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Monday, October 09, 2017

Celebrating the Reformation: a reply to Sarah Condon

The Episcopal priest Sarah Condon has just written a defiant blog post expressing her frustration with (male) Protestant clergy who mourn the Reformation. She gives three basic reasons (or sets of reasons) for celebrating the Reformation:

1. Women can be ordained and clergy can be married (openly and legally--she points out correctly that a large number of medieval priests lived in illicit but tacitly accepted relationships with women, and that the women involved were called "whores" and had a low social status).

2. The Reformation allowed people to hear the Gospel of God's grace clearly and the Bible was translated into vernacular languages.

3. Sometimes God calls us to "burn it all down," pouring out his judgment on the established order. (Obviously this is dependent on the previous two points.)

To the first point: Rev. Condon says with certainty that we know that women would not be ordained if the Reformation had not occurred. Pope John Paul II would, of course, agree with her. But then, Rev. Condon doesn't agree with the Pope's reasons for thinking this (i.e., that the ordination of women is theologically impossible). From a purely historical point of view, I think the matter is much less certain than she claims. One of the big mistakes Protestants (and secular post-Protestants) make about Catholicism is to assume that Counter-Reformation Catholicism is what Catholicism would have been like if not for the Reformation (at least in all the aspects they consider bad--they are happy to take credit for what they consider real reform). Kingsley Amis' novel The Alteration is a really good example of this. We simply don't know what would have happened if Protestants had rejected schism as a means of reform. Maybe they would all have been stamped out without much trace, but I suspect not. And with regard to clerical marriage, where Condon makes the same claim, I'm fairly sure not. The possibility of allowing married clergy was seriously batted about in the Reformation era among Catholics, particularly as a means of healing the growing schism. One of the reasons it didn't happen was that schism happened anyway, and the Catholic Church adopted a very hostile attitude to signature Protestant demands even when there wasn't a clear doctrinal reason to do so. I am reasonably confident that there would be married clergy in the Catholic Church today if Protestants had pulled back from the doctrinal and liturgical demands that were genuinely incompatible with the Tradition and had doubled down on practical reforms. More on that later. First, a few more points about women and the Reformation.

Rev. Condon seems to follow a line of scholarship, which was once very common, holding that the Reformation was a liberating movement for women. She points to the role Katy Luther played in sometimes arguing theology with Luther and his friends and students. (From the quotes I remember in the Table Talk, I think she's exaggerating a bit--my memory is that Katharina played the role of the sympathetic and common-sense "uneducated woman" whose views were recorded with a bit of a patronizing smile--but I could be wrong, and Rev. Condon is right that at least they were recorded and she had her say.) But there's another approach, which has on the whole been more dominant in recent decades, I think (at least it seemed so when I was in grad school and I don't think it's waned since), which emphasizes the ways in which the Reformation doubled down on patriarchy. Lyndal Roper's book The Holy Household on the Reformation in Augsburg is one of the key works arguing this position, though her arguments have not been accepted without controversy. Amy Leonard has documented the stories of German nuns in the Reformation era who resisted the efforts of (male) Protestant clergy to "liberate" them from their vocations. (Of course there were other nuns, such as Katharina von Bora, who did find Protestantism liberating. But their stories may not be as typical as Protestant propaganda has claimed.) Sometimes these efforts were quite coercive and even, at least by threat, violent.

The Protestant Reformers by and large argued that women's only vocation was within the household. Martin Bucer objected to Catholic veneration of Mary in part because it made her a powerful figure in her own right over against her husband, whereas Bucer insisted that after the miraculous events of Jesus' birth Mary lived the life of a perfect and obedient housewife and should only be celebrated in that context. Luther said in his treatise on The Estate of Marriage (1522) that women were created to bear children and that it didn't matter if this wore them down and shortened their lives. (To be fair, as this Protestant website points out, he also said that childbearing was healthy for women and that it was better to have a short life in good health than a long life in bad health.) In medieval Catholicism, on the other hand, women often exercised powerful social roles with considerable independence from men. They weren't priests, true, but they were abbesses, anchorites, hospital workers. . . . There is a lot of evidence of women resisting the Reformation because their spirituality was focused on the very shrines and rituals that the Protestants destroyed. And yes, there are other examples of iconoclastic women who mocked Catholic piety by saying that they could piss as holy water as the priest could make, and so on. It's complicated--far more complicated than Rev. Condon's desire for celebration allows.

