sin. Whether divorce damaged you socially — well, that varied a lot from place to place. Renn doesn’t cite any examples, so I don’t know what else he might have in mind. Maybe “honor your father and mother”? — That certainly was a commandment held in far higher regard before the social upheavals of the Sixties.
But for much of America’s history there were very large sections of the country in which, if you wanted to argue that all human beings are made in the image of God and the laws of America should in this respect follow the law of God, you were, shall we say, unlikely to get a respectful hearing. (And as David French recently pointed out, those problems, and other related ones, haven’t altogether gone away.) Does Renn seriously think that the slaves in the cotton fields singing their spirituals were living in a Christianity-positive world? But wait — that’s pre-1945, sorry. Does Renn think that six-year-old Ruby Bridges, praying for those who cursed and reviled her, was living in a Christianity-positive world? (And, to me anyway, this ain’t ancient history: Ruby Bridges is just four years older than I am.) Or Jonathan Daniels, who stood between a black woman and a deputy sheriff and got himself shot dead for his trouble — and whose killer was acquitted and lived out his life in peace?
Now, I’m sure many of those who screamed abuse at Ruby, or voted to acquit the murderer of Jonathan Daniels, would have insisted that they were good and faithful Christians — which takes me back to the distinction I made above, and that Renn failed to make, between “publicly professing Christianity” and “publicly being a Christian.” Those who hated Ruby may have professed Christianity, but did they live it?
If they had not professed Christianity they probably would have suffered social disapproval; if they had sought to practice it in relation to Ruby Bridges and their other black neighbors they certainly would have been excoriated — or worse. (Look at what happened to my old colleague Julius Scott, for the crime of saying that Black people should be welcomed into all-white churches.)
What David French means when he says that “It’s Always a ‘Negative World’ for Christianity” is simply this: Professing Christianity is what Renn calls a “status-enhancer” when and only when the Christianity one professes is in step with what your society already and without reference to Christian teaching describes as “being an upstanding citizen.” If you don’t believe me, try getting up on stage in an evangelical megachurch and reckoning seriously with Jesus’s teaching on wealth and poverty. Even a sermon on loving your enemies, like Ruby Bridges, and blessing those who curse you, can be a hard sell — as many pastors since 2016 have discovered. News flash: if you make a point of never saying anything that would make people doubt your commitment to their preferred social order, they’ll probably think you an upstanding citizen. (Who knew?)
There are pretty much always some elements of Christian teaching that you can get away with publicly affirming; but you can never get away with affirming them all. If American Christians sixty years ago felt fully at home in their social world, that’s because they quietly set aside, or simply managed to avoid thinking about, all the biblical commandments that would render them no longer at ease in the American dispensation. Any Christians who have ever felt completely comfortable in their culture have already edited out of their lives the elements of Christianity that would generate social friction. And no culture that exists, or has ever existed, or ever will exist, is receptive to the whole Gospel.
As I said at the outset: What’s the point even of writing this? Renn saw French’s essay, and he simply congratulated himself on getting attention. He didn’t answer any of the arguments made against his scheme, and I doubt he ever will. He’s articulated a tall tale that some people want to live by, and that seems to be good enough for him.
But there’s another reason why I doubt the usefulness of this whole debate: It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter one whit. I’ve said this over and over again: Whether it’s a positive world or a neutral world or a negative world or a multiverse or just a crazy old world, my job is the same: to strive for faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. What I hear him saying is, “What is all that to you? Follow me.” And following him is hard, because I am subjected to precisely the same pressures against faithful Christian witness that every other Christian faces. I’m fighting for my spiritual life here. So I’m done with this topic; my time is better spent in other ways.
The more … a congregation becomes therapeutic, in its language, its liturgy, its morals, its common life, the more God recedes from the picture. God becomes secondary, then tertiary, then ornamental, then metaphorical, then finally superfluous. The old-timers keep God on mostly out of muscle memory, but the younger generations know the score. They don’t quit church and stop believing in God because of a lack of catechesis, as if they weren’t listening on Sundays. They were listening all right. The catechesis didn’t fail; it worked, only too well. The twenty- and thirty-somethings were preached right out of the gospel — albeit with the best of intentions and a smile on every minister and usher’s face. They smiled right back, and headed for the exit sign.
Therapeutic churches exchange the Good News they have been entrusted with for a cold pottage of bargain-basement bromides. If churches want to help people in their suffering, that’s wonderful — and there’s a rich 2000-year history of Christian pastoral care to draw on. But when you ignore all that and pick up your therapeutic categories from YouTube, You’re not making Christianity better, you’re just making therapy worse.
