Monday, March 29, 2010

Wanted: A Sign of Hope in the Catholic Sex Scandal

Not being a Catholic I don't have much cause to talk about the heightening sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. But as I was thinking about it yesterday I remembered what Timothy Radcliffe OP said about symbols in What is the Point of Being a Christian?. Our age is one in which images are more powerful than ever, so much so that some worry about the diminished power of words. If the Church is to communicate effectively it must also harness the power of images - and of course we already have powerful images in the sacraments. In the Lord's Supper, for example, we have a "foretaste of the feast to come." It is a sign of hope. Through these signs of hope

we open windows for God's transforming grace in the world. It is through attentiveness to meaning and not brute force that we share in God's speaking a word that brings the Kingdom, that says "let human beings flourish" and we will. In The Merchant of Venice Portia says, "How far that little candle throws his beams/So shines a good deed in a naughty world."
He gives the example of the former Pope:
When Pope John Paul II went to Jerusalem many Israelis were sceptical, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sachs. What difference might this visit make? More words. But he transformed the situation when he went to the Wailing Wall and took his silent place there with Jews lamenting the destruction of the Temple. He shared their desolation. They were moved "by the sight of that frail, lonely individual standing by the wall of what was once the Temple, carrying with him the weight of centuries of estrangements, determined to repent of the past and chart a new way forward". Signs that speak, work.
Pope Benedict needs such a sign now. He should gather together a representative group of the abuse victims and announce new rules stating that all suspected cases of child abuse should be handed over to the local authorities and any priests attempting to cover up such cases will themselves be subject to severe disciplinary action by the Church. Then Benedict should abdicate.

I don't know what he knew or didn't know. It hardly matters: public perception is that he had some part in the cover-up. There could be no more powerful sign than for one of the most powerful men in the world to give up his power as an act of contrition. Even if he contributed in no way to the cover-up it would still demonstrate real humility and willingness to sacrifice himself for the sins of others.

It would also serve as a sign of hope because it would show determination to make abusive priests accountable for their sins. It would be very difficult for subsequent popes to return to the status quo ante. Such a sign would perhaps "open windows for God's transforming grace in the world". 

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The conservative temperament.

Over at A Thinking Reed, Lee linked this opinion piece by E.J. Dionne (a liberal) who says that conservatism challenges liberalism in three important ways:

  • "Conservatives are suspicious of innovation and therefore subject all grand plans to merciless interrogation."
  • "Conservatives respect old things and old habits."
  • Conservatives have "a suspicion of human nature [i.e., it is fallen] and a belief that humans cannot be remolded like plastic."

    Dionne contrasts this Russell Kirk/Edmund Burke variety of conservatism with the "pseudo-populism" of the Tea Party, which has given itself to the libertarian utopian vision of a diminished, if not eviscerated, government. And no one seriously believes that vision will become reality short of armed revolution. Dionne also points out that traditional conservatism was/is not enthusiastic about an unlimited free market, unlike the much more libertarian Tea Party. "Big business is as dangerous as big government," as the traditionalist conservative Rod Dreher says.

    Dionne is describing what I call (though I'm sure the term isn't original to me) "the conservative temperament". It's the way I described myself for most of the last decade. Not all those with the conservative temperament are mainstream conservatives (see: paleocons) and we certainly know that not all mainstream conservatives have the conservative temperament (see: neocons). Temperamental conservatism is a political attitude, not a political affiliation. It has no platform per se. It does not accept something as true even if a so-called conservative says it. It is suspicious of all utopian schemes.

    But Lee is correct when he says that
    American conservatism has never been limited to this modest version. Since at least the post-World War II era, conservatism has had a positive agenda of dismantling, or at least radically limiting, the welfare and regulatory state; expanding the national security and military apparatus; and defending “traditional” values against all comers. The relation between this movement and conservatism as Dionne describes it has been tenuous at best.
    The conservative temperament doesn't have to be limited to political conservatives. Lee, again:
    Any sane liberalism will take note of the fact that policies can have unintended consequences, that ingrained social habits can’t simply be pulled up by the roots without sacrificing certain values, and that it’s not within the power of government to radically change human nature, as Marxists may have imagined.
    For that reason I doubt many conservatives would be satisfied with having their political beliefs reduced to those three principles. On the other hand, I do wish more conservatives - particularly those affiliated with or in sympathy with the Tea Party - would reacquaint themselves with the the Burke/Kirk tradition. There is a lot of wisdom there, even for those of us who don't consider ourselves conservatives.
  • Friday, March 26, 2010

    Two quotes from Schmemann on baptism.

