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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

In defense of Lent: or, why outward rules help us avoid works-righteousness

Traditional spiritual disciplines and the observance of the liturgical year have been making a comeback among Protestants. This is, from my perspective, a very good thing. I may wince when United Methodists speak of an "Ash Wednesday meal," but I'm happy that they are celebrating it at all. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the growth of interest in Ash Wednesday and similar practices is causing some pushback. Brian Lee, a Reformed pastor in Washington D.C., has just written an article celebrating Ash Wednesday by denouncing it in time-honored Reformed fashion.

Lee evokes the iconic moment of the early Swiss Reformation: the sausage-eating party during Lent held by followers of Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich in Lent 1522. As Lee points out, Zwingli defended the sausages on the grounds of "Christian liberty," and this rejection of traditional ritual practices remained the norm in Reformed Protestantism and its free-church offshoots (i.e., pretty much everyone except Lutherans and Anglicans) until quite recently. But as Lee acknowledges, the times are changing: Lent is popular. Lee suggests that this has something to do with the "emergent church," or maybe with religious pluralism and the acceptance of other people's traditions.  He suggests, with a thinly veiled sneer, that Lent is "cool." He ignores the basic reason why many Protestants are returning to these practices: the conviction that traditional practices are valuable embodiments of historic Christian faith, and helpful correctives to the secularism and subjectivism of our culture. More on that later.

Lee's main theological argument against Lenten fasting is that it is spiritually effective. That is to say, that it makes us feel more spiritual because we have met a self-imposed goal. This, he argues, is a legalistic trap: we don't acknowledge our deep-rooted sinfulness, because we treat sin as something superficial that can be dealt with through a spiritual discipline. We salve our consciences with ritual practice instead of acknowledging that the rot runs deeper than any action of ours can ever reach.

This is, of course, well-worn territory. In Reformed and other conservative Protestant circles, an accusation of "works righteousness" hardly even needs an argument to support it--the mere phrase causes good Protestants to cover their ears and run in horror lest they be contaminated. And Lee's argument has a good deal of merit in it--certainly what he describes is a temptation of Lenten fasting or any other spiritual practice. In my experience, liturgical Christians of all stripes are well aware of this danger and warn against it frequently. 

The Reformed argument as rehearsed by Lee conflates two separate but related issues, both of them a concern in the Reformation:

1. The proper relationship of justification to sanctification. That is to say, Protestants have historically said that a person's standing before God as righteous depends not what God does in them through the power of the Spirit (sanctification) but on the believer's acceptance of Christ's righteousness through faith. This is easily conflated with the question of

2. The sanctifying value or lack of value of actions not explicitly prescribed in Scripture. That is to say, a whole range of practices developed in the early and medieval Church which were intended to open people up to transformation by the Holy Spirit. In the Western Church in particular, these practices were often either required by the Church under pain of mortal sin (Mass attendance, yearly confession, observance of Lenten and Friday fasting), or encouraged by the Church and sweetened by the offer of "indulgences" which would lessen a person's suffering in Purgatory. The Protestant Reformers rejected indulgences, of course, but they also rejected the idea that the Church could require any practices not taught in Scripture as a condition for right standing with God. Since the Protestants also held to justification by faith alone (point 1), the question of whether "human ordinances" were necessary parts of the Christian life was easily conflated with the question of whether even Scripturally mandated practices made a person "worthy" of final salvation.

So, for instance, no traditional Protestant would deny that all Christians in right standing with God will pray, will do works of love to the neighbor, will repent of sin and strive not to give in to the works of the flesh, etc. In traditional Protestant theology, these truly good works are believed to flow "naturally" from faith. A believer will do these things, though not perfectly and never trusting in them for salvation. It seems to me that it is logically possible to say similarly that a true believer will want to obey the divinely ordained authority of the Church, and thus that adherence to those minimal fasting practices (and church attendance on holy days, etc.) mandated by the Catholic Church is similarly a mark of true faith. But since Catholics don't believe in sola fide, this point is moot. 

