So, of course, when one first posts on a blog made up of serious academics, read by thoughtful, educated people, one wants the post to be clever, well-edited, and planned, not cut and pasted from a recent Facebook rant (also, one wants it to include cleverly placed videos and pictures, as so many Thing posts do, but who’s got time for that??). However, our own Chinglican at Table can be very persuasive, and after enlisting me as a contributor to A Christian Thing some time ago, has not lost hope that I will, in fact, actually contribute something, so has asked me to post the following from a recent Facebook thread. Obviously, I would ask that you please forgive the rant-y nature of this initial post.
Aside: I also would like to have had a bio up before I posted this, for a little context, but alas, though an avid user of social media (you can find me here and here, in a less pseudonymous form), and moderately technologically adept, I cannot for the life of me figure out how to add to the bio/about page. So, here’s a biographical summary: I’m a grad student at Regent College who studies religion in China, so I’m ostensibly interested in theology, attending theological graduate school as I do (spoiler alert: not that interested), but my interests also include dogs/animal rescue, American politics, West Coast 90s rap, feminism, and Crossfit. Oh, did I mention China? Because I’m really into China.
Anyway, there has been an article that has gone “viral” (in quotes, because it can only go so “viral” among a subset of Christians that is fairly limited in size but includes most of my Christian friends) (and probably yours), which observes that many evangelical colleges, universities and seminaries are inadvertently sending students down the Canterbury Trail, across the Tiber or, less commonly (in my experience) to Wittenberg or Constantinople. Many are posting this in a sort of smug way, as in, “that’s right, we ARE worshipping at high churches, as a response to evangelical schlock! Thanks for noticing!” This kind of posting skips right over the fact that the guy is clearly suggesting that a) this is a problematic trend and b) that serious, Reformed catechesis could stem the tide! His blogroll consists of Neo-Reformed standards, so we know where he stands. This caused me to reflect on the little-noted (but, IMHO, glaringly obvious) similarities between the appeal held by the neo-Reformed movement and the Catholic Church.
Here is what I posted, alongside the link:
As my friend Jonathan D. Fitzgerald would say: ‘altogether now, “evangelicals are converting to Catholicism!”‘ In other words, this is a trend piece about an ‘old news’ trend…in other words: yawn. EXCEPT: this guy, who appears to hail from a neo-Reformed background, himself, identifies the appeal/retention power of robustly confessional Protestant churches as the same appeal held by high church traditions. WHICH I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO TELL EVERYONE FOR YEARS. I think the simultaneous rise of the new Calvinists and the conservative catholic converts are a) two sides of the same coin, with that coin being discomfort with the realities of postmodern/late-modern rootless existence and b) troubling.
After I posted this, I got (justifiably) a couple of “what do you find troubling?” queries from various Facebook friends. I’m a busy lady (read: it’s July! I needed to sleep in and take my dog for walks!), so a couple of days of radio silence ensued before I posted the following, which Chinglican asked me to share–unedited–here (although WordPress thankfully removed the smiley-faces, as if to force this post to look slightly more professional):
I like how I sort of mic-dropped this and walked away, not answering people’s follow-up questions! What I meant by “troubling,” in case people were still wondering, is not that I am anti-Catholic or anti-Reformed. I respect many things about both traditions. In fact, I attend an Anglo-Catholic church, so I am “getting high” myself. What upsets me, i.e. what I find “troubling,” is that the sectors/iterations of the Reformed world and the Catholic Church that are experiencing general growth or attracting converts–Mars Hill in Seattle, the PCA in general, Piper, Driscoll, Mohler, Grudem et al, The Gospel Coalition, on the Reformed side or the “magisterial Catholic” scene, e.g. Kreeft/Hahn/Howard-esque converts, First Things and Register readers, the “JPII/B16 generation” types and Tridentine Mass lovers, chapel veilers, etc.–are both inextricably linked, in my mind, with very rigid and essentialist gender views and throwback, nostalgic traditionalism, both of which are a reaction to the challenges of navigating a world where patriarchy is no longer legislated or systematized in the same way, although we certainly have a long way to go, God knows.
Oh, Rome Sweet Home–gag me.
It is troubling to me that the discomfort wrought by figuring out how to share responsibilities in the home and workplace, whose career takes priority, how to make sure boys are still attended to and empowered in schools when girls have equal opportunity and are often more suited to traditional academic contexts, the problem of perpetual adolescence, the challenges of modern discussions of sexuality, etc. etc. have driven many to the easy answers of “biblical womanhood,” in the sense that, perhaps these problems wouldn’t exist if men just provided for their families and women took care of the home, NO PROBLEM TO SEE HERE! (neo-Reformed complementarianism) OR to Catholic teaching on gender, which doesn’t beat you over the head with proof texts, but with biology, i.e. if we just realized that WOMEN HAVE VAGINAS AND MEN HAVE PENISES, so obviously men are supposed to initiate/lead and women receive (my summary of Theology of the Body), then we would have modern gender issues all figured out. and also JESUS WAS A MAN, btw, so only men can rep Christ in the Eucharist. Don’t you see how important HUMAN BODIES ARE?
I’ve said many a time that I’m a “single issue voter” when it comes to ecclesial identification or attendendance, so I’m sure my view doesn’t shock anyone. However, I think the trend is particularly troubling, beyond the gender questions, because the gender questions bring up something larger, i.e. things that become problematic when you go in this direction.
Complementarian text, “Girls Gone Wise,” includes makeup, apparently.
On the Tiber-swimming side, my greatest pet-peeve, also illustrated by the gender issue, but potentially illustrated by about any other issue, is that there is an endless stream of criticism of evangelicalism for being–I am not joking–really sexist, for say, not letting women preach or suggesting that there be certain gender roles in the home, based on biblical prescriptions of one kind of another, and yet a “see no evil” approach to all of the blatant and rife exclusion of women and bizarre biological theorizing that compose Catholic gender teaching and practice. Or, say, the evangelical attitude toward LGBTQ people (“so hateful!”), with no acknowledgment of what makes up the entirety of the US Bishops’ current agenda (“the Catechism’s position is so gracious!”). or criticism of evangelical silliness/anti-intellectualism, while dismissing any criticism of Catholic oddities/superstitions as being MYSTERY AND TRADITION.
All dudes up there, too, guys.
I mean, just please keep your thinking caps on in regard to all manifestations of the Christianity itself that you’re reacting to, even if you can’t see through the exotic (dare I say, Oriental) incense clearly enough to critique the new (or “ancient”) and different.
I think that BOTH the longing for a Westminster Confession/Sola Scriptura/Inerrant Bible full of clear, theological guidelines AND for an Infallible Magisterium and Tradition with a capital “T” are ways of avoiding the hard work of thinking through the ambiguities and challenges of modern existence. And I find that troubling, indeed.
