Bruce Charlton recently posted Charles Williams’ reflections about the Roman persecution of Christians: “The most tolerant, noble, moral, stoical non-Christians, regard Christianity as an evil.” Williams notes that it was the good emperors who persecuted the Church. I marveled at this fact when I studied Roman history. How odd it was to a young classics student that an admirable philosopher king like Marcus Aurelius would have waged war upon God’s people, or that Diocletian, among Rome’s greatest administrative architects and reformers, ordered possibly the worst persecution of the Church in antiquity. How strange it seemed until I started to have a similar suspicion that the Gospel was spiritual poison. I wandered for years in exile from the faith because I took the pagans’ criticism seriously. From the accusations that triggered De Civitate Dei to Nietzsche’s rejection of Christianity as a degenerate Western Buddhism, these pagan attacks troubled me greatly, and I came to doubt the veracity of the Christian message. For if I found Christian doctrine to be false in some part, then the whole Gospel could not be trusted. Christians appeared to counsel madness in the face of evil, threats, and injustice, and I thereby dismissed Christ’s revelation. I resigned myself to the idea that I only valued the faith insofar as it had maintained Hellenic wisdom through the centuries—often despite itself (e.g. Tertullian and his ilk in every age). After venturing for years in the wasteland, I came home—like the venerable bishop of Hippo—though I was still ill at ease with the tendencies toward error that seem to beset Christians. I have mentioned this frequently (for examples, see “Religion of Last Resort,” “Christianity’s Odd Place in the World,” “Forgiveness Sunday,” “Ethnic Parishes,” “Judge Lest Ye Be Mugged,” and “Forgetting the City of Man”). Yet, I realize that any truth will have its corresponding and concomitant errors. I believe that it is Aristotle who uses the image of archery to illustrate the search for truth. One aims at the mark, which is small, but one may miss the mark in many ways—namely, at every other point. It is easy to err, and it is not surprising that we Christians repeatedly fail in our understanding of God’s way. The path to truth is hard, and we are quite weak for the task.
Years ago, I enjoyed mocking the United Methodist Church’s old television campaign with my friend Andrew. The advertisement includes a woman who says, “I can’t believe there’s a church that believes these things,” as if that were an effective hook to bring in people! Now, whenever I find the Wesleys’ children indulging in folly, I file the story under “I can’t believe there’s a church that believes these things.” A few months ago, I sent Andrew the following article about a Methodist congregation in North Carolina: “Church Won’t Do Weddings For Straight Couples Until Same-Sex Marriage Is Legal.” If the article is not enough for you, you may wish to visit the Green Street Church. It is “Where the Kingdom of God is breaking through!” They inadvertently put down the wrong preposition.
I looked at the photograph subpage, and the first image has seven people prostrating toward one another in a circle. The photograph is an excellent visual essay on how mainline Protestantism has largely degenerated into mutual self worship—and the idolaters are blind to their idolatry. But, then, aren’t they always? Moreover, do not miss the sub-Saharan African themed designs on the altar. You see, such multicultural pandering is how the white people in the parish show the little colored boys that Jesus loves them . . . though it is odd that those kids’ own parents failed to set the proper tone when deciding how to clothe their children. For they are dressed like normal American kids. The false consciousness of the racially oppressed—will it never cease?
The Orthodox Life has a short but interesting post on the sacred artwork of early synagogues: “Ancient Jewish Icons.” Yale’s EIKON site features many images from the pictured Dura Europos Synagogue. It looks strikingly like an Orthodox Temple.
Earlier in the year, I visited the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at Cincinnati’s Museum Center. I did not have time to visit the Israel Museum when I was in Jerusalem, and I was happy to get to see some of the Qumran fragments. Since the exhibit only had a few dozen pieces, it padded the experience with hundreds of artifacts from ancient Israel, including spears and stones from the Assyrian attack on Lachish as well as commemorative displays from Nineveh that celebrated Sennacherib’s success. The oldest object was a three thousand year old four horn shaped altar. I never knew before exactly what they looked like. I also learnt more about the money changers in the Temple; the exhibit had a pile of Tyrian shekels. There was also a small section on Masada, which featured a tartan garment that had been left at Masada by a Roman soldier during or after the siege. One wonders if the soldier had bought the clothing while stationed near the Caledonian border—or if he was born among those ever savage northerners! There were many other items from everyday life—from religious objects to commercial tools to home goods to political propaganda.