I am married to an Episcopal priest myself, so I understand how important vocation is. I understand that Rev. Condon probably experiences her vocation in a way that this particular essay does not do justice to. But as it stands, her way of speaking about it sounds like a confirmation of what many conservative Catholics and conservative Anglicans say, that women want ordination as an expression of personal power. It sounds as if she is saying "the unity of the Church doesn't matter--what matters is that I get what I want." Again, I'm sure that there's more to her sense of vocation than this, but in this particular piece of writing it doesn't come through, at least to me.

Her snarky and witty style no doubt contributes to this. But to be honest, this is one of my problems with the whole piece. I appreciate Rev. Condon's lively writing, but her rhetorical approach (indicated by the title, for starters) is of a piece with a general trend in our culture that I think is deeply toxic. The willingness to flout other people's sensibilities, to glory in being offensive, to jeer at what others hold sacred--I think we are drowning in these things already. I don't think more of this is needed, however justified Rev. Condon may find her particular cause. I know that many conservative Catholics and Anglicans treat ordained women this way. I can only say, inadequate as Rev. Condon will find it, that I protest passionately against it when I run into it. I think her anger and snark are understandable. I don't think they are particularly convincing to anyone not already in her corner. But perhaps she doesn't intend them to be.

As an Anglican priest, Rev. Condon presumably confesses regularly her faith in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I don't see how she can reconcile that profession with the cavalier way in which she mocks those (she claims they are all male, but I doubt that) who care about unity. Yes, of course, unity must be unity in truth and justice. But a love of unity itself is not something to be ashmed of.

Rev. Condon's second point is that the Reformation restored a proper understanding of grace. (She also claims that the Reformation is responsible for the Bible being in the vernacular, which ignores the multiple translations in multiple European languages that existed before the Reformation.) This isn't the place to deal with this claim, which is of course the basic Protestant claim and is a solid reason to celebrate the Reformation if true. Indeed, since I think the Reformation did give us some fresh insights on grace, it's a reason why I do celebrate aspects of the Reformation (but not the schism). But Reformation theology, taken "straight," does not liberate grace so much as segregate it. "Law" is allowed to reign in the affairs of this world, but banished from the Gospel. I don't think that's Biblical. The Sermon on the Mount is at the heart of the Gospel, as the Gospels themselves define it. Here's a basic challenge for Rev. Condon and other defenders of the Reformation: does racial justice belong to law or Gospel? Or, in other words, is a church that proclaims and practices racial segregation preaching the true Gospel?

Her final point is that sometimes God wants us to burn everything down. I think she's wrong there. Yes, there is divine judgment. Biblically, the harshest proclamations of judgment are against God's own people. The problem with "burning it all down" is that you are repudiating your former people and starting a new people, who presumably don't deserve God's judgment. But the new people always do too. After 500 years, is it really still credible to claim that the endless sequence of burning it all down that has marked Protestant history is God's will? But perhaps Rev. Condon doesn't mean that. She is, after all, an Anglican, a tradition distinguished from most other Protestant traditions precisely by its level of continuity with the past. So what does she actually mean by "burning it all down"? Wouldn't that, logically, lead her to abandon Anglicanism itself? (Not that I want her to do that--but she's not going to listen to me anyway!)

Saturday, October 07, 2017

High and Low

High and Low is a 1963 movie by Akira Kurosawa which I saw a few days ago. It's a modern police procedural, with the rather cliched plot of a kidnapper who taunts the father of his victim by phone and seems to have uncanny abilities to see what his target is doing. (Actually, perhaps it wasn't cliched in 1963.)

Except that the target of the extortion demand, played by Toshiro Mifune, isn't actually the father of the victim. The kidnapper has accidentally snatched the chauffeur's son instead. This sets up the fundamental moral conflict of the film. Will Mifune's character, a prosperous shoe manufacturer named about to clinch an important deal that will give him control of the company he works for, give up his professional ambitions by paying the massive ransom demanded by the kidnapper and thus plunge himself into debt. (Mifune has mortgaged everything he owns in order to raise the money for the buyout that will give him control of the company, and this is the money he would need to use to pay the kidnapper.) This makes the film more than just a taut procedural--though it is certainly that.