*Note: I am a bit of a stickler, when it comes to spelling or grammatical errors, so am particularly nervous about this unedited post being rife with them–a good friend already noted on the ‘Book that there is a their/there error somewhere I have yet to identify. Yikes! So, I ask your forgiveness in advance.
The blogosphere has been on fire with multiple comments about the tornado that has devastated Moore, Oklahoma. The most notable exchange has been the one initiated by Rachel Held Evans, in response to a tweet by John Piper from the Book of Job attributing the tornado to the sovereignty of God. As the case has been more than adequately covered by the brilliant journalistic talents of Sarah Pulliam Bailey, we’ll save our comments on it for a later post. (I have one in the works.)
In contrast to all of this furor, we here at A Christian Thing have remained silent. Yes, all of us were very busy with our actual jobs this week. But we also did not pounce on this event as a moment for conversation on our Thing.
This is because this is not a time for conversation. It is a time for silent action.
I write this because some have recently asked me what a proper Christian response would be. If indeed both John Piper’s and Rachel Held Evans’s responses are a bit off kilter, then what is a proper Christian response?
I can tell you what it’s not: it’s not to do the me-and-God thing.
It’s not to leverage Oklahoma for our own personal reflections on the awesome sovereignty of God. It’s also not to blast those who do that.
This is because at heart, being Christian is about being involved in a set of social relations. That’s why the best theological responses to the Oklahoma tornado have been those who report their active solidarity with those in Oklahoma both in prayer and in material action. If you can believe it, for example, I saw status updates from both the Episcopal Churchand the Anglican Church in North America about what parishes were doing in Moore. Pope Francis has given his condolences to the Archdiocese as well and pledged his solidarity while asking the Lord to receive the faithful departed, especially the children among the victims; here’s also a roundup from Oklahoma’s Archbishop Coakley. The United Methodist Church has a place where you can donate. The nondenominational Life Church in Oklahoma is also taking donations and leading relief efforts and were commended by the World Evangelical Alliance’s Geoff Tunnicliffe for their initiative.
Those are Christian responses. As for me, I’m looking forward to finding out soon how we in the Pacific Northwest can help, whether, say, my home parish is taking a donation. Yes, I am praying because, as Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us, prayer is never a solitary task but always undertaken in the communion of saints, even when we pray alone. I’d like also to help materially, and any suggestions in the comments below would be most sincerely welcome. I mean, I’ve found a few things that I mentioned above, but maybe I’ve missed quite a bit. By saying all of this, I mean to really say that we don’t have to write a Christian response. We must instead simply be Christian.
It has become a truism of late that some disaffected evangelicals want to become Catholic because Catholicism has so much more of a robust faith than Protestantism. (A few years ago, Eastern Orthodoxy was a big deal too–arguably still is!) While many more have a more informed account than the hipster one I will provide (I have some smart Catholic convert friends, you see), a typically recent narrative often goes something like this:
Unlike the format of rocked-out worship songs followed by a lengthy sermon, Catholicism (it is said) has a liturgy, a call-and-response between people and priest. Unlike the marketing ethos that pervades much of evangelicalism, Catholicism is like coming home to what Tolkien might call the ‘Last Homely Home.’ Unlike the cheesy literature that fills Christian bookstores that won’t let Rachel Held Evans use the word ‘vagina,’ Catholicism is the religion of what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the ‘lay styles,’ the people like Dante, Péguy, and Hopkins who saw the glory of the Lord, got sucked in, and wrote it all down in sublime poetry. Catholicism rocks these evangelical converts’ socks because it’s just everything that they were looking for in evangelicalism but couldn’t find because evangelicalism has become corrupted by the free market and its chief political proponents, the Republican Party and their hard neoliberal equivalents in other countries.
As someone who grew up as a non-denominational evangelical and was confirmed into the Anglican Communion (what those who have jumped the Tiber might call the Americano version of Catholic espresso; I’d like to state for the record, however, that the primate who confirmed me had apostolic succession), I can attest to the feeling that Catholics have something that evangelicals don’t have. Catholic theologian James Alison talks about being blown into the Catholic Church from his evangelical Anglican background by falling in love with a classmate who had a grace that he associated with being Catholic (apparently, as a child, his family had John Stott as a close family friend). I remember living in a Catholic house of studies where the daily mass’s liturgical homily was more Christocentric than I had ever heard at an evangelical church. I also always go back to that time I attended mass at a Catholic church where the cantor led worship from guitar with a full band and took us to sublime heights (he even slipped in a Hillsong piece); incidentally, that day was the first day they used the new rites, and while everyone was sufficiently confused about the ‘and with your spirit’ and ‘under my roof’ lines, my sister described the music as giving her an ‘eargasm’ (Rachel Held Evans would like that). Even before that, I recall first partaking of the Anglican Eucharistic liturgy–which, incidentally, reminded me a lot of Catholic school (as one priest reminded me, you know who stole from whom)–and realizing that the Gospel that evangelicals always tried to articulate in fresh ways was already fully expressed in the liturgy.
Readers of this blog will be tempted to channel everything I say through those personal experiences. Fully aware of positionality issues, however, I’d like to state for the record that they are not what I mean by the Catholic thing, that is, the central theme that some readers have identified in my contributions to this blog: everybody seems to be a closet Catholic. In other words, however readers may assess the motives behind my Catholic gymnastics, I am categorically not trying to impose my own aesthetic fetishes on other brothers and sisters in Christ.
That said, the readers of this blog should not be blamed for thinking that I engage in frequent psychological imposition. This is really my fault, my own grievous fault: I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have committed a great sin of omission, for I have failed to define two very key terms. They are Protestant and Catholic. While most readers will take these terms’ meanings to be obvious, the crisis in theology and religious studies around terms like religion, secular, ritual, and myth suggests that I shouldn’t assume that everyone agrees about what these terms mean. Certainly, as we saw in the Anglican post, I’m inclined to a certain understanding of what it means to be ‘Anglican,’ one which, as I noted in the post, other Anglicans might recognize as a validly different form of Anglicanism and proceed to insult it accordingly. In like fashion, I’d like to say exactly what I mean by these two other terms. By Catholic, I simply refer to churches who recognize their communion with the see of Rome such that the see of Rome likewise recognizes its communion with those churches. By Protestant, I refer to churches that were once in communion with the see of Rome but fractured that communion in the sixteenth century for this, that, and the other ideological reason. As you can see, the theological method I’m using here is not very different from my assessment of Anglicanism, that is to say, the form of communion takes primacy over substantive confessional points. (Here, if you are an evangelical, can I beg you to hold your fire for a sec? I’ll get to the confessional points by the end.)