The exhibit as well as my amateur archaeological adventures in the Holy Land contradict the iconoclastic notions of biblical Israel held by certain Protestant groups—as if the detailed descriptions of the two Temples and of the Temple rituals in holy writ were not enough to dispel the folly of white walled Calvinists. The Lord, the Lord our God, is a Lord of color and form. Let the iconoclasts seek after their nihilism; we worship the Lord in spirit and in truth.
If it were a leap year, tomorrow would be the feast of Saint John Cassian. As it is, we celebrate the good saint’s feast on February 28 (March 13 on the Gregorian calendar). On my patron’s feast day last year, Fr. Stephen De Young published a decent article on John Cassian on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: “The Curious Case of St. John Cassian.” I recommend it. It is yet another reminder of how the preponderance of Saint Augustine in Western Christian thought—without adequate patristic counterweight—has perverted the West. I do not quite understand how it happened, though. Even without the multitude of voices from the Greek fathers, the West still had Hilary, Ambrose, John Cassian himself, and others, though I suppose that Augustine’s writings were so vast and impressive that they overshadowed the rest. Still, it was not until the Reformation that the balance truly tipped, but why then? Why did Luther, Calvin, and the gang draw their inspiration from Augustine’s extreme anti-Pelagianism? Was it their rejection of scholasticism and the medieval tradition, where the next previous stop in history was Hippo? Did they find a soulmate in the “Doctor of Grace”? Why did a Platonist from late antiquity appeal to the nominalists who transformed post-Renaissance Western Europe? Curious, indeed.
With the title, I refer not to the expected increase in sexually transmitted diseases among the members of the Anglican communion as a result of their slippery K-Y coated slope of discarded morality. Rather, I offer you “The Anglican Itch” by Cyril Jenkins in Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, wherein Jenkins responds to Anglican counsel against conversion to Orthodoxy. As religious polemics go, the Conciliar Anglican’s post is as genteel and polite as one would expect from Canterbury’s better half. It reminds me why I like the Anglicans—and why my heart aches when I witness their troubles. However, they now have Anglicanorum Coetibus from Rome and the Western rite from us. Their return to Catholicism has never been easier, and yet few swim the Tiber or the Bosphorus (or should we say the Volga nowadays?), as I note in “Joseph Julian Overbeck.” I blame inertia more than pride, and nothing will shock them to move if the apostasy of the last decades has not yet created a stir. Such reminds me of a joke that I heard as a young’un, where two pious Episcopalians are sitting in the pew as a lesbian priestess in African garb blesses an elephant carrying depictions of Hindu deities while her lover does an ad-lib liturgical dance to pagan odes in honor of Gaia sung by a transexual men and boys choir. One of the gentlemen leans over to the other and testily whispers, “If they change one more thing, I’m out of here!” No—no, John Doe remains, ever the long suffering beautiful WASP unwilling to make a fuss.
Bruce Charlton posted a typically charltonesque apologia for the Christian life in “An evangelical Q & A - salvation, theosis, families.” It is worth your time.
Yesterday, I mentioned Auster’s post, “The afterlife and Christ,” wherein Auster refers to a View from the Right entry from three years ago—“The Gospels: too embarrassing to be fiction”—that concerns Frank Turek’s argument for trusting the scriptural accounts of Jesus. I remember reading the post, but I do not think that I commented on it before. It is good. Here is an excerpt by Turek:
If men were inventing the resurrection story, it would go more like this:
Jesus came to save the world, and he needed our help. That’s why we were there for him every step of the way. When he was in need, we prayed with him. When he wept, we wept with him (and told him to toughen up!). When he fell, we carried his cross. The gates of Hell could not prevent us from seeing his mission through!
So when that turncoat Judas brought the Romans by (we always suspected Judas), and they began to nail Jesus to the cross, we laughed at them. “He’s God you idiots! The grave will never keep him! You think you’re solving a problem, but you’re really creating a much bigger one!”
While we assured the women that everything would turn out all right, they couldn’t handle the crucifixion. Squeamish and afraid, they ran to their homes screaming and hid behind locked doors.
But we men stood steadfast at the foot of the cross, praying for hours until the very end. When Jesus finally took his last breath and the Roman Centurion confessed that Jesus was God, Peter blasted him, “That’s what we told you before you nailed him up there!” (Through this whole thing, the Romans and the Jews just wouldn’t listen!)
Never doubting that Jesus would rise on the third day, Peter announced to the Centurion, “We’ll bury him and be back on Sunday. Now go tell Pilate to put some of your ‘elite’ Roman guards at the tomb to see if you can prevent him from rising from the dead!” We all laughed and began to dream about Sunday.