The moral challenge Mifune faces is presented in heavy-handed terms right after the kidnapping, when he thinks his son has been taken and declares, without hesitation, that of course he will pay whatever it takes to get him back. But Mifune's character is not cold-hearted or unsympathetic. He has worked his way to the position he has, although we find out eventually that he also owes a good deal of his status to his wife's inherited money. At the beginning of the movie, he is confronting the directors of the company over their desire to make shoddy, flashy shoes instead of the solid work he wants to turn out. Kurosawa first gives us a conflict between good and bad capitalism, and then casts doubt even on the "good capitalism."

The title of the film in Japanese, apparently, translates more literally as "Heaven and hell." It turns out that the kidnapper is motivated primarily by envy of Mifune's literally exalted status in a beautiful house on a hill overlooking Yokohama. Mifune hasn't done anything to hurt the kidnapper, and the latter's rage seems irrational, but Kurosawa makes us empathize with him in spite of our horror at his actions.

It may be relevant that in Buddhism, unlike Christianity, heaven and hell are temporary destinations. Gods, who live in heaven, are beings who have achieved happiness through their good actions in previous lives, just as Mifune has worked his way from a simple craftsman to a position of wealth and privilege. But in Buddhism, being a "god" is not a particularly desirable thing. The gods are typically unaware of the temporary nature of their bliss. Eventually they too will have to descend from the heights. Enlightenment results not simply from good actions, but from an awareness of the temporary, contingent nature of all reality, even apparently secure bliss. In Mahayana Buddhism, the spiritual ideal is the "bodhisattva," who takes a vow not to enter Nirvana until every other creature in the universe has been enlightened as well. At the end of the movie, having lost his fortune but gained a position with a smaller company where he can do the kind of work he wants to do, Mifune visits the kidnapper in prison. While the film ends on a somber note with the kidnapper's howls of rage and despair, Mifune's trajectory is a redemptive one for himself at least, from arrogant assumption of superiority to compassionate presence with someone who has done him (and others) great evil.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Lives of Others

Image result for The Lives of Others

In a key scene from the 2006 German movie The Lives of Others, the playwright Georg Dreymann plays a piece of music called Sonata for a Good Man to his girlfriend Crista-Maria Sieland, and comments, "how can anyone listen to music like this and be a bad man?" It's a lot of weight to hang on music (admittedly haunting and effective music) composed specifically for the film by Gabriel Yare. (The original story that the film-maker, Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, took as his inspiration for this scene referred to Beethoven's Sonata Appassionata.)  That audacity is typical of the film, which tells the story of the conversion of an agent of the East German secret police (the Stasi), Gerd Wiesler, through the power of art and empathy.

Wiesler, splendidly acted by Ulrich Muhe (who in real life had himself been the victim of surveillance by the Stasi and claimed that his own wife had been one of the informants), is a buttoned-down, quietly intense officer whom we first see interrogating a prisoner and then using recording of the interrogation to instruct students. When a student protests that the sleep deprivation method Wiesler uses is "inhumane," Wiesler responds by proving that, in fact, the prisoner was lying and arguing that only such extreme methods can break down the arrogance of the "enemies of the state." The picture is clear: this is a person capable of recognizing the moral problems with what he is doing ,but convinced that the ends justify the means--a true believer whose sensitivity and intelligence make him all the more chilling. When he first sees Dreymann, he immediately comments that Dreymann displays the arrogance typical of "enemies of the State" and ought to be put under surveillance, even though he appears to be a model Communist whose poetic dramas glorify East Germany as "the best country in the world." Wiesler's concerns find a receptive ear with the loathsome government official Bruno Hempf, who desires Dreymann's girlfriend and wants to get Dreymann out of the way. And so the main action of the film begins, as Wiesler bugs Dreymann's apartment and sits day after day with earphones on his head, monitoring what goes on inside.

In the course of the film, Dreymann does become the dissident Wiesler suspects him to be. But in the process, Wiesler comes to have empathy for his victim, so that when the time comes to tighten the noose, he can't bring himself to do it. In the process, like Dreymann and Hempf in their own very different ways, Wiesler falls in love with the fragile, troubled Sieland, or at least comes to have deep compassion and admiration for her. (Sieland is somewhat of a sexist stereotype, though a fascinating and well-acted one--the doomed, flawed woman who functions both as guardian angel and Achilles' heel to the man she loves. The way in which all the men in the story are defined by their reactions to her is rather reminiscent of Hugo's Esmeralda.) After initially manipulating Dreymann into discovering Sieland's affair with Hempf (though given the level of coercion involved, it might better be called rape), Wiesler later approaches Sieland to assure her (as an anonymous fan) of his respect for her art and of her worthiness as a human being. Later, when called on to interrogate her, he will deliberately use some of the same language he had employed in that earlier conversation in an apparent attempt to reassure her covertly that he is on her side and she need not despair. Tragically, she fails to recognize him.