Sermon for All Souls, 2 November 2022
Ely Cathedral, 7.30 pm
Canon Jessica Martin
NT: 1 Peter 1.3–9
Gospel: John 5.19–25
Although you have not seen him, you love him (1 Pet.1.8)
We are joined to the invisible work of love. We are entangled in its bonds, marked by its effects, changed by its force. We steer by its sights.
The writer of the letter of Peter was thinking of the ascended Jesus, part of this invisible Godhead, when he wrote these words to his readers: ‘Although you have not seen him, you love him’. He was speaking of the way that we who are Christian walk by faith and not only by sight. But our making, our being in the visible world, has also been shaped — and shaken — by human lives, human loves, now withdrawn from bodily sight and touch, invisible to the beings we are in this space, this time. For each of us here is joined to the dead that made us, and who we honour through remembrance in this requiem mass.
There are the dead whom we name, bringing them in our naming into the circle of the present. Those beloved names reach beyond sight and touch to the deep knowledge of memory and longing. Their absence is a wound in our present time, but we speak of them believing that past and future are always ‘now’ to God; that what has been is, for our Creator, never lost, never out of reach. Good and bad together, sorrow and joy, bitterness and division, misunderstanding and reconciliation, the blunders that shake our lives, the encounters that make it – all stand within the divine sight, for judgement; and for mercy. In speaking the names of the dead we do not only speak loss; we do not even only speak recollection. We bespeak our hope that all that has ever been exists for redemption in the eyes of God, through the resurrection of his son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. This is what it actually means to walk by faith and not only by sight.
Just a little out of sight of our remembered and beloved dead, lie those who are being forgotten, the names and beings slipping out of human memory. Sometimes, with the tail of our eye, we see them going. In a conversation with a nonagenarian in my last parish, he mentioned names of local villagers buried in the churchyard. Not all of them had headstones. Not all of them had been living even in his time; their resting places had been remembered by his parents, by the adults of his childhood in the early years of the twentieth century. Are their graves and names recorded, or did their memory slip away when the man I knew died, just a couple of years ago? What are the names and histories of the babies and small children buried in local graves housing members of my mother’s family? Only two or three generations have swept their short lives beyond our sight; we do not know how they felt, what they saw. Yet they live, in the eternal now; in the eye and heart of their loving Maker.
The act of remembering keeps our love in sight. And the act of remembering, the human act of remembering, stands in for everything we don’t know about our beloved dead. The most open, the most communicative of people will take much of his or her life forever away at death, across the river that divides the living from the dead. As the spirit returns to God who made it, its most private thoughts and feelings fall out of the earth and into the divine hand. My own dreams and nightmares, my own betrayals and spiritual victories, the things I saw on a particular day, at a particular hour forty years ago – many of them are no longer available to my memory, let alone anyone else’s. Much of what shaped and shook the person I have become is beyond my own knowing, now. But all this is known to God, before whom we are always and forever fully known.
As we remember, we participate in the great act of recollection that is God’s constant work. But it is not our work, not primarily. It is God’s work. It is ‘kept in heaven for us; imperishable, undefiled, unfading’. Such a thing is hard even to imagine.
We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed. The past is not static. It works in us. The Jesus of the past, who died and was raised, makes all the dead live. But the dead are not only raised to life and breathe again. The dead past is brought before the living eye of our Saviour, and changed: from blunder to wisdom, from incomprehension to understanding, from fear to love, from pain to recognition. We are not only meant for life, but for the redemption of our life. Not only shaped, but shaken into newness, into seeing afresh. As we hope to come home, so also do we hope to find ourselves always coming home in the sight of God’s bright homeliness.
Remember the beloved dead. And remember the forgotten dead. And offer to God the Father all that you yourself have forgotten. For, in the end, through Jesus who lives in the love of the Father, all that is hidden shall embrace the light perpetual, and all that lies unknown shall be for ever recognised.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
Who going through the barren valley find there a spring; and the pools are filled with water.
They will go from strength to strength; and appear before God in Zion.
The other day I emailed my friend Adam Roberts and told him that I would have something to say about his despicable atheism.
Adam: “SCANDALOUS atheism! Not despicable! Scandalous!”
Me: “That’s just what a despicable atheist would say.”
Do please read Adam’s post; it’s extremely thoughtful and nuanced. Adam is responding to a claim by the late great literary critic Frank Kermode – a model of critical excellence for both Adam and me – that “From poetry and music I derive the little I know about holiness.” Adam wants to counterclaim that as much as he also is moved by poetry and music, that’s not really a religious experience.
I say so with a certain sorrow, for, like Kermode, poetry and music are very important to my life, and in them I often find the transcendence, the holiness of which he speaks here. But I don’t think his larger point is correct, actually. I cannot avoid the self-knowledge that this merely secular pseudo-faith lacks the blood, the force — lacks, the stationed and parrhesiastic surrender to absolute otherness — of religious faith in the Kierkegaardian sense I just mentioned — which is to say, in the sense that Kierkegaard understood the Christian idea of eternity as something applied to every moment of human existence.