That Sunday morning we marched right down to the tomb and tossed those elite Roman guards aside. Then the stone (that took eleven us to roll into place) rolled away by itself. A glowing Jesus emerged from tomb, and said, “I knew you’d come! My mission is accomplished.” He praised Peter for his brave leadership and congratulated us on our great faith. Then we went home and comforted the trembling women.
Turek’s article and Auster and his readers’ comments will surely bring a smile to your face.
Over the last few weeks, Lawrence Auster has posted good will messages to him in response to his terminal illness and approaching death. I wrote a brief and insufficient memorial post for Auster a few weeks ago, and the master of View from the Right decided to publish two of my letters, including the following:
I read the well-wishes down to B.E.’s, and, somewhat overcome, I started the following message to you:
“I especially appreciate your commentator Zeno’s description of you as our Montaigne. However, as I went through the sincere and thoughtful farewells of so many fellow wayfarers, it occurred to me that I was in the middle of the Phaedo, where the disciples mourn the imminent departure of their friend and teacher, Socrates, while he gives his last lesson. Our hero demonstrates in word and in deed what it means to be a man—to be rational, to be destined for the transcendent. The dialogue is a tremendously powerful work, and it reverberates across the generations in many ways, it seems.”
Then, given the situation and the shared perspectives of your readers, I judged that I should do a search in the thread for a mention of Plato’s work wherein philosophy functions as a preparation for death—and for eternity. Sure enough, another reader brought it up. Nonetheless, I am sending you my original remark. Thank you, again.
Even at this stage in his sickness, Auster continues to bless his readers. Yesterday, Auster offered a beautiful account of what he expects after death in “The afterlife and Christ.” He apologizes in the comment thread for his poor Christian formation and theological ignorance, along with this remark that echoes my own attitude perfectly:
Another sign of my poor Christian formation is that I’ve never been particularly concerned about whether I personally am saved, about whether I have the formal or determined status of being saved, which seems to be the primary, even exclusive, concern of Protestants starting with Luther. I feel the purpose of life is to be with and follow God, and that is the direction in which we try to grow. The rest—whether we are fulfilled—we leave up to God.
Auster need not have apologized or attributed his disinterest in “personal salvation” to improper formation. I have always found the Western need for salvific formulae and the obsession with surety repellant—even before I knew of alternative paths. The attitude betrays self absorption and a lack of trust in God’s goodness. We should do what we should do; we may leave further considerations to the Lord.
Bruce Charlton continues his attempt to make “mere Christianity” respectable in an interesting post titled “A scientist’s idea of Truth (in relation to theology).” Therein, Charlton argues that a theological formulation can only be broadly correct and “the best among rival theories.” As such, various sects’ theological differences are disagreements among many inadequate points of view, as none of them have a claim to the “Truth.” I reply:
I do not think that theology constitutes the Church. Rather, theology is the attempt to articulate the truth revealed and experienced in the Church. So, instead of seeing the Church as an inadequate glimpse or expression of truth, we see it as the community of scientists where most of the research is done.
Now, there may be independent scientists who discover important things who are not visibly part of the organization (say, the NIH of the soul, or whatever your British equivalent is). However, the bulk of the work is done by the Church because that is where the (divine) funding is, where the best labs are, where proper training is instilled, and where methodologies are followed.
Charlton responds that such requires a definition of the “church.” Of course! And that is where the “Mere Christianists” throw up their hands. Their unwillingness to deal with ecclesiology reminds me of phenomenologists’ attempt to bracket fundamental philosophical questions in order to deal rationally with certain “agreed upon” areas of human experience. It is true that work may be thus done. However, those bracketed questions are the very point of philosophy. How can one pretend to grapple with the world in the struggle for wisdom when one lazily disregards the most formidable challenges?
Furthermore, “Mere Christianists” appear to be blind to their own Protestant and modernist assumptions. For “Mere Christianity” makes the faith an individual struggle to know and to grow in God rather than a corporate restoration of the world in light of Christ’s resurrection. As if the Christian religion were chiefly a philosophical or poetic exercise! For in “Mere Christianity,” the individual and his salvation are primary. It is the individual who discerns the Holy Spirit, and then disparate individuals come together to pray or to worship, but the real action happens with the individual, whereas the aggregate of individuals is secondary. A few years ago, I criticized Auster’s portrayal of Christianity as an individualistic religion in the comment thread to “Made Whole” at View from the Right (about which I offer further commentary in “Hebrew Catholics”):
I also do not think that Christians come to Jesus Christ as individuals. That is a rather modern, and to be frank, Protestant, manner of describing Christianity. The gospel is not a set of intellectual doctrines but rather the life in Christ, which is a life of being fellow members of one body. Christianity is essentially communal, even for the hermit in the desert.