I will respect our culture's silly superstition about "spoilers" enough to avoid giving away any more details of the plot. It is a highly melodramatic (though well-constructed) one, but the most unrealistic and often criticized element is the key point on which the whole story turns--the possibility of a Stasi agent softening toward his victims and becoming an agent of hope and compassion. The director of the museum now housed in the former Stasi headquarters refused to allow the movie to be filmed there because he believed that it whitewashed the subject, pointing out that there is no record (among all the meticulous records they kept) of any Stasi agent softening toward his victims, and that even if one had he would have been instantly caught because of the many levels of double-checking in place.

The Lives of Others
, for all its careful, rich detail about life in Communist Germany, is fundamentally a fantasy, more like Lord of the Rings than the grim realistic drama I rather expected it to be. It turns on what Chesterton rightly pointed out long ago was perhaps the most fantastic of Christianity's supernatural claims: that human beings have free will.

The best response to the critics, perhaps, is the story of a 29-year-old captain in the Israeli intelligence service "Unit 8200" who, in 2014, joined 42 of her colleagues in refusing to participate further in the surveillance of Palestinians.  She cited The Lives of Others as the trigger that finally convinced her that her job was immoral:
“I felt a lot of sympathy for the victims in the film of the intelligence,” the captain said. “But I did feel a weird, confusing sense of similarity, I identified myself with the intelligence workers. That we were similar to the kind of oppressive intelligence in oppressive regimes really was a deep realization that makes us all feel that we have to take responsibility.”
The film has frequently been cited in other contexts relating to intrusive surveillance efforts by governments, including the NSA program that prompted Edward Snowden's massive leaks. It may well be unrealistic to imagine that a Stasi agent could have acted as Wiesler does in the film. But as the Israeli intelligence officer's story demonstrates, the power of the film to create empathy both with Wiesler and his victims can be transformative in the real world. The film may not describe the behavior of Stasi agents, but it may play some role in preventing others from turning into Stasi agents. It witnesses to the hope that, in Tolkien's words, "in the armour of fate there is ever a rift, and in the walls of doom a breach"--that the poets and the lovers have the last word after all, and that music has the power to create the goodness of which it sings. When men like Minister Hempf once again hold positions of power, we need stories like that. We always need stories like that.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dear Protestants, Here's Why I Didn't Sign the Reforming Catholic Confession, and Other Dispatches From Living Among Catholics as a Protestant Priest

My wife said yesterday, "I'd like to post this on my blog, but it isn't in any way about the theology of work." I said, "You could put it on my blog."--Edwin

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

Yesterday, I got into a discussion about the Reforming Catholic Confession and why I, despite having been given an opportunity to do so, had not signed it. The reasons are several, but one of the most salient is that I am married to a Roman Catholic. In fact, I am a female Episcopal priest married to a Roman Catholic. I can’t imagine that there are that many people in this position, which I find roughly analogous to being in about the third round of a session of youth-group Twister. It is perhaps worth dwelling on what I have learned after five months of playing ecumenical Twister (Edwin was received into the Catholic church in April).

My main acquaintance with large groups of Catholics since Edwin became one has been the blogosphere, which I realize warps my perspective. (Edwin assures me that the average Roman Catholic in the pews knows no more about their faith than the average Protestant, perhaps less.) But here is my #1 dispatch from the front after five months of ethnographic observation:

Dear Protestants, Catholics do not care if you exist.

I don’t mean that they don’t care that you, as individual children of God and rational humans, exist. I mean that they don’t care that you collectively exist. If Catholics disappeared tomorrow, Protestants would notice. Wherever they are on the spectrum from “Catholics are the antichrist” to “Catholics are valued ecumenical partners whom we secretly envy for their really cool hats,” they would notice. (Edwin grew up towards the former end of that spectrum, I the latter. In fact I spent quite a number of years as a ferocious post-Vatican-II liturgist of the “what’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist” joke type.)