    Water is the "matter" of the sacrament, because it stands for the whole of matter, which is, in baptism, the sign and presence of the world itself. In the biblical "mythological" world view - which incidentally is more meaningful and philosophically consistent than the one offered by some "demythologizers" - water is the "prima materia", the basic element of the world. It is the natural symbol of life, for there is no life without water, but it is also the symbol of destruction and death, and finally, it is the symbol of purification, for there is no cleanliness without it. In the Book of Genesis creation of life is presented as the liberation of the dry land from the water - as a victory of the Spirit of God over the waters - the chaos of nonexistence. In a way, then, creation is a transformation of water into life.


    The sacrament of forgiveness if baptism, not because it operates a juridical removal of guilt, but because it is baptism into Jesus Christ, who is the Forgiveness. The sin of all sins - the truly "original sin" - is not a transgression of rules, but, first of all, the deviation of man's love and his alienation from God. The man prefers something - the world, himself - to God, this is the only real sin, and it it all sins become natural, inevitable. This sin destroys the true life of man. It deviates life's course from its only meaning and direction. And in Christ this sin is forgiven, not in the sense that God now has "forgotten" it and pays no attention to it, but because in Christ man has returned to God, and has returned to God because he has loved Him and found in Him the only true object of love and life.

    From For the Life of the World.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010

    From self-regarding to self-forgetful.

    In Why Go to Church? Timothy Radcliffe quotes Herbert McCabe:

    The root of all sin is fear: the very deep fear that we are nothing; the compulsion, therefore, to make something of ourselves, to construct a self-flattering image of ourselves we can worship, to believe in ourselves - our fantasy selves. I think all sins are failures in being realistic; even the simple everyday sins of the flesh, that seem to come from mere childish greed for pleasure, have their deepest origin in anxiety about whether we really matter, the anxiety that makes us desperate for self-reassurance. To sin is always to construct an illusory self that we can admire, instead of the real self we can only love.

    As Luther said, sin is being curved in on the self, to be self-regarding. Oswald Bayer's book, Living by Faith, masterfully addresses these issues. He opens by discussing the "battle for mutual recognition". We are compelled to justify ourselves and our behavior, to give account of ourselves: Who am I? What is my story? Why did I do what I did? If we are never addressed in this way we become socially non-existent. The individual is formed in this nexus of interaction:

    Striving to find approval in the eyes of others, being noticed and not being dismissed as nothing by others, demonstrates that I cannot relate to myself without relating to the world. It applies to our social birth as well as our physical birth. I constantly vacillate, even to the very end of life, between the judgment others make about me and my own judgment of myself. I am constantly trying to ascertain others' judgment about me and my own judgment of myself; I arrive at some point of calm, and then become unsure of myself again. My identity is a floating one. Who am I? asked Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Am I what others say about me? Am I what I know about myself? Am I balanced between these different evaluations? Questions such as these relate to my inner being, not just something external.

    This inward focus is a source of anxiety about the self, which, as McCabe says, is a source of sin. Jesus said that the law is summed up in the dual commandment, "Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself". That requires looking outside of yourself, to God and your neighbor. Justification by faith in God's promise is what enables us to do this. Bayer continues:

    Those who are born anew are no longer entangled with themselves. They are solidly freed from this entanglement, from the self-reflection that always seeks what belongs to itself. This is not a deadening of self. It does not flee from thought and responsibility. No, it is the gift of self-forgetfulness. The passive righteousness of faith tells us: You do not concern yourself at all! In that God does what is decisive in us, we may live outside ourselves and solely in him. Thus, we are hidden from ourselves, and removed from the judgment of others or the judgment of ourselves about ourselves as a final judgment. "Who am I?" Such self-reflection never finds peace in itself. Resolution comes only in the prayer to which Bonhoeffer surrendered it and in which he was content to leave it. "Who am I? Thou knowest me. I am thine, O God!"

    If sin is being curved in on the self then justification is having your spine straightened so that you can look outward to God and your neighbor. It should be clear, then, that the doctrine of justification by faith is the opposite of the idea that the only thing that matters is the relationship with God. Justification is not a simple "getting right with God" so that we can be prepared to get out of this world and into heaven. Justification sets us in a new relationship with God and the world. It creates, as Bayer says, "a new worldliness". The justified person can leave behind anxiety about the self, because the old self has been drowned in baptismal waters and a new, un-self-regarding self has been created. We are set free to serve others.

    Friday, March 19, 2010

    Ellul and Schmemann on the Sacred.

    As I was reading For the Life of the World a couple of days ago something Schmemann said reminded me of Jacques Ellul discussing the sacred in The Subversion of Christianity.