The Body of Christ is primary, and we as individuals are parts of that greater whole. The turn to the individual is one of the essential transformations that occurs at the beginning of modernity—in religion, in philosophy, in politics, and in daily existence. It is a Satanic move, and the hellish alienation of the modern world is the result, where everyone attempts to arrive at his own solipsistic existence. As with any error, this change has an element of truth. There is a reality to individual life. However, our awesome—in the proper sense—inner lives (which, far from being comprehended by us, are quite mysterious to ourselves) complement rather than constitute “external” reality. The content of our being lies within and without us; we are not the atomic building blocks of the world, not even of the human world. Rather, we have our time to act in the passing drama of history. In providential terms, we have our calling.
As one of my professors used to say, “Christians are like bananas; we come in bunches, not alone.” “Mere Christianity” is like evangelical Protestant Cartesianism, where the primary, disembodied ego seeks to reconstitute the world as a little god playing at creation ex nihilo. This is not the Lord’s gospel, but rather a watered down, perverted imitation of Christianity.
* Old René would surely find it ironically amusing that, in a post critical of him, I compare the Church to the National Institutes of Health.
In the previous posts “Mormons and Jesus” and “Charlton’s Mormon Advantage,” I comment on Alan Roebuck’s treatment of Mormonism on The Orthosphere. L.D.S. commentator Leo wrote a response on the comment thread to “The Basic Case against Mormonism and Other Pseudo-Christianities” by Roebuck. I reply:
Let me clarify that I do not think that the Russian Church exhaustively manifests the Church. Church is said in many ways. In Orthodoxy, we speak of the Church as the Body of Christ, and we also use the term Church for the local manifestations of the Christian community—the local bishop surrounded by his priests, his deacons, and the faithful under his supervision (I originally typed “failful” mistakenly, but that does characterize the Christian flock to a large extent!). As to the boundaries of the Church beyond the Orthodox Churches, I defer to my ecclesial authorities. However, I personally suspect that the Roman Church participates in or constitutes, perhaps in an ailing way, the Church, as well. There is so much good fruit, clear truth, and consistent, perpetual sanctity among the papists. I do not know the nature of schism (or rather, its bastardized anti-nature), but I doubt that Rome and the non-Chalcedonians are not part of the family. Even (especially!) families have their squabbles and sins.
With everyone else, though, it seems like their separation is pretty evident. Anglican and confessional Protestants have drifted farther from apostolic teaching and practice as the centuries have passed, where those who hold steadfast to the theological and moral truths of the faith have become ever fewer in number. And even they cling to poisonous errors, as Protestantism is the spiritual side of modernity. As for pious individual Protestants, clearly there is something to their faith. Kristor and Alan here are good examples. I distrust loosey goosey kumbaya ecclesiology, but there is power in the gospel, in the reading and reflection upon the scriptures, in the name of the Lord, and in the external signs of the Church that light the darkness even apart from their proper setting (in the Church). Perhaps, this truth lies behind Augustine’s and the Roman Church’s understanding of validity—whereby there may be sacramental efficacy beyond the visible Church.
In his Confessions, Augustine writes about the importance of the name Jesus, even in the wildly heretical setting of the Manichees. I think that the same must be true of all fallen away sects. When the Mohammedans show respect toward Mary or when they acknowledge the holiness and authority of Christ, they thereby reap blessings and draw closer to the truth. When the leftist ideologues envision humanity as a family of mutual support and love (and let’s be honest, that does happen), they dip their toes in the river of life. When the young Kristor entered into a state of awareness of God’s presence in bread, he truly witnessed God and the grace of the mysteries, though I do not think that the Anglicans as a group are the Church or that they perform the rites of the Church. I guess that I remain an ecclesial exclusivist who acknowledges the truth that folks like Rahner and Lewis (and Kristor and Charlton) see, though I think that they err in not complementing those insights by solid ecclesiology. “Mere Christianity” is mushy hooey with bits of wisdom.