But if every Protestant denomination was wiped off the face of the earth, Catholics would go on having the same conversations they do now as if nothing had happened, except that eventually Edwin would notice that I had stopped doing the laundry. Protestants are haunted by Catholics. Catholics are haunted too, but not by Protestants. If I had to put a finger on it, I would say they are haunted by the desire to catch the vanishing tail of unplumbable deep mysteries. But they are not haunted by me.

When Edwin was discerning whether or not to become Roman Catholic, he met with a trusted Methodist pastoral advisor and friend. The friend said “Ask Jenn what you need to do to support her in ministry.”

When Edwin came to me and asked, I knew that it was in my power to say “Don’t become Catholic.” I knew that he is the most honest, respectful, and chivalrous person I know. I also knew I couldn’t take advantage of that. What I actually said was “I need to know that you have my back.”

So Edwin went to the lay catechist in charge of RCIA and then eventually to the priest. He said “I will still consider my wife a priest and I will not break communion with Protestants to be in communion with you.” He expected they would say no. They said yes. Which brings us back to ecumenical Twister.

Edwin will explain his position to people by saying that he is not claiming to believe that what happens in Protestant Eucharists, and in the setting apart for ministry of Protestant pastors, is the same thing that happens when the Roman Catholic church makes Roman Catholic priests and they make Roman Catholic Eucharist. He is only claiming that he cannot deny the presence of grace in Protestant sacraments.

The only place I am not haunted by Catholics is the place you think I would most be, and that is in Protestant sacraments. I became a priest, in large part, out of a devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For this I endured a complex discernment process that took me out of Methodism and into Anglicanism and ultimately took 23 years. (I began discernment in 1992. I post this on the second anniversary of my ordination as a deacon on the Eve of Holy Cross in 2015.)  

As a former Methodist, people found such a devotion awkward. Despite a rich history of Eucharistic reflection by the Wesleys, the accepted reason for becoming a Methodist pastor is “Because I want to help people.”  I do want to help people, but I have always felt chiefly called to help them by offering the grace of the sacraments and getting out of the way. Someone else can hold hands and sing Kum Bah Yah.

I once got asked by Edwin to bless a tent that had previously had a hard life. I was actually not feeling well, but I went out to our backyard in my bathrobe, placed a stole around my neck, consecrated a teacup full of water, asperged the tent in the name of the Trinity, took off my stole, and went back to bed. So much of being a Protestant in dialogue with Catholics is being made to feel, through benign neglect if not through actual apologetic argument, that you are simply playing church. I was not playing church that day. I was in deadly earnest.

As I am every time I stand at the altar, the table of the Lord, with the bread and wine. Quite a lot of doing the liturgy--especially for someone like me who was raised on Methodist folksiness and has a difficult time picking up choreography--is simply remembering what to pick up, what to set down, and what not to bump into.

But it never fails that when I lift the bread and lift the cup, and when I say “Sanctify these gifts,” that I am caught up in the thought “This is Jesus. This is the vanishing tail of unplumbable mysteries.”

Except for this tiny moment the mystery isn’t vanishing. He’s right there.

Friday, May 12, 2017

How mere Christianity made me a Catholic

For many years now, the main rival to Catholicism for me has been the concept of "mere Christianity" articulated by C. S. Lewis. Lewis' most famous explanation of the subject is, of course, in his book of that name (based on radio lectures he gave to the Royal Air Force during WWII). Lewis' articulation of basic Christian teaching has been extremely influential, but perhaps even more influential has been the very idea that there is such a thing. Lewis may,, in fact, have done more for Christian unity than the entire institutional ecumenical movement.

Lewis himself was, of course, an Anglican. Catholic admirers have often wondered why he didn't go "all the way" and become Catholic--indeed, there are no fewer than three books on the subject. (The most recent is actually by a Protestant, I believe.) But of course even asking the question presupposes a Catholic position. Tolkien was right, I think, in saying that Lewis became Anglican primarily because that was his heritage (and a very honorable reason that is, in my opinion). But certainly the relative lack of dogmatism of Anglicanism and its emphasis on the ancient consensus of the Church suited Lewis' temperament very well.