This is probably the best point to "confess" that I don't believe in sola fide either. Or more precisely, I believe that the distinction between justification and sanctification misses the point and fails to solve the real problem. There is no right answer to the question "how do I attain right standing with God," because it's the wrong question. The question is rather, "how do I open myself up to God's free and generous grace so that I can be delivered from the prison of myself and transformed into a spring of life-giving love for others?" This is relevant to the present discussion only because I find the general Protestant worry about spiritual practices to be silly. I don't think that there's anything wrong with engaging in a spiritual discipline in order to become closer to God, as long as by "closer to God" I mean "a more loving person" and not simply "a person who has nice feelings about his own spirituality" or worse "a person convinced of his own spiritual superiority."

Now back to the main point . . . . 

Historically, the position of more liturgical Protestants has been not that liturgical practices are mandatory but that they are helpful ways of doing things that we all agree true believers will do. We all know that believers pray: well, we have the Liturgy of the Hours (as in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer) to guide us in doing so. We know that we are to worship together: well, we have a liturgical calendar and traditions to guide us in doing so. These practices aren't seen as necessary per se, but as helpful.

Lee does not claim, as some in the more radical wings of the Reformed tradition have done, that practices not explicitly mandated in Scripture are wrong. He accepts the legitimacy in principle of the argument that such practices may be spiritually helpful, and then he argues that Lenten fasting isn't helpful. Fair enough. But the question he doesn't answer is: how then should believers fast? Or should they fast at all?

To me it seems clear that fasting, like prayer and common worship and the sacraments and works of mercy and sexual chastity, is one of those basic elements of the Christian faith clearly ordained in Scripture. Jesus in Matt. 6 assumes that His followers will fast, just as they will pray and give alms. Mark 2:20 seems to say that Jesus' followers will (and should) fast after His ascension. I recognize that alternative interpretations of these passages are possible (as almost always with any passage of Scripture), but I don't know Lee's position. He says at one point that Jesus has reduced all OT practices to love, but he obviously doesn't think that this means that Christians shouldn't celebrate the sacraments, for instance. (In fact, looking up his church's website I found that they are actually very liturgical and celebrate the Eucharist weekly. I have a lot more common ground with Lee than my first reading of this article had led me to think.) 

Assuming for the moment, then, that fasting is something Christians should do, how should they do it? Lee makes a couple dismissive remarks about the practice of fasting based on one's own spiritual impulses, so he doesn't seem to be advocating that. So does he advocate the historic Puritan practice of calling a fast for reasons of ecclesial or national significance? I.e., a communal fast but one occasioned by some specific danger or sin rather than by a liturgical calendar? That seems to be the only option left, unless he's rejecting fasting altogether. But in this case we are simply fasting at the behest of church (or, historically in Reformed countries, national or civic) authorities. How is this actually better than fasting in obedience to the historic wisdom of the Church as a whole?

In fact, isn't liturgical fasting a lot less likely to give rise to the dangers against which Lee warns than either of the alternatives? If I fast to further my own spiritual journey, I may well see myself as spiritually superior. Communal fasts for specific reasons are better in that regard, but historically they have often given rise to a sense of communal self-righteousness and have led to violence or persecution against perceived ungodly "others" (as has liturgical fasting, of course). In other words, there doesn't seem to be any escape from the spiritual dangers of fasting except not to fast at all. (Which may be what Lee is advocating, but he doesn't state the case clearly.) Liturgical fasting has plenty of dangers, but at least in liturgical fasting we are humbly submitting to ancient and widespread practices that bring us together with other believers rather than setting us apart. Hopefully my liturgical fasting will further my own "spiritual journey," but that isn't really the main point. In fact, liturgical practices don't really have to have a "point." They are joyful expressions of faith--bodily ways of entering into the story of salvation. I trust that God will use them to my good and the good of others, but I don't have to sit around checking my spiritual temperature all the time. Such endless spiritual hypochondria is the deadliest form of "works righteousness," it seems to me, and it shows up among all earnest Christians, whatever their theology. 