Of course, it’s possible that speaking from experiential ignorance, as I necessarily am, leads me to over-romanticise what it is that people of faith have, and I lack. For many faith is, perhaps, a far more mundane business; it is surely, for most, a more quotidian business. Religion is a taxonomy of beliefs, yes; and it is (what I’m talking about here) an access to a transcendent otherness, an intensity of affect and apprehension, a power and glory. But more than that it is a social mode of being-in-the-world, a form of community, of belonging to a particular tribe: not just going to church, temple or mosque on high holy days, but helping-out at the church jumble sale, running the soup kitchen, reading-groups, social events, all that. It is something that serves to identify self and help it bond with others. Of seeing in other people not just strangers but brothers and sisters. Sitting at home and listening to a Bach cantata on your stereo isn’t any of that.
This is just one part of a complicated essay, but it should at least give the flavor.
All of what Adam says about religious faith – with its vertical (Godward) and horizontal (Neighborward) dimensions – seems to me correct, and useful in distinguishing such faith from whatever it is we most powerfully experience when we encounter the arts. But …
First of all, I don’t feel that I know anything about religion or religious faith in general; I only know what it means to be a Christian, or rather what it means to me to be a Christian. And to me the deepest heart of the matter is neither the ethical life of neighborliness nor an encounter with the transcendent but simply that as I read the Gospels I see in the life and words of Jesus an astonishing thing: Though I am unloveable, God loves me, and is willing to pay an enormous price to reconcile me to Himself. God loves me and hopes – “hopes” is a strange word to use with regard to the Omnipotent and Omniscient, but it’s the best word I have – God hopes that I will love Him in return.
Kierkegaard, in Philosophical Fragments:
And the cause of all this suffering is love, precisely because the God is not jealous for himself, but desires in love to be the equal of the humblest. When the seed of the oak is planted in earthen vessels, they break asunder; when new wine is poured in old leathern bottles, they burst; what must happen when the God implants himself in human weakness, unless man becomes a new vessel and a new creature! But this becoming, what labors will attend the change, how convulsed with birth-pangs! And the understanding – how precarious, and how close each moment to misunderstanding, when the anguish of guilt seeks to disturb the peace of love! And how rapt in fear; for it is indeed less terrible to fall to the ground when the mountains tremble at the voice of the God, than to sit at table with him as an equal; and yet it is the God’s concern precisely to have it so.
From my sense of this love, and its call upon my life, everything else, including the love of my neighbor, flows. Auden in “Winds,” the first of his “Bucolics”:
One bubble-brained creature said —
“I am loved, therefore I am” — :
And well by now might the lion
Be lying down with the kid,
Had he stuck to that logic.
I’m trying, heaven knows I’m trying, to stick to that logic.
That when reading about Jesus I feel drawn to this life I perceive as a free gift, a gift that, I well understand, not everyone receives. (I also understand that others receive it with far greater power than I do. I am a man of vague and shaky faith.) My friend Adam may be, like Max Weber — and the metaphor is especially appropriate given the contrasts at the heart of Adam’s post — “religiously unmusical.” But I do hope that one day he will hear the now-hidden harmonies of the Christian way; and even should he not, I trust that this ever-loving God will be infinitely merciful to him. It seems to me that Adam is a man after God’s own heart, whether he feels it or not.
When the Church leads with its moral code — and elevates that moral code over even the most basic understandings of Jesus Christ himself — the effect isn’t humility and hope; it’s pride and division. When the Church chooses a particular sin as its defining apostasy (why sex more than racism, or greed, or gluttony, or cruelty?), it perversely lowers the standards of holy living by narrowing the Christian moral vision.
The result is a weaker religion, one that is less demanding for the believer while granting those who uphold the narrow moral code a sense of unjustified pride. Yet pride separates Christians from each other, and separates Christians from their neighbors.
Millions of Christians are humble and hopeful. Millions are also prideful and divisive. Why? One answer is found in the LifeWay-Ligonier survey. In the quest for morality, they’ve lost sight of Jesus — but it is Jesus who truly defines the Christian faith.
Having written recently about the death of Queen Elizabeth, I’d like to call attention to some of the things I’ve written in the past about what I believe to be the essentially monarchical character of the human imagination:
- My essay for the Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis on the Narnia books, which I argue have a single theme: disputed sovereignty
- A post on the very idea of the return of the King
- An essay on how Emile Durkheim’s portrayal of the dominant concerns of traditional or “primitive” societies has a modern afterlife
- An essay on the ongoing power of what Leszek Kołakowski calls “mythical thinking” (and do check out the Kołakowski tag at the bottom of this post)
Short version of all this: Every distinction we make between our “modern” selves and our “primitive” ancestors is wrong. We’re exactly like them in all the ways that really matter for our own self-understanding.