You can see now why I think so many people are closet Catholics. Schism is never pretty, and as Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac argues in his book Catholicism (with the cheesy English subtitle Christ and the Common Destiny of Man), the Holy Spirit gives Christians a ‘Catholic spirit,’ a desire for union with the rest of humanity. The fact that Protestants are out of communion with Rome should be cause for grief for the sheer fact that there are Christians (not to mention other humans) with whom we are not in communion, for the ontological reality in Christianity (well, the orthodox versions, at any rate) is that communion is what we’re made for. To say that the confessional differences on the Virgin Mary, the communion of saints, and the primacy of Rome are sufficient to erect boundaries should still be cause for ontological pain because plainly put, regardless of the reasons, schism still sucks.
This is, of course, why you have to laugh when an evangelical tells you they became Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. After all, everything I just said doesn’t give you much substantive confessional difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, per se. Take, for example, the typical conversion narrative that an evangelical Protestant might rehearse: tired of the market commodification of evangelical Protestantism, they became Catholic to practice a fuller form of the faith. This narrative, however, raises all sorts of questions. For one thing, don’t Catholics also participate in the market commodification of their own faith at times? I mean, have they ever visited a Catholic bookstore? Luther might also have one or two things to say about coupons, building projects, and cheesy jingles about hell and purgatory in the sixteenth century.
To drive home the point, I often scratch my head at the actual substantive difference between a Catholic youth ministry and a Protestant youth ministry. For every evangelical who tells me that they grew up in a big youth group, did the big flashy youth ministry thing, and have now resigned in disgust because it’s not about numbers but truly contemplative faith, I’m tempted to ask if they’ve ever heard of World Youth Day. For every evangelical who tells me that they’re sick of Christian music, I’m curious to know if they’ve ever listened to Audrey Assad, Jackie François, and Matt Maher, much less heard that selections of Hillsong, Vineyard, Maranatha, and even that classic evangelical hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ have all been imported wholesale and oftentimes unproblematically into Catholic worship. (In fact, given this all of this awesomeness–I happen to really, really enjoy listening to Assad, François, and Maher, thank you very much–I’m really rooting for Brooke Fraser to join this Catholic musical dream team, as she and André Crouch would say, ‘soon and very soon.’) For every evangelical who feels disillusioned with Christian media, I wonder if they’ve ever heard of EWTN and whether they know that Bishop Fulton Sheen donned in all of his episcopal regalia was really America’s first televangelist. For every evangelical sick of evangelical fundraising, I’d like to know if they’ve ever heard of a diocesan capital campaign.
The only real difference that I can really think of between Catholics and Protestants is this: being ‘Protestant’ is often tied to ‘maintaining a Protestant identity’ or holding onto ‘denominational distinctives.’ Sometimes this means adding a Latin ‘sola’ before everything and an English ‘alone’ after translations. Other times, it means abstracting Scripture from its historical canonization process and debating whether it’s scientifically inerrant (talk about form over substantive confession!). Still other times, it requires explaining why Catholics are wrong about everything, a favour that Catholics used to return by explaining why Protestants were wrong about everything (thankfully, the tone has softened). This, of course, is where the complaint about ‘protestantization’ in theology and religious studies comes from: over time, these ideological distinctives, formed through cognitive belief and emphasizing individual interiority, began to be believed by Protestants as that which composes religion itself. It’s little wonder that Jefferson Bethke decided to take a potshot at this account of religion; whatever complaints you might have about his oversimplification of religion and his ties to the neo-Calvinist crowd, his return to praxis, as well as his likely unintentional repudiation of overly ‘protestantized’ religion, should be welcomed as a surprisingly ‘catholicizing’ statement of faith. (Oops, I did it again.)
Ecumenical movements also provide excellent counterweights to how these variants of ideological maintenance don’t have to run the show, which means, thankfully, someone like me can still be a Protestant because I started out that way journeying toward greater communion. You could arguably say ditto about folks like Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank. In fact, if you look at the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) reports, you might find it a bit interesting, amusing, and (to some) troubling that the Anglicans end up basically agreeing with the Catholics on the historic primacy of Rome and the special role of Mary in the Church. As has been noted on this blog, relations between Catholics and confessional Lutherans are also getting mighty friendly. And this ecumenism isn’t just something ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ do; there are progressive ecumenical conversations going on about social justice even while there are conservative ecumenical conversations happening about confronting secularization. The trouble is, with ecumenism also came some (and let me stress: only some)fundamentalists and evangelicals who accused ecumenists of being modernists caving into a culture of relativism and failing to uphold biblical standards and doctrinal statements, that is to say, letting the Protestant guard down.
It’s people in the latter camp that my Catholic gymnastics target. While I’d argue that most Christians (if they’re honest) have seen the light on communion and ecumenism–whether or not they actually become Catholic or not is another story (I haven’t)–there are some who seem to insist that this is not the light. My tack is to argue that because they are Christian, they simply don’t know that they have already seen the light. To this end, I am not saying that they want to become Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. In fact, I’m saying that those who become Catholic to get away from all the evangelical hype and give substantive confessional reasons for doing it might be jumping out of the fire into the frying pan (I certainly think that’s true of those who become Anglican, myself included). However, I am also saying that I believe in the Holy Spirit, and if indeed the Spirit guides us into all truth–the truth that God in Christ is making all things new and reconciling things in heaven and things on earth into a Christological unity–then why wouldn’t anyone in their right mind not at least long (even secretly so) to participate in the greater catholicity of the church, even (oh, my) with Christians in the see of Rome? Why would anyone think that schism is a good thing to maintain? And if one truly confesses belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, why wouldn’t one at least entertain the possibility that God being God of the living and not the dead allows us to converse with the saints across time and space, including the Blessed Virgin?
What I mean by the Catholic thing, then, is nothing short of wanting to be part of the whole communion of saints, which incidentally usually acknowledges the primacy of the see of Rome in some way, shape, or fashion; at least it has as early as Clement of Rome’s first letter to Corinth in the late first century. In fact, nobody in recent times has recognized this interesting formulation better than Pope Francis himself. In his first appearance on the Loggia, Pope Francis never referred to his papal office as having primacy, per se. Instead, speaking as the newly elected Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis spoke of the see of Rome as ‘the church that presides in charity over all the churches.’ To be in communion with Rome is not so much to acknowledge papal infallibility, per se (much as Vatican I would make us believe that we have to). It’s to be in communion with the see that has historically held primacy as the unifier of all the Christian churches since the first century. Being in open communion with that see is technically what’s supposed to make you fully Catholic. Being formerly in communion with that see, but having broken it off for this, that, and the other reason is technically what makes you Protestant (unless, of course, you are the Society of St. Pius X).