While Lewis did occasionally make criticisms of Catholicism or try to explain to Catholic friends why he saw no need to "convert," Lewis himself did not actively set  "mere Christianity" over against "Roman" Catholicism, or indeed any particular Christian tradition. In Mere Christianity, he compared what he was articulating to the vestibule of a house. The goal, according to Lewis, was to choose a room and settle in.

But there's something intrinsically unstable about this metaphor. After all, the point of "mere Christianity" is that it covers basic truths all Christians agree on such as the Incarnation, the need for divine grace, the sacraments (at least baptism and Eucharist), the authority of Scripture, and so on. For any particular version of Christianity, these things are at the center of the "house"--they aren't simply the vestibule.

So it's not surprising that many people who adopt Lewis' slogan treat "mere Christianity" as a rival to more particular Christian traditions, such as Catholicism. Lewis has, in fact, given substance and focus to the longstanding Protestant rhetoric of distinguishing between "essentials" and "nonessentials." The fatal flaw in this approach has always been the disagreement among Protestants as to which items are "essential" and which are "nonessential." Lewis seems to point the way to a solution.

But in fact, the problem remains. For instance, a few years ago there was talk of starting a new "Great Books" Christian college, named after C. S. Lewis, which would have "mere Christianity" as its only standard. This was explained to me as being defined by the Nicene Creed. S. M. Hutchens, however, a writer for Touchstone (which bills itself as a journal of "Mere Christianity"), suggested that if the college wanted to be faithful to Lewis' vision of mere Christianity it should exclude anyone who believed in women's ordination, which Hutchens (claiming Lewis' support) believes is fundamentally incompatible with orthodox Christianity. (Hutchens made this statement in a comment which I now have trouble finding, but his view can be clearly seen in this later article about the conflict over women's ordination in the ACNA.)

The question of gay unions and "non-traditional" sexualities generally is an even more acid test of "mere Christianity" as a measure of orthodoxy. Many who are willing to accept disagreement on women's ordination, or even regard the ordination of women as the obvious move, see a "liberal" view on homosexuality or "gender identity" as incompatible with "mere Christian" orthodoxy. Yet there are many who accept historic creedal orthodoxy while believing that this is a point where new understanding of human psychology and biology needs to prompt a shift in how we think about sexuality, and that this is entirely compatible with the basic principles of traditional Christian sexual morality. So we have, at least, a three-way division among would-be proponents of "mere Christianity": those who accept both gay unions and women's ordination, those who accept women's ordination but not gay unions, and those who accept neither. Factor in the distinction between holding to one position or the other and thinking that it's an essential part of "mere Christianity," and things get more complicated. (I, for instance, am not convinced that "mere Christianity" is incompatible with any of these positions, although my own theological judgment is "liberal" on women's ordination and "conservative" on sexuality.)

"Mere Christianity" is by definition something that we can only see in the rear-view mirror. It provides little help in solving live debates in the present. Whenever the status of any one belief or practice is challenged, "mere Christianity" itself cannot solve the dispute--a living, concrete community is needed for that. But this, of course, takes us out of "mere Christianity" and back to the sectarian reality from which "mere Christianity" is supposed to deliver us.

So if Lewis was wrong that "mere Christianity" is merely the vestibule (because it's obviously the center of all the various forms of Christianity), and if "mere Christianity" can't function as an alternative to more concrete communities, where does that leave us? We need a concrete, rooted Christian tradition centered on "mere Christianity" but capable of addressing "borderline" issues and responding dynamically to the changing world.

I am not going to argue here why I think Catholicism fits that description better than the alternatives. Rather, the point I want to make is that for me Catholicism is not a rival to mere Christianity, so much as its fulfillment. As a Catholic, my faith is rooted deeply in precisely those elements of the faith that Lewis expounded so well--the ancient Creeds, the seven virtues, and the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist.

The sacraments are a good place to see the relationship between "mere Christianity" and Catholicism. For Protestants, and thus for "mere Christianity" (since "mere Christianity" is by definition what Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants have historically shared), there are two fundamental sacraments. For CAtholics, of course, there are seven. Yet Catholic teaching affirms that baptism and Eucharist are central to Christian life, and that the other five sacraments flow from them and are ordered to them.