Today’s American evangelical Christianity seems to be more focused on hunting heretics internally than perhaps in any other generation. The difference, however, is that excommunications are happening not over theological views but over partisan politics or the latest social media debates.
I’ve always found it a bit disconcerting to see fellow evangelicals embrace Christian leaders who teach heretical views of the Trinity or embrace the prosperity gospel but seek exile for those who don’t vote the same way or fail to feign outrage over clickbait controversies.
But something more seems to be going on here — something involving an overall stealth secularization of conservative evangelicalism. What worries me isn’t so much that evangelical Christians can’t articulate Christian orthodoxy in a survey. It’s that, to many of them, Christian orthodoxy seems boring and irrelevant compared to claiming religious status for already-existing political, cultural, or ethnonational tribes.
A strong and sad Amen to this. It is perfectly clear that there is a movement in America of people who call themselves evangelicals but have no properly theological commitments at all. But what’s not clear, to me anyway, is how many of them there are. Donald Trump can draw some big crowds, and those crowds often have a quasi-religious focus on him or anyway on what they believe he stands for — but those crowds are not large in the context of the entire American population. They’re very visible, because both Left and Right have reasons for wanting them to be visible, but how demographically significant are they really?
I have similar questions about, for instance, the “national conservatism” movement. Is this actually a movement? Or is it just a few guys who follow one another on Twitter and subscribe to one another’s Substacks?
Questions to be pursued at the School for Scale, if I can get it started.
After the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, C. S. Lewis wrote to an American friend,
You know, over here people did not get that fairy-tale feeling about the coronation. What impressed most who saw it was the fact that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it. Hence, in the spectators, a feeling of (one hardly knows how to describe it) – awe – pity – pathos – mystery. The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head becomes a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself: humanity called by God to be His vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate. As if He said ‘In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding.’ Do you see what I mean? One has missed the whole point unless one feels that we have all been crowned and that coronation is somehow, if splendid, a tragic splendour.
You either feel this kind of thing or you don’t. It makes sense that Lewis would feel it, not so much because he was British — as a native Irishman he had somewhat complicated feelings about that — but because he had been steeped all his life in stories, in histories true and feigned, about a monarchical world. He didn’t just know about the King’s Two Bodies, he felt that doctrine in his bones. Thus his overwhelming “awe – pity – pathos – mystery” at the doubleness of the moment: an ordinary young woman, wife and mother, bearing in her own body and on her own head the astonishing idea that we are all meant to be kings and queens, and to rule on behalf of the One True King. As the hymn says,
Finish, then, thy new creation;
true and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.
That hymn is the secret text of Lewis’s most famous address, “The Weight of Glory,” which describes the burden we feel when we face this high calling:
I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God … to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness … to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.
The coronation of Elizabeth as Queen, seen in a certain way, the way Lewis saw it, is the coronation of one nation’s Queen but also a dramatic performing of this weight of glory — the glory and the weight in equal measure, poised in juxtaposition.
One of the most-quoted sentences in the days since Elizabeth’s death has been the pledge she made on her twenty-first birthday in 1947: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” And I don’t think anyone — friend or enemy of the British Crown — doubts that she meant it when she said it and that she tried to live up to it for the rest of her very long life. And thus many, in these recent days, have felt a rather different “awe – pity – pathos – mystery” than Lewis felt at the coronation: in this case this peculiar complex of emotions arises from seeing one who has borne a burden, a weight, for a very long time finally laying that burden down.
As I say, either you feel this way or you don’t. It’s perhaps a little harder for us Americans to feel it, because we are not accustomed to the idea that the head of state can be someone altogether different (and fulfilling an altogether different function) than the head of government. On rare occasions something can happen to awaken the impulse even in us. JFK’s assassination was that for many, and gave birth to a kind of cult of Lost Hope — the Camelot myth. Perhaps a better example was provided to me by my mother-in-law, who is a year older than Elizabeth and is still with us: She said that when FDR passed “it was like everyone’s father had died.” Likewise, many Christians, and not just Roman Catholics, felt that the stooped, frail figure of Pope John Paul II in his final years was an image of what we all might be someday — what we all are, in a way, at least sometimes.
But whether you feel it or not, I will say: Just as the coronation of the Queen was an image of something meant for all of humanity, so too her funeral. She has borne the weight faithfully, and she has laid down her burden. Her obsequies then are not just about “the King’s two bodies” but about all of us. If we allow it, Elizabeth can be our representative: made up of “the dust that we are,” but also one who has born the weight of glory for a very long time, and now can rest; now can cast her crown before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and then forever be lost in wonder, love, and praise.