What follows from this, finally, is that any charitable and gracious reading of Christians who actively make schismatic remarks is that they really don’t intend to do so. Assuming the best of the Spirit’s work in their lives, we must assume that what they are really longing for is to become fully Catholic. As Rachel Held Evans reminds us today, there is a season in our journey toward questioning and then re-establishing communion. We are looking forward to the season when we all realize that we long for communion. After all, Catholic or Protestant, we still recite the baptismal creed where we say that we ‘believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church and the communion of saints.’ I promised that I’d get to a substantive confessional point, and I finally have: if we say that the creed sums up the substantive teaching of the Apostles from whom we derive the ecclesial form of succession, we’d better mean what we say in that creed, and if we love our brothers and sisters, we’d better believe that everyone else who says it means it too, some of them more than they know. Together, we all long for the end of schism, for a church that is perfectly one, even as the Father is with the Son, that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son.
Jesus says in Sunday’s Gospel reading: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid’ (John 14.27). These words are also the preface in most Christian liturgies to the ‘peace,’ the section in the Eucharistic celebration where we greet each other in the name of Christ, reconciling with those whom we have wronged and joining together in love before partaking of the body and the blood together.
This is more than liturgically appropriate–arguably one of the earliest parts in liturgical development–because the peace’s context is what has come to be known as the ‘Farewell Discourses’ in St. John’s Gospel, the conversation (well, OK, it’s more like a monologue with a few leading questions) where, in light of ‘going to the Father,’ the Lord enjoins his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, to wait for the Paraclete who will lead them deeper into the ontological truth of the death and resurrection, and to live so deeply in the truth that the Father and the Son make their home with them even as the world hates them and persecutes them. The emphasis on reconciling love and passing the peace pervades the other lectionary readings as well. In Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem is convened to deal with the theological assertions of a party of Jewish Christians who want the Gentiles to get circumcised and follow the Mosaic dietary laws. The Council concludes that non-Jewish Christians only have to do the bare minimum as they find themselves at peace with their Jewish brothers and sisters as part of the new covenant: don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, don’t eat blood, don’t engage in porneia. By the time of the second reading in Revelation 21, it’s revealed that everyone here belongs to the New Jerusalem, the new Israel, the new Temple, shining with the glory of the Lord, who is the Lamb (thanks, Balthasar). The mystical communion of the New Jerusalem founded on an ontology of mystical love was aptly demonstrated to me on Sunday morning: at the free church that I occasionally attend with my wife (a likely surprise to everyone who thought I considered non-Anglican churches beyond the pale), the pastor preached on communion as a practice of reconciling love that cuts across the ecclesial boundaries we erect against each other. Without knowing what the lectionary readings actually were, this pastor (in my humble opinion) represents a sign that God still mystically unites his church catholic despite our intentional divisiveness, for he was practicing ecumenism as an evangelical without even being conscious of it.
This ‘mystic, sweet communion’ might well be applied to those who seem inadvertently and unintentionally to be set up as the arch-nemeses of this blog: the young and restless Protestant tribe dubbed the ‘neo-Calvinists.’ Mark Driscoll is in trouble again (what’s new?): at the recent Catalyst conference, he said something to the effect that because he knows his Maker, who is the maker of the environment, and he is certain that God the Creator will burn the whole thing up, yes, he drives an SUV. He followed this with a (typically) sexist joke that those who drive minivans are ‘mini-men.’ Upon making these remarks, my Facebook news feed erupted in anger, some with passive sighs, others with a call to arms, still others disavowing any connection with Driscoll. One friend even resurrected an old allegation that Mars Hill Church is in fact a ‘cult.’
As I’ve said before on this blog, I do not think the ‘cult’ accusation is very helpful and that Driscoll’s sectarian tendencies are better read as a psychological resistance to his longing to return to his roots as an Irish Catholic. In light of these Catholic musings, I wonder if diatribes against the neo-Reformed tribe don’t in fact stoke their sense of justification by sixteenth-century polemics alone. I wonder if instead passing the peace to them might in fact provoke them to reflect on theirschismatic tendencies and in turn infuse them with such a love that will cover a multitude of sins.
What would it look like to pass the peace to folks like Mark Driscoll and John Piper? I think it’s by arguing that they secretly wish they were Catholic, that they really don’t intend to be schismatic but long instead for deeper communion with the rest of the church catholic. The trouble is that they’ve built their pastoral careers on constructing congregations around hard Reformed Protestant theologies, so they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. It is thus up to us to extend a hand of friendship as they struggle between ideological (they would call it ‘doctrinal’) purity and their ontological reality.
I have argued sufficiently in the other post that Driscoll is a closet Catholic in denial, so I will not reprise my arguments here. Instead, in this post, I will subject one of his teachers, John Piper, to a similar (but briefer) treatment. (Incidentally, this treatment has already been undertaken by a hyper-Reformed blog seeking to undermine Piper’s credibility as a Calvinist. Where they wax uncharitable, I will attempt to be charitable to a fault.)
Piper put forward a (likely unintentionally) schismatic argument that if he were to have a conversation with the pope, he would ask him whether he believes that we are justified by faith alone and whether the righteousness of God is directly imputed to believers through their act of faith. If the pope were to disagree with this formulation, Piper would declare him a heretic. See for yourself:
When Pope Francis was elected, Piper put forward a clarifying statement, one that incidentally showed up on my news feed at the same time that Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler denounced the papal office as Antichrist altogether. (I will subject Mohler to Catholic treatment in a future post; stay tuned.) Walking back his comments on Catholicism as a ‘heresy,’ Piper admits:
I am thankful that God is willing to save us even when our grasp of the gospel may be partial or defective. None of us has a comprehensive or perfect grasp of it.
Nevertheless, God’s mercy is not a warrant to neglect or deny precious truths, especially those that are at the heart of how we get right with God. And the teachers of the church (notably the Pope) will be held more responsible than others for teaching what is fully biblical.
While refusing to walk back his absolutist statements on imputation (you can’t cede all your ground without completely losing face, you know), this, in the words of gay Catholic theologian James Alison, is nonetheless an attempt to ‘lower the temperature’ and ‘loosen the screws.’