To be Catholic, then, should not mean sneering at the concept of "mere Christianity." Yes, it is a poor substitute for Catholicism. But a Catholicism that does not have a clear sense of the "hierarchy of truths," that treats all Catholic teaching as just "stuff the Church tells us to believe," is a deeply incoherent and unconvincing Catholicism. If there is one common denominator in the many ex-Catholics I've talked to, it is, overwhelmingly, a failure to see the underlying structure of Catholicism. Instead, ex-Catholics describe Catholicism over and over again as a set of "rules" that had come to seem largely arbitrary to them.

Thus, Catholics need "mere Christianity" just as "mere Christianity" needs Catholicism. "Mere Christianity" is neither a vestibule leading to a variety of equally legitimate "living quarters," nor a coherent alternative to Catholicism and other concrete embodiments of Christian faith and practice. It is the beating heart of the Faith, the "hearth" shared by all members of our squabbling, tragic, confused family.

Without "mere Christianity," I would not have become Catholic. Indeed, I would not be a Christian at all. But without Catholicism, "mere Christianity" would remain an abstraction.

Lewis' most powerful and compelling account of "mere Christianity" is not in the book of that name, but in his essay "On Reading Old Books," appropriately prefaced to a translation of Athanasius' On the Incarnation by Sister Penelope Lawson. Here, Lewis presents "mere Christianity" as a reading strategy--a standard that gives us balance and sanity as we navigate the often confusing labyrinth of contemporary religious opinion. And this approach is rooted in his own experience (which he would describe at more length in Surprised by Joy).
I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were "influences." George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries—that "Christianity" is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages "mere Christianity" turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed "Paganism" of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:
an air that kills
From yon far country blows. 
We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

My own experience matches Lewis', except that I approached the Christian tradition from a radical Protestant perspective rather than from that of an atheist ex-Anglican. Like Lewis, I was struck by what all these authors have in common. But once my feet were on the "great level viaduct," I discovered that it was taking me somewhere. And, like the pilgrim John in Lewis' The Pilgrim's Regress, I found that it led me to Mother Kirk, in a somewhat more alarming and concrete way than Lewis himself intended by the term.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why we need the words "conservative" and "liberal"

One often hears people say that the labels "conservative" and "liberal" aren't helpful and we should drop them. In particular, in Catholic circles it's common for pious people to claim that the terms "conservative" and "liberal" don't apply. Many of the folks who say this are what I would call very conservative Catholics who think that there is only one possible Catholic position on most controversial topics. There are no "conservatives" or "liberals" because that would imply two legitimate groups. Rather, there are those who are orthodox and there are those who are not. The "orthodox," of course, agree with the speaker's interpretation of orthodoxy. Others genuinely wish for a faith that transcends political labels, and rightly not that "conservative" and "liberal" in their current American political senses don't map well onto the Catholic paradigm (or any traditional Christian paradigm).

Indeed, I think that it makes more sense to speak of conservative and liberal in terms of Catholicism than in terms of American politics. American political traditions are, by definition, "liberal" in the original 18th-century sense of the term. Americans exalt individual freedom and disparage tradition. To be a "conservative" in the contemporary political sense means to be pro-capitalist and generally pro-individualism--hardly what "conservative" traditionally meant.

While "conservative" and "liberal" do have specific meanings rooted in European politics, I think their most useful meaning is a general, relative one describing dynamics that occur in all organized groups or self-conscious traditions. In any group of people having an identity that endures over some time, there will be two related methodological questions:
1. How much change is compatible with maintaining the identity of the group? and
2. How strictly should norms of belief and/or conduct be enforced?

A "conservative" is one who pushes for less change and strict enforcement. A "liberal" is one who argues for more change and less policing of boundaries. These are the two most obvious alignments. However, one can draw up a quadrant in which the two questions form two distinct axes: change vs. continuity and strict enforcement vs. freedom.

It's possible to favor continuity with the past but relatively lax enforcement of boundaries, though this may be the hardest position to maintain (it's also more or less where I fall--go figure). It's also possible to make a break with the past and enforce it through rigid boundary controls (this is relatively more common, I think). For instance, in Calvin's Geneva people who gave their children saints' names could be hauled up before the Company of Pastors and fined. The break with the past was enforced through what looks to most of us today like very "conservative" forms of church discipline. But of course over time the "radical" position comes to be seen as the "traditional" one, making this position simply "conservative." One very funny example of this was during the years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Western media referred to those who wanted to preserve Communism as the "right" within the Soviet Union, when of course the entire Soviet political tradition was originally extreme "left." But by the 1980s people who were orthodox Marxist-Leninists were "conservatives" by the standard of their own tradition.