    Ellul begins by describing what he means by "the sacred":

    I will simply say that in every society there is an order of feelings, experiences, objects, rites, and words to which people attribute a value that is not directly utilitarian, which they believe to be determinative and independent of their own powers, which they do not think they can reduce to the everyday level or to rationality (like society) but which seem to them to be charged with either a potential of inexpressible energy or an explanatory potential. Explanation proceeds from them, but they themselves remain inexplicable.

    The sacred includes such things as sacred times, places, and people. While every society has the sacred it varies in intensity over time. There are periods of desacralization followed by resacralization. The gods may change but the gods always return.

    Ellul says that Judaism and Christianity were desacralizing movements. The OT is full of stories that might at first glance be examples of the battle of religions but are in fact anti-sacred polemics.

    The gods that are resisted and rejected are the gods of nature: the moon goddess, the god of reproduction, the god of thunder, etc. It is a matter of regarding natural things or forces as things or forces that have nothing sacred about them. God is not in these realities; they are purely natural realities.

    The creation stories of Genesis 1-2 are famous examples of this. There are no powers in nature. There is no battle of the gods. Creation is brought into being by the word of God. A creator-creature relationship is set up that establishes the transcendence of God in relation to the universe.

    Ellul claims that the desacralizing work of Jewish thought was incomplete, however, because of their retention of the priesthood and sacrificial system. Christianity, in Ellul's view, takes the desacralizing impulse to its completion by ending sacrifice with the death of Jesus and declaring that all believers are themselves priests.

    At this point what Ellul is saying sounds very much like Schmemann in the passage I quoted a couple of days ago.

    But Ellul doesn't stop there. He goes on to say that Christianity restarted the sacralizing process early on. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire there were mass conversions (some genuine, some not). Pagan temples were converted into churches but the new converts retained some of their religious sensibilities about the sacred. As Christianity expanded it assimilated these pagan beliefs and even baptized local deities as Christian saints, resulting in a mixed religion that was far removed from the pure nonreligious religion of Jesus and the apostles.

    From this Ellul traces the development of all sorts of "sacred" practices among Christians. Churches become sacred places requiring sacred gestures upon entry. Sacred times are set up. Images replace or supplement words as the communicator of the Christian message. Even the theology of the sacraments changes: Sacrifice is part and parcel of the sacred - and so the religious impulse demanded that the Eucharist become a sacrifice and the elements the true body and blood of Jesus.

    Though his argument has a certain power, passages like the following turn me against it:

    The world contains spiritual powers variously described as thrones, exousiai, and dominions, etc. Residing in the world, these powers hide in institutions, people, etc. But they have all been destroyed and extirpated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this world, then, there is no longer anything supernatural. There is no longer anything mysterious, no longer any world beyond. Nor is there any longer a division or partition of the world into the sacred on the one side and the profane on the other. The Christian world is wholly secular. There are in it no particularly sacred times or places, precisely because God is absolutely the Wholly Other and nothing in the world comes close to him or can be the bearer of value, meaning, energy, or even order. The only new energy that Christianity recognizes is the potential presence of God by the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit, too, is incomprehensible, inaccessible, and unexploitable.

    As I said before, Schmemann makes the same argument that Christianity was the "end of religion". But (as might be expected from an Orthodox protopresbyter) he doesn't leave us with Ellul's almost-materialist universe. Schmemann says that Christianity is not a religion because religion implies a separation between man and God. Jesus has broken down that wall. "He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion." And Schmemann does not present us with a God who is utterly transcendent - "incomprehensible, inaccessible, and unexploitable". Jesus was the end of religion because he was God come down to humanity. "He himself was the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in Him the life that was lost by man - and which could on be symbolized, signified, asked for in religion - was restored to man."

    Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him. To be sure, man is not the only hungry being. All that exists lives by "eating". The whole creation depends on food. But the unique position of man in the universe is that he alone is to bless God for the food and the life he receives from Him. He alone is to respond to God's blessing with his blessing. The significant fact about the life in the Garden is that man is to name things. As soon as animals have been created to keep Adam company, God brings them to Adam to see what he will call them. "And whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof." Now, in the Bible a name is infinitely more than a means to distinguish one thing from another. It reveals the very essence of a thing, or rather its essence as God's gift. To name a thing is to manifest the meaning and value God gave it, to know it as coming from God and to know its place and function within the cosmos created by God.

    To name a thing, in other words, is to bless God for it and in it. And in the Bible to bless God is not a "religious" or a "cultic" act, but the very way of life. God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day (that is, time), and this means that he filled all that exists with His love and goodness, made all this "very good." So the only natural (and not "supernatural") reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and - in this act of gratitude and adoration - to know, name and possess the world. All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. "Homo sapiens," "homo faber" ... yes, but, first of all, "homo adorans." The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God - and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the "matter," the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.