Piper can do this because the figure in the theological background for his entire theological system is Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher whom I will also argue had loose Catholic tendencies (pax, Edwards). Piper draws from all parts of Edwards to build his theological system, from Edwards’s Lockean tabula rasa in his understanding of the process of Scriptural and scientific exegesis, to Edwards’s meditations on beauty to build a theology of Christian hedonism (i.e. that we exist to glorify God by enjoying him forever), to Edwards’s marriage to Sarah Edwards to build a case for gender complementarity (these themes emerge even more prominently in their daughter Esther Edwards Burr’s diary), to Edwards’s late evangelistic efforts to indigenous peoples to build a case for risking your life for missions (Piper likes David Brainerd too, btw, both of whom, in Piper’s reading, did not waste their lives by becoming too comfortable in academia), to Edwards’s treatment of religious affections to build a case for a Reformed charismatic theology (putting him in line with Sovereign Grace Ministries, the systematic theology of Wayne Grudem, Louie Giglio’s Passion conferences, etc.), to Edwards’s understanding of the freedom of the will to build his seven-point ‘double predestinarian’ Calvinism, to Edwards’s decisive handling of the medically pornographic ‘Bad Book Case’ to fight lustful thoughts in his own life, to Edwards’s long tenure as a pastor to argue that all of these metaphysical musings are precisely the work of pastoral ministry. Edwards, in turn, had an ironically high sacramental theology for a Puritan, which led to him getting fired from his Congregational Church for changing the mode of communion from his father-in-law Solomon Stoddard’s ‘converting ordinance’ to a members-only sacrament (or whatever is closest to sacrament that a Puritan can be comfortable saying: means ofgrace?)that could only be taken if you first inspected yourself for sin and if you weren’t under church discipline for ongoing sin in your life. (As an aside, I would put my finger here to understand Mars Hill’s bizarre church discipline cases: they’re attempts to do right by Piper qua Edwards. For a Catholic parallel, see Bishop Allen Vigneron’s suggestion that Catholics who differ on church teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage should not take communion.)
Of course, not all readings of Edwards are oriented to Catholicism; Sang Hyun Lee’s interpretations are notable examples. But you get the point: Piper is a closet Catholic because he reads Edwards as a closet Catholic. (In fact, Edwards’s work can be read as a fully catholic articulation of the Christian faith, as Miroslav Volf tacitly suggests in his reading list in A Common Word Between Us and You.)They both seem to have a fairly high sacramental theology. They take pleasure in contemplative spiritualities. They even both reinforce the gender complementarities in Catholic holy orders. And if you’ve given Piper’s oeuvre a fair reading, you’ll know that he knows the Tradition quite well (never mind if you agree with his assessments) through his discussions of Athanasius, Anselm, and even Aquinas in Desiring God and The Pleasures of God.
The real trouble, then, is that they are both given to excess in their insistence that because they are Puritan, they cannot be Catholic. These excesses in turn can be corrected.
Mirroring an Edwardsian ‘personal narrative’ of divine conversions, I personally know that these excesses can be corrected because I myself am a neo-Reformed convert. I had a conversation with someone this afternoon who said that they got into the neo-Reformed thing because they were looking for something more solidly Protestant after being in a ‘loosy-goosy’ evangelical church, and I daresay that my experience was the same. In university, after passing through a progressive Catholic school that taught me the basics of liberal Protestant biblical criticism and liberation theology as well as Chinese evangelical congregations that could be framed as ‘more grace than works,’ I got into the work of Driscoll, Piper, Mahaney, Harris, Chandler, Bradley, Keller, etc. in university because their Protestant-speak was so appealing. My wife, whom I had attempted to date (rather, court) at the time, tells me that I was kind of an absolutist jerk at the time, and I daresay most of the women who also rejected my dating advances at the time would make similar comments. (So much for the neo-Calvinist expertise on biblical courtship.)
However, as they say in these neo-Reformed circles, God’s grace is truly irresistible. When I was in high school, a Catholic priest planted just the right sort of seed in my proto-Reformed heart (mind you, for readers who wax critical of Catholicism due to its recent scandals, just as a cigar is sometimes only a cigar, sometimes a seed just a seed). He asked me what we were learning in school, and I replied that we were reading Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ in AP US History. I explained that Edwards’s vision of God as a fearful judge dangling sinners like a spider over the pit of hell was sure to shake any complacent non-Christian out of their wits and send them running to Christ for salvation, just as people did precisely when Edwards was reading that sermon in his New England church. I thought this would resonate well with the Catholic priest; the Fatima prayer is, after all, ‘Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy. Amen.’ Or as the Death Cab for Cutie song goes, ‘In Catholic school / as vicious as Roman rule / I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black. / And I held my tongue / as she told me, “Son, / fear is the heart of love.” / So I never went back.’
But this Catholic priest looked confused. Genuinely bewildered, he asked me, ‘Is God angry?’ I sat there speechless, flabbergasted, in fact, probably somewhat infuriated at these Catholics who don’t take doctrine seriously. But he continued, ‘If God is love, can he really be that angry?’
You could say that this priest didn’t know the first thing about Edwards’s oeuvre. You could say that focusing on ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ fails to take into account Edwards’s metaphysical reflections on the Trinity, his explorations of beauty, his probing into religious affections, his insights into voluntary agency.
Or you could read it another way. You see, this priest was a devotee of the near-equivalent Catholic figure of Edwards to Puritan Christianity: Hans Urs von Balthasar. Both, after all, put beauty close to the heart of their theological reflections, and both talked an awful lot about ‘the glory of the Lord.’ I am aware that Karen Kilby has taken Balthasar to task for his worst speculative excesses and uncritical sexism. However, one excessive theologian can correct another theologian’s excesses, so another possible interpretation is that my Catholic priest friend was using Balthasar to correct Edwards’s worst excesses. Even if Balthasar were excessively speculative, he was able to check Edwards’s excessive morbidity and obsession with hell. Mind you, whatever you think of Balthasar’s ‘dare we hope all men to saved’ argument, Edwards can be a bit off the deep end with his ‘no, they burn’ answer at times.
It was this Balthasarian seed that drew me deeper into the bowels of Anglicanism, and in particular, a view of Anglicanism in which the state’s co-optation of the church is not necessarily the definitive view of the Church of England. After all, the question this priest asked me was a sincere one: how does this excessive view of hell display the glory of the Lord? While Piper might argue that it displays the absolute sovereignty of God, Balthasar would be quick to note that this sovereign Lord descended into hell on Holy Saturday, emptying himself of power to go to the dead. It is this hiatus, the silence in the death of God, that the logic of our theology is re-constituted, where the beautiful glory of the Lord is most definitively seen in the figure of Jesus, the one who died, the one who is risen, the one who will come again.