Just so, I think that the Mormons truly experience the gifts and benefits that God bestows to the extent that they worship him, though they are extraordinarily confused. Most “mainstream” Christians find odd things to criticize about Mormonism, such as that Jesus preached in the Americas, the Mormons’ ethno-mythical understanding of American Indians and negroes, the three heavens, their history of polygamy, or their special underwear. One even hears denunciation of Mormons’ morality, family centeredness, and patriarchy in some quarters. I find those objections wrong or uninteresting. For me, what is obviously repellent in Mormonism is its pagan theology, wherein God is not God but merely a god. Why, then, should we worship him whom we call “God”? If there is something greater than god, such as the universe in which he is a fellow being with us and whose laws he must follow, then ought we not to worship the universe instead? Mormonism, like crude paganism, requires men to succumb to idolatry.
What also troubles me about Mormonism is both the widespread ignorance of its basic theology among its members and the widespread disinterest in this theology (and in the phenomenon of the nearly universal ignorance thereof). Mormons just don’t seem to be bothered by fundamental questions, as in the problem of god regression. Mormonism appears therefore a more wholesome form of Epicureanism, which seeks to guide its practitioners to live decently but without any interest in transcendence. God has been transformed into a Big Daddy in the sky, who, along with Big Mommy, rules over our world like benevolent royalty while, presumably, hanging out in the Celestial Kingdom with other deities (which my brother has affectionately named the God Club). Mohammed simplified monotheism for the masses, but Joseph Smith created a religion wholly appropriate for Americans who have no perspicacity outside their daily lives. As another commentator (A Lady) noted, Mormonism is the most essentially American religion.
As far as the lamentable history of the Puritans’ children, well, I think that their original Calvinist and egalitarian errors have evolved into the chief perversions of American society. Look at the intellectual history of New England since the eighteenth century, and you will find one malady of the spirit after another. Those WASPs have done much to destroy the world. Had they been mediocre or weak folks, they would not have done as much damage. So, I suppose that Mormons were part of this story, yet their own mutations were far more beneficial. I would rather live in a country populated by Mormons than one populated by Unitarians or the average congregants in the United Church of Christ—those religious cultures most directly descended from the Mayflower.
Like Charlton, I am impressed by how Mormons have semi-corrected many of the problems inherent in the Protestantism of their ancestors. Mormons respect and acknowledge hierarchy, reject iconoclasm, and have some sense of sacramentality, though without decent metaphysical support. Mormons do a fine job in seeing one’s life as the setting of both spiritual warfare and the preliminary taste of paradise rather than a mere test that determines one’s everlasting fate in “real life.” Mormons abandoned the bibliolatry of their forebears, though they kept the mistrust and outright ignorance of the continual apostolic tradition of the Church. In other words, Mormons are extremely fascinating.
But every ecclesiastical leader worthy of the name looks out for the interests of his flock.
Surely, Leo could not mean this! Perhaps, he saves the sentence by adding “worthy of the name.” Well, the vast majority (and I do not exaggerate) of the West’s religious leaders are not worthy of the name. They do not govern their institutions with the spiritual or even temporal interests of their flock in mind. They are the vanguards of civilizational ruin.
Concerning Leo’s point about regional culture, even if most Mormons now live outside of “Zion,” the leadership appears to be from and focused on the Mormon heartland. Mormons elsewhere are colonial outposts, working to transform their new frontier into an extension of the promised land. It is a good strategy. Anyway, perhaps LDS is becoming globalized, but that is not a good sign for its future health. There is an advantage in being raised in Zion.
As far as traditions, we, of course, are called to follow the tradition handed down to us by Christ through the apostles and not to follow the meanderings and traditions of men. How may we tell the difference? In the early centuries, the Church Fathers defended the gospel and the apostolic tradition while arguing against various heretics who wished to alter the Christian tradition to appease some philosophical or cultural obsession that Christianity offended. When the gnostics claimed special, secret knowledge of Christ, the Fathers pointed to the consistent public witness of the Church in every generation, where they preached the faith delivered to the apostles. Naturally, life is messy, and an examination of Church history is sometimes trying. Consider the history of Origen’s popularity and unpopularity. However, there is a generally clear witness of the Church’s teaching from the first century to today. It is not hidden from us. It is not secret or mysterious. It is not obfuscated by translations. (And what is it with Mormons and translations? Do they not know that people know Greek? That some Christians have always known Greek? That some Christians still speak Greek [yeah, yeah, it’s not koine, but still!]?) Mormons’ account of a post-apostolic apostasy is as historically ignorant and—not to spare words—stupid as that of the Seventh Day Adventists or fringe Baptists who think that Constantine invented Catholicism. One cannot worship God in spirit and in truth when one’s basic understanding of God and of God’s dealing with man is based on falsehood.