But even granting all of Lee's basic theological points, his case against Lenten fasting still fails utterly, at least if my own experience is any guide. He argues that Lent is bad for us because we can fulfill it and thus delude ourselves that we are pleasing to God. 

Well, that's not my experience. Every Lent I fail. Every Lent I draw up ambitious plans of spiritual improvement and fall flat on my face. I have never yet met a Lenten discipline I couldn't manage to violate at some point. And in my experience this is more common than not among liturgical Christians. I don't know these people who are supposedly walking around priding themselves on their fasting prowess. These folks may exist, and perhaps they would be better off without Lent, at least for a while. But not only am I not one of them, I have never heard Lent taught or seen it practiced in a way that would be likely to encourage that kind of delusion. Marshall Shelly, a wise and eloquent Episcopal priest who served as interim vicar at the parish I attended in New Jersey, warned us all sternly that our Lent and Holy Week practices were going to be failures, and we should expect them to be. Jesus' disciples fell asleep when He watched in Gethsemane, and if we follow the estimable tradition of signing up to "watch with Jesus" on Holy Thursday, we will too. 

Indeed, that's one good reason for engaging in ascetic practices above and beyond those of our community, in spite of the dangers of self-righteousness. As with physical exercises or intellectual challenges, our spiritual exercises should always be a little too hard for us. If we can do them, we're not pushing ourselves enough. 

In Lee's own Reformed tradition, the law is generally held to have three purposes. The third is to guide us in our journey of obedience to Christ and love of neighbor, and I've argued above that Lenten fasting serves this purpose well. The second is to restrain evil in society. I'm not too interested in that purpose here, but arguably Lenten fasting does this too, in the sense that it promotes a culture of restraint and  (when combined with almsgiving) of generosity toward the poor, even if most of the people engaging in it are damnable hypocrites.

But the first purpose of the law, in both Lutheran and Reformed theology, is to hold up a mirror both of God's holiness and our own sinfulness. And Lent does this well. Not only do the Scripture readings and preaching in liturgical churches during this season focus on sin and repentance, and on God's gracious forgiveness, but the very practice of attempting to fast brings me face to face with my sinfulness. First of all, of course, fasting confronts me with my addiction to comfort and pleasure. But more disturbingly, it confronts me with the fact that if my comforts and pleasures are withdrawn, I'm not a very nice person to be around. I have been grouchy to my wife today. I have been impatient with my brilliant homeschooled daughter Catherine, who has inherited all my ADD and who just would not focus on her addition problems or practice her piano diligently enough. And I have responded with pompous anger to a sincere challenge by an earnest Christian pastor directed against a religious practice to which I'm attached.

So yes, this post is probably an expression of sinfulness too (though I still think what I'm saying is mostly right). We are all sinners. And even though I'm not one of those mythical ascetic athletes who actually keep their Lenten disciplines, Pastor Lee is certainly right inasmuch as I do think it's kind of cool to be a liturgical Christian. Indeed, in my heart of hearts or maybe nearer the surface than that I think I'm superior to mindless American evangelicals who think that Christianity is all about praise songs and private prayer time and don't revel in the richness of Christian tradition the way I do. 

But here's the thing: Lent didn't make me that way. I was a conceited, self-righteous Wesleyan Holiness prig before I was a conceited, self-righteous Anglican snob. (It is possible, after all, to think oneself superior because one doesn't practice "meaningless rituals" like Lent.) I dare to think (and most people who know me seem to agree) that I'm a bit less obnoxious than I used to be, but who knows? Maybe the historic spiritual practices of the Faith which I practice so imperfectly and sporadically didn't have anything to do with that. Maybe I'm just a bit older and sadder than I used to be and I would be just as nice or nicer if I were a Calvinist, or  a Pentecostal, or a Buddhist, or an atheist. 

And so, to round off my sinful Ash Wednesday, I'm going to go eat dinner with those United Methodists. No doubt I will be sneering inwardly at how much better Anglicans would do things. No doubt, if God were keeping score, I'll be racking up more negative points than positive ones.

But the only hope any of us has is that God doesn't keep score. 

And that is the point of Lent. (Well, other than the fact that it's cool, of course.)