Our Sunday Gospel tells us that the Paraclete will draw us into all truth, that is, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger put it in his dialogue with critical theorist Jürgen Habermas (whom he was attempting to draw into all truth as well), the ontological reality that it is this mystic, sweet communion that holds the world together. Assuming that the Holy Spirit guides and directs the neo-Calvinists as our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, they will (of course) be drawn with us into all truth, which means that, if they haven’t already, they will necessarily recognize the ontological reality that we recognize, and the Father and the Son will come to them and make their home with them, along with the rest of us. Our worst excesses will be corrected; our mystic sweet communion will come to fruition. We thus pass the peace to our neo-Calvinist brothers and sisters (yes, believe it or not, there are women in this tribe), acknowledging the peace we have with them even if they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the peace they have with us.
The passage that was read at my wedding was 1 Corinthians 13. Many will (of course) complain that the passage is not about marital love, that it is in fact about ecclesial love, and that to use it in a wedding is to join Hallmark in taking it out of context. Our Anglican priest’s homily, however, emphasized love within the church over the pride that ‘puffs up,’ placing marriage as a sacrament within the context of the church, and I suspect that it is because of those homiletical reflections that I can’t get the passage out of my head as I conclude this post. I realize that when St. Paul says that when he was a child, he spoke like a child, he thought like a child, he reasoned like a child, he is positing a contrast between the present in which we see through a mirror dimly and the eschatological future when of faith, hope, and love, only love remains. But because the church mysteriously lives an eschatological reality in the present, I can’t help but think that a bit of eisegesis is in order. You see, when I was a child, I spoke like a schismatic, I thought like a theologically insecure neophyte about fundamental doctrines, I reasoned like a ‘solid’ Protestant with an overly romanticized view of the sixteenth century. But now that I have become an adult, I have put childish ways behind me, trading schism for communion, hopefully growing deeper into the truth that holds the world together, the realization that, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it in A Better Hope, ‘the worship of such a God [who works through the church] means that we must pray and pray fervently for the reconciliation of Catholics and Protestants, as our very division wounds not only ourselves but the world itself’ (p. 45-46). I can’t wait for my neo-Reformed brothers and sisters to do likewise.
In this way, Driscoll’s most recent debacle need not be interpreted as him going off the deep end as a neo-Calvinist participating in the worst excesses of American Christianity. Instead, the poor guy is kicking and screaming against the Holy Spirit leading him into all truth. We should thus not issue a green Christian diatribe against him, castigating him for his idiotic sexist and anthropocentric jokes that we take to be a pox on the face of the contemporary church catholic. We should rather extend the peace in the hope that he will be at peace as the Father and the Son make their home with him. Pax Christi.
Today is the Memorial of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Accordingly, I decided to give his De Incarnatione VerbiDei a re-read.
I read it first seven years ago. That time, I was sitting in a parking lot for a public park in my Vancouver suburb. An auntie I knew from the Chinese evangelical church I was going to–all women my mom’s age are called “auntie”–drove over and asked what I was reading. I said that I was reading Athanasius. Just the name weirded her out. “You are always reading such complicated stuff,” she said.
I would have explained to her that because she was a fan of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity–a book she recommended to everybody (though I doubt she’s actually read it all the way through herself)–she should read Athanasius. In fact, I was reading Athanasius because I had read C.S. Lewis’s foreword to On theIncarnation in one of the versions of Mere Christianity that I had flipped through. He talks about why it’s important to read old books: because each “age” has its particular ways of thinking and doing things, reading an old book helps you see all the blind spots of your own particular “age.” In this preface, Lewis talks particularly about the impact that Athanasius had on his own theological thinking:
When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.
Of course, this sounds all so much like what Molly Worthen has recently written about the Anglophilia of American evangelicals trying to find intellectual moorings for an otherwise anti-intellectual American evangelicalism, and I won’t deny that at the time, I was soaking up the neo-Reformed goodies put out by Mark Driscoll and John Piper. In fact, to come completely clean, I was reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity for a course on Christian Living at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and yes, this was the Calvary Chapel where Pastor Chuck Smith baptized over 10,000 hippies in the 1960s and became the flagship church of what has come to be known as the Jesus Movement. (I learned about Lonnie Frisbee much, much later.)
I’m just trying to say that C.S. Lewis sounded really smart because he was British.
So, OK, fine, I’ll admit that I was reading Athanasius to show off that I could read “complicated stuff” by authors with complicated names with a hint of Anglophilia thrown in. In fact, I have to say that I was being outright Anglophilic because I was reading a horrible nineteenth-century translation that made Athanasius sound like some highfalutin Oxford don. Like Lewis, Athanasius sounded so smart because he was–well, at least in my translation–so British.
Fast-forward six or seven years. I’m completely done with Calvary Chapel’s dispensationalism–I threw in the towel when we were dissecting Romans for verses related to the Rapture–and I’ve jumped ship to Regent College. A paper topic for the Christian Thought and Culture course on pre-Reformation Christianity asked us to take a position on one of the old heresies in the early church. I chose Arianism, partly because a few faculty members had duked it out during their joint lectures over whether Athanasius’s polemics toward Arianism actually made any theological or biblical exegetical sense.
That’s when I read Rowan Williams’s Arius. One of the funny things about Anglophilia is that it’s so selective: American evangelicals love their Lewis, Tolkien, Stott, and all the rest that they re-baptize into their evangelical fold, but they most certainly are not going to take in Rowan Williams. Most of what I’d read and heard about Williams at that point, especially from Anglicans who had broken away from their dioceses over the blessing of same-sex unions, was that he was a “spineless moron” who didn’t have the guts to enforce the moratoria on gay bishops and same-sex partnerships called for in the Windsor Report. I expected him to be equally spineless on fourth-century orthodoxy.
Williams pulled a fast one on me. His analysis of Arius was that Arius was an ultra-conservative pastor in Alexandria whose view of God the Father was too high. He wanted to protect the Father from the suffering of the Son, and that’s why he insisted that the Son had to be sub-divine. Moreover, he was a worship song writer, so he wrote songs like the Thalia so that, as Williams astutely points out, when Arius’s teaching was condemned at Nicaea, Arius still had plenty of fans to keep him company and bury him when he died.
For Williams, orthodoxy did not mean the same thing as conservatism. If anything, it was just the opposite. It was the polemicists like Athanasius who had to keep on their toes, the ones who had to stay creative:
Athanasius and the consistent Nicenes actually accept Arius’ challenge, and agree with the need for conceptual innovation: for them the issue is whether new formulations can be found which do justice not only to the requirements of intellectual clarity but to the wholeness of the worshipping and reflecting experience of the Church. (235)
Little surprise that the conservatives in the Anglican Communion don’t exactly like Williams: after all, who would want to admit that “historic Anglican orthodoxy” with all of its “traditional” teaching on marriage and family is a modern creative formulation that needs more serious theological probing? I’m not even sure that Athanasius would have liked Williams’s assessment of his historical situation, as Williams does go out of his way to say that Athanasius’s polemics might have distorted and exaggerated Arius’s teaching quite a bit.