    I'm open to correction if I'm misunderstanding either Ellul or Schmemann. It seems to me that Ellul sees the sacred as a pagan impulse driven by a superstitious searching for God that is exposed and discarded by true Christianity. Schmemann, on the other hand, sees the sacred as a searching for God, but ignorant, not superstitious. The sacred is a natural function of homo adorans, implanted in humanity by God. It just needs to be focused on the true God revealed in Jesus. And I wonder if part of this difference between Ellul (the Calvinist) and Schmemann (the Orthodox) lies in the question of the Capax, that is, whether the finite can "bear" the infinite. Note that Ellul says that God "is absolutely the Wholly Other and nothing in the world comes close to him or can be the bearer of value, meaning, energy, or even order" while Schmemann seems to allow a much greater capacity for creation. I could be completely wrong about that since I only learned about the controversy when Thomas discussed it in his March 13th post.

    My instinctive sympathy is with Schmemann, though Ellul's view strikes me as more "modern" (but because it seems more materialist, which I reject). I'm in over my head here. I'd be very interested in others' opinions.

    Saturday, March 13, 2010

    Jesus is the end of all religion.

    As Christians we believe that He [Christ], who is the truth about both God and man, gives foretastes of His incarnation in all more fragmentary truths. We believe as well that Christ is present in any seeker after truth. Simone Weil has said that though a person may run as fast as he can away from Christ, if it is toward what he considers true, he runs in fact straight into the arms of Christ.

    Much that is true of God has also been revealed in the long history of religion, and this can be demonstrated for the Christian by reference to the true standard of Christ. In the great religions which have given shape to human aspirations, God plays on an orchestra which is far out of tune, yet there has often been a marvelous, rich music made.

    Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus made this clear. "'Sir,' the woman said to him, 'I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.' Jesus saith unto her, 'Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet in Jerusalem, worship the Father. ... But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him'" (Jn. 4:19-21, 23). She asked him a question about cult, and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter. Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity presented as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion.

    It was this freedom of the early church from "religion" in the usual, traditional sense of this word that led the pagans to accuse Christians of atheism. Christians had no concern for any sacred geography, no temples, no cult that could be recognized as such by the generations fed with solemnities of the mystery cults. There was no specific religious interest in the places where Jesus had lived. There were no pilgrimages. The old religion had its thousands of sacred place and temples: for the Christian all this was past and gone. There was no need for temples built of stone: Christ's Body, the Church itself, the new people gathered in Him, was the only real temple. "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. ..." (Jn. 2:19).

    The Church itself was the new and heavenly Jerusalem: the Church in Jerusalem was by contrast unimportant. The fact that Christ comes and is present was far more significant than the places where He had been. The historical reality of Christ was of course the undisputed ground of the early Christians' faith: yet they did not so much remember Him as know He was with them. And in Him was the end of "religion," because He himself was the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in Him the life that was lost by man - and which could on be symbolized, signified, asked for in religion - was restored to man.

    Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, pp. 19-20.

    Friday, March 12, 2010

    Taking responsibility for God.

    In Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams says that the Bible is not "full of comfortable and reassuring things about the life of belief and trust". There are "moments of conflict with God, anger with God, doubt about God's purposes, anguish, and lostness when people have no real sense of God's presence". There are no arguments for the existence of God in the Bible; rather the characters are "caught up in something the imperative reality of which they can't deny or ignore. At one level, you have to see that the very angst and struggle they bring to their relation with God is itself a kind of argument for God: if they take God that seriously, at least this isn't some cosy made-up way of making yourself feel better".

    He then goes on to say that witnessing this struggle is the way faith begins for some people. "It starts from a sense that we 'believe in', we trust some kinds of people. We have confidence in the way they live; the way they live is a way I want to live, perhaps can imagine myself living in my better or more mature moments. The world they inhabit is the one I'd like to live in."

    This, of course, puts the pressure on believing people. Nevertheless, we must "take responsibility for making God credible in the world". He gives the example of Etty Hillesum who, before being murdered at Auschwitz, took it upon herself to "bear witness to the fact that God lived, even in these times". Williams continues, "It is plain that she saw her belief as a matter of deciding to occupy a certain place in the world, a place where others could somehow connect with God through her - and this not in any self-congratulatory spirit or with any sense of being exceptionally holy or virtuous, but simply because she had agreed to take responsibility for God's believability."

    About Me

    I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.