So there are four basic orientations:
Conservative (high continuity, rigid boundaries)
Liberal (low continuity, lax boundaries)
Radical (low continuity, rigid boundaries)
Traditional (high continuity, lax boundaries)

The naming of the fourth group is a problem. I'm not actually sure that it's a rare position, but it is a position that tends over time to be eroded, at least in modern Western culture. That is to say, modern Western culture is fundamentally "liberal," so continuity with tradition has to be a conscious effort by members of the particular community. My own position would (on a scale of 0 to 10 for each of the four categories) be something like 7 on continuity and 3 or 4 on freedom. That is to say, I favor quite a bit of freedom, but not by any means unlimited, while I stress continuity heavily.

A further complication is that these characteristics are, of course, tradition-specific. I'm describing my position primarily with regard to Catholicism--for years before I actually became Catholic, I thought about things through a primarily Catholic lens and saw Catholicism as the community against whose standards I should measure myself. As an Episcopalian, I was more straightforwardly conservative, because the Episcopal Church is much more liberal. Indeed, one of the reasons I became Catholic was so I didn't have to be my own boundary police any more.

To be more precise, I think about the first category more in terms of the Christian tradition as a whole. That is to say, when I ask "how much should we maintain continuity with the past," I am asking whether we should be more like liberal Protestants or fundamentalist Baptists or Pentecostals or neo-Anabaptist emergent hipsters or Eastern Orthodox or whatever. But when I ask how strictly the boundaries should be maintained, I am thinking of the authority structures which I have for years now accepted as normative--those of the Catholic Church. All baptized Christians are part of the Church. And this means that the authority structures of the Catholic Church are relevant for all Christians. That's one reason why I have never fit in as an evangelical. I can't take their authority structures seriously.

If I were asking the first question in terms of Catholicism alone (at least as represented by official teaching), I'd wind up as more like a 0, or maybe even a 1 in the direction of discontinuity. And if I were asking the second question in terms of all varieties of Christianity, I'd be more like a 2 in the direction of maintaining boundaries. If in terms of Episcopalianism alone, more like a 5.

In summary: we need the concepts of "liberal" and "conservative" because all communities have to ask questions about continuity and about boundaries. But we also need to recognize that this is not a simple binary and that the concepts are fluid and relative.

In a subsequent post, I'll talk about liberal and conservative in terms of contemporary "culture wars," and how the Christian faith relates to that particular liberal-conservative conflict.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"Missing out": why helicopter parenting commodifies children

A friend of mine just posted on Facebook an incident in which someone berated her for "missing out on precious moments" with her child because she was checking Facebook while the child played. Now of course, in an age of social media, it is easy for parents to become absorbed with online trivialities at the expense of building a relationship with their children. But a stranger is in no position to know if a parent is doing this simply because she happens to be using technology at some particular moment.

What strikes me about this particular meme (which I've seen before--there are online articles that have gone viral expressing this idea) is the commodified approach to time it expresses. Economists speak of "opportunity cost": if you do X rather than Y, you are "paying" the opportunity to do Y for the sake of doing X. And obviously this is true, in the sense that, as Chesterton put it: "Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses. If you become King of England, you give up the post of Beadle in Brompton. If you go to Rome, you sacrifice a rich suggestive life in Wimbledon." But for Chesterton this is about drama and adventure. The problem with the "missing out" argument is the assumption that "moments" with one's child are some sort of possession which one should covet greedily if one has the right priorities. While it sounds like a glorification of parental love, it actually treats the child, and the parent's relationship with the child, as being valuable for what the parent gets out of the relationship. The parent could have X number of "precious moments" but is settling for X-n. 

In fact, children need some time to play by themselves without the parent hovering. Parents who insist on being involved with every moment of the child's lives are refusing to allow the child to develop any degree of independence. It is control under the guise of love. This is how we get "helicopter parenting."

I'm sure that most of us who are parents could do with spending more time with our children and less time on social media. But it's not because our children are a source of a finite commodity called "precious moments" of which we should be greedy. It's because they are human beings, worthy of our love and attention and respect. Sometimes we show that respect by putting down our computers and spending time with them. Sometimes we show it by leaving them alone.