It’s with this new ambivalence toward Athanasius that I found myself reading De Incarnatione Verbi Dei this morning.
Lewis says that Athanasius’s writing throws the modern world in sharp contrast. On the one hand, Athanasius’s take on miracles is a robust reply to those who say that these things violate “the law of nature”: if the creative Word became flesh, after all, he can create whatever he wants, and that’s OK in a pre-modern enchanted context. On the other, Athanasius’s assumption that all Christians live virtuous lives cannot be said of Lewis’s mid-twentieth-century British experience. For Lewis, Athanasius’s world is fundamentally different from the modern world, and that’s why we have a lot to learn from him. (One could point out the superficial similarities between Lewis’s view and the heterotopias in Foucault’s Of Other Spaces.)
Forgive me, then, for sounding like a heretic to American evangelical Anglophilia and say that I found Athanasius’s On the Incarnation surprisingly similar to what an old-school Chinese Christian pastor in the late twentieth century would be hammering from the pulpit. In fact, as a second-generation Chinese Christian who has less-than-proudly joined the “silent exodus” by attending a non-Chinese church regularly (see also Doreen Carjaval’s original article in the Los Angeles Times and Esther Yuen’s Vancouver adaptation), I might say that it even revived so old-time resentments toward some of my first-generation patriarchs.
On the face of it, De Incarnatione is a very sophisticated theological argument. Athanasius’s main thrust through the work is that the Word became flesh because while the Word had created the world out of nothing, the Fall was corrupting all of creation back into nothing. You can see this corruption, Athanasius begins, in violence from personal adulteries and murders to outright warfare between city-states. The Word thus takes on a body so that he can resurrect to conquer death. A new existence follows in which adulterers are made chaste, murderers are made peaceful, and wars stop.
So far, so good. In fact, I like the pacifist implications of all of this.
That’s when it gets violent. As Athanasius gets polemical about Jewish and Greek interlocutors about Christianity in the second half of the work, I was like, “Wow, an old-school Chinese church pastor could have said this.” And that ticked me off a little bit.
First off, Athanasius would be as helpful to interreligious dialogue as a Chinese Christian fundamentalist. Maybe it’s my stupid nineteenth-century translation that makes the Orientalism come out so pointedly, but here’s a quick snapshot:
And whereas formerly every place was full of the deceit of the oracles, and the oracles at Delphi and Dodona, and in Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and those of the Cabiri, and the Pythoness, were held in repute by men’s imagination, now, since Christ has begun to be preached everywhere, their madness also has ceased and there is none among them to divine any more. And whereas formerly demons used to deceive men’s fancy, occupying springs or rivers, trees or stones, and thus imposed upon the simple by their juggleries; now, after the divine visitation of the Word, their deception has ceased. For by the sign of the cross, though a man but use it, he drives out their deceit. And while formerly men held to be gods Zeus and Cronos and Apollo and the heroes mentioned in the poets, and went astray in honoring them, now that the Saviour has appeared among men, those others have been exposed as mortal men, and Christ alone has been recognized among men as the true God, the Word of God. And what is one to say of the magic esteemed among them? that before the Word sojourned among us this was strong and active among Egyptians, and Chaldeans, and Indians, and inspired awe in those who saw it; but that by the presence of the truth, and the appearing of the Word, it also has been thoroughly confuted, and brought wholly to nought. (De Incarnatione 47).
This brings back memories of old-school Chinese church pastors fuming at the pulpit about smashing Buddhas and burning them in tin trash cans in new converts’ backyards or imagining demons flying out of Buddhist temples to corrupt the suburb his people are living in. (Chinese women pastors are a recent phenomenon.) I certainly couldn’t imagine this turning into A Common Word or Nostra Aetate. In this view, there’s something inherently bad about religions other than Christianity. Other religions, it would be said, deal with demons and the devil. Christianity is the light that drives out the darkness, the good that drives out the bad.
Ditto Athanasius on Jewishness:
What is left unfulfilled, that the Jews should now disbelieve with impunity? For if, I say–which is just what we actually see–there is no longer king, nor prophet, nor Jerusalem, nor sacrifice, nor vision, among them, but even the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God, and Gentiles, leaving their godlessness, are now taking refuge with the God of Abraham, through the Word, even our Lord Jesus Christ, then it must be plain, even to those who are exceedingly obstinate, that the Christ is come, and that he has illumined absolutely all with his light, and given them the true and divine teaching concerning his Father. (De Incarnatione 40).
It’s not Dabru Emet, that’s for sure. I’ve certainly heard my share within Chinese churches about the ignorance of Jews refusing to believe in the Messiah and how we’re so much smarter because it’s so obvious that Jesus is the one they’ve been looking for. As one Hong Kong Chinese pastor in Vancouver who did his Doctor of Ministry thesis on Jewish-Christian relations pointed out to me, that’s why there’s zero dialogue between Chinese Christians and their Jewish neighbours.
Athanasius then assumes that where Christianity is, it just triumphalistically pastes over an existing religious landscape with its own enlightened geography:
This, then, after what we have so far said, it is right for you to realize, and to take as the sum of what we have already started, and to marvel at exceedingly; namely, that since the Saviour has come among us, idolatry not only has no longer increased, but what there was is diminishing and gradually coming to an end; and not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer advance, but what there is is now fading away; and demons, so far from cheating any more by illusions and prophecies and magic arts, if they so much as dare to make the attempt, are put to shame by the sign of the cross. And, to sum the matter up, behold how the Saviour’s doctrine is everywhere increasing, while all idolatry and everything opposed to the faith of Christ is daily dwindling, and losing power, and falling. (De Incarnatione 55).
Rowan Williams casts a fair bit of doubt on this assessment with the view that there were lots of different kinds of Arians and lots of different factions within Nicene orthodox groups and that these guys duked it out for well over a century and a half. And yet, Athanasius’s polemic against all things non-Christian reminds me of the Chinese senior pastor in my childhood church who used to declare from the pulpit, “Where Christianity is, there is prosperity!” (How Weberian.) As geographer Judy Han writes about Korean Christians, there is often a lack of clarity about what’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel of prosperity in all of this.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that–contrary to Lewis’s view of ages as so different from each other–I now find Athanasius’s On the Incarnation to be familiar childhood territory, not the “complicated stuff” with a hard-to-pronounce name laced with Anglophilic otherness. Perhaps, as Charles Taylor points out, the “disenchantment” of the enchanted pre-modern world was never fully completed. Instead, Taylor suggests that we live in a “cross-pressured,” if not “schizophrenic,” world where we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t believe in anything supernatural and are subsequently fascinated by anything remotely magical. (Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has a fascinating take on how this all gets reconciled psychologically.) Athanasius isn’t so different from the rest of us, especially me as a Chinese Christian.
And yet, if Athanasius isn’t so different, I’d like to follow Williams and hold him accountable for some of his statements. Woe be to me to take a canonized church father in both Catholic and Orthodox communions to task, but I’m totally on with Williams in thinking that Athanasius may really have exaggerated some of his polemics. This is admittedly a frightful task, as nerve-wracking as trying to have a theological dispute with a first-generation Chinese Christian senior pastor revered by an adoring immigrant congregation. After all, I run the risk of being called disrepectful to my elders, the zhangzhe (長者) revered in popular Confucian ideology.
A helpful–but still admittedly problematic–way to push St. Athanasius a bit might be to follow the comparisons between him and twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth. Athanasius’s take on religion itself sounds very Barthian (or Barth sounds very Athanasian, which is probably more the case):
But men once more in their perversity having set at nought, in spite of all this, the grace given them, so wholly rejected God, and so darkened their soul, as not merely to forget their idea of God, but also to fashion for themselves one invention after another. (De Incarnatione 11).
This sounds an awful lot like Barth railing about religion as the “frontier” of human possibilities, that the whole point of the resurrection of Jesus is to show how far off the gods that we project from our own desires are from the beaten track.
The two of them came to similar ethical conclusions. For Athanasius, this sort of projected religion led to increased human conflict:
For formerly, while in idolatry, Greeks and Barbarians used to war against each other, and were actually cruel to their own kin. For it was impossible for anyone to cross sea or land at all without arming the hand with swords, because of their implacable fighting among themselves. For the whole course of their life was carried on by arms, and the sword with them took the place of a staff, and was their support in every emergency; and still, as I said before, they were serving idols, and offering sacrifices to demons, while for all their idolatrous superstition they could not be reclaimed from this spirit. (De Incarnatione 51).
For Barth, when the German nation-state made up versions of God for the church to subscribe to, it was well on the way to Nazi totalitarianism and the geopolitical madness of World War II.
If this is the case, this is a profound challenge to the old-school Chinese Christian pastors I think sound so similar to Athanasius. It would challenge them to say concretely what the links between idolatry and ethics are. Don’t just say that “other religions” or “folk religions” are inherently, essentially bad and evil systems associated with the devil. Are they actually violent in practice? How so? Be concrete. We believers in the incarnation are, after all, a concrete people.
And what about Henri de Lubac’s argument in Catholicism that the catholic impulse is all about re-focusing spiritualities on Jesus Christ? or Tolkien’s point that all true narratives find their fulfillment in the eucatastrophic redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus? (I realize that the latter example brings us back to Anglophilia, which just goes to show that, as James Cone says about his training in white neo-orthodoxy, it’s pretty hard to shake.)
Or what if, as Stanley Hauerwas has it in his own reflection on interreligious interaction and the work of Fr. David Burrell, CSC, the whole point is that faith is all about embodied, performative practice, not propositional systems? Maybe St. Athanasius is making a René Girard argument, that all of this violence is caused by the projection of mimetic desire into religious ritual.
Sure, OK, maybe we shouldn’t tell St. Athanasius to read our twentieth-century theologians, but what I’m saying is that it’s not that St. Athanasius is wrong about religion. It’s that he’s got thoughts to develop. And our job, far from uncritically revering him, is to push that development along.
The point is, if we really do believe in the communion of saints, let’s not put the artificial distances of modernity, Anglophilia, or canonized sainthood between us and the church doctor. After all, Athanasius’s central point in De Incarnatione is that the Word became flesh to free us from the state of corruption so that we can share in the divine resurrection life. If this is so, St. Athanasius is still alive, and he is our brother.
Catholic popular theology would have us say then, “St. Athanasius, pray for us.” What Rowan Williams has shown us that we can also say is, “St. Athanasius, I’m going to push you on this one.” Growing up Chinese Christian, I’d say the latter is absolutely necessary for a more solid understanding of how the church ought to relate to the world.
But it’s a hard thing to say. After all, we don’t want to be disrespectful to our elders.
Today is the First Sunday of Lent, and I thought it might be a good day to issue a call for a feminist theologian who would provide some good counterpoint to the three of us men here on A Christian Thing.
Why a feminist theologian?
Because, as I learned in feminist studies, feminism in its current state isn’t solely obsessed with gender. It has more to do with power.
I recall, for example, the opening vignettes in Rosemary Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk. There, Jesus is portrayed as someone who comes into the world to show it that with all of its conceptions of a god of sovereign power and might, the God revealed in Jesus is one who refuses power and thus liberates us from the structures of oppression by revealing our false theologies.
Or maybe we don’t just need a feminist theologian. Maybe we need a womanist. A womanist comes out of the black liberation tradition, a critique of the black liberation theology of James Cone for not taking into account theological reflection done from the perspective of the oppressed black woman portrayed vividly in the work of Alice Walker.
Why all this on the First Sunday of Lent?
Because of our meditations on the temptations of Jesus in the desert, the refusal to align himself with the powers to make the kingdom of God happen, the repentance from the way the world works by jockeying for power, the in-breaking of the eschatological kingdom that is constituted by love.
Part of that re-alignment has been pointed out by yet another feminist theologian, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. In Memory of Her takes its cue from Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel that we’re meditating on this Year B, to make the case that when Jesus said that the woman who washed his feet would be remembered in all proclamations of the Gospel has in fact been conveniently forgotten in a patriarchal re-constitution of Christianity.
We need a feminist theologian on A Christian Thing because we are already doing feminist theology. We are pointing out that the gendered stereotypes in conventional evangelicalism aren’t cutting it. We are demonstrating that bad theology is an alignment with the powers. We are arguing for the doing of Christian theology with the oppressed and the damned, with the depressed and the colonized, with the un-labelable and the unwanted. And we are positing that this is Christian orthodoxy because it is this that constitutes the real communion that Jesus lived with the prostitutes, the tax collectors, and the “sinners.”
We are also three heterosexual men doing what could converge with trends in feminist theology. We probably could use some help, but then again, come to think of it, maybe we’re answering the call already.
Maybe I’m mistaken to call for feminist theologians to join this blog, per se, then, as if the three of us were interested in perpetuating Christian patriarchy.
But taking up In Memory of Her, though, it might be nice if a few women joined, not least to undermine the “masculine feel” that certain neo-Calvinists might mistakenly think we are implicitly promoting by being a de facto male plurality.