Understanding Simone Weil’s Quest for the Absolute

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“France offered a rare gift to the contemporary world in the person of Simone Weil.” –Czeslaw Milosz

The Notre Dame Press overstock sale continues until mid August; like I can wait that long to lay waste to our savings.

In the end I settled on Beyer’s Recovering Solidarity, Fritz Bauerschmidt’s (of Hillbilly Thomist fame) Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ (Don’t miss Mark McIntosh’s classic study from the same series about von Balthasar entitled Christology from Within–not on sale, but well worth the cover price and more), and Morgan’s book about Weil’s writings on science and love, Weaving the World.  

Not a spectator sport.

Not a spectator sport.

During my first scan through the list of books on sale I somehow missed Matthew Levering’s theology of reading the Bible (only the cloth edition is on sale), which is essential reading. The usually stale Library Journal gives it a refreshingly glowing review:

“Levering compellingly argues for the legitimacy of a type of biblical interpretation once prevalent among the Fathers of the Church and medieval theologians, one that includes a participatory encounter with the divine. . . . Written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the volume will appeal to anyone interested in biblical interpretation. While directed toward scholars, the book is nonetheless accessible to the intelligent lay reader.”

Finally, I also purchased the essay collection The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil, which features essays by some of our greatest living theologians, people like David Tracy, Cyril O’Regan, and Louis  Dupré.  If you’re not familiar with Weil then here’s what Czeslaw Milosz, one of her first translators, said about her and his own friend Camus, all the while taking potshots at that villain Sartre:

“Violent in her judgments and uncompromising, Simone Weil was, at least by temperament, an Albigensian, a Cathar; this is the key to her thought. She drew extreme conclusions from the Platonic current in Christianity. Here we touch upon hidden ties between her and Albert Camus. The first work by Camus was his university dissertation on St. Augustine. Camus, in my opinion, was also a Cathar, a pure one, [‘Cathar’ from Gr. katharos, pure] and if he rejected God it was out of love for God because he was not able to justify Him. The last novel written by Camus, The Fall, is nothing else but a treatise on Grace — absent grace — though it is also a satire: the talkative hero, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who reverses the words of Jesus and instead of ‘Judge not and ye shall not be judged’: gives the advice ‘Judge, and ye shall not be judged,’ could be, I have reason to suspect, Jean-Paul Sartre.”

Speaking of Louis  Dupré, I also noticed he has a book, The Quest of the Absolute, forthcoming from NDP.  Here’s what it promises:

“This eagerly awaited study brings to completion Louis Dupré’s planned trilogy on European culture during the modern epoch. Demonstrating remarkable erudition and sweeping breadth, The Quest of the Absoluteanalyzes Romanticism as a unique cultural phenomenon and a spiritual revolution. Dupré philosophically reflects on its attempts to recapture the past and transform the present in a movement that is partly a return to premodern culture and partly a violent protest against it.

Following an introduction on the historical origins of the Romantic Movement, Dupré examines the principal Romantic poets of England (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats), Germany (Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Hölderlin), and France (Lamartine, de Vigny, Hugo), all of whom, from different perspectives, pursued an absolute ideal. In the chapters of the second part, he concentrates on the critical principles of Romantic aesthetics, the Romantic image of the person as reflected in the novel, and Romantic ethical and political theories. In the chapters of the third, more speculative, part, he investigates the comprehensive syntheses of romantic thought in history, philosophy, and theology.”

Waiting for  Dupré.

Waiting for Dupré.

 We’ll close with a quotation from Simone Weil, which both serves as a brief introduction to her quest for the absolute and demonstrates her continued relevance:

“For the past two or three centuries there is a belief that force is the sole master of all natural phenomena, and, at the same time, that men can and should establish their mutual relationships on justice, as determined by reason. This is a patent absurdity.

It is not conceivable that everything in the universe be absolutely subject to the empire of force but that man can avoid it, while he is made of flesh and blood, and his thought drifts along with perceptual impressions.

There is only one choice to make. Either one must perceive another principle besides force at work in the universe, or one must acknowledge that force is also the sole master of human relations.”

Random fact for trivia night: I bet you didn’t know it’s rumored Samuel Beckett was riffing on the title of Simone Weil’s essays, Waiting for God, when he came up with the title of his most famous play.

Sunday Spoiler: The Liturgy Is *Not* Sacred

cavanaugh migrations

This book is huge.

If you’re looking for a book which is a huge difference-maker in how you view Christianity, then you should look no further than Cavanaugh’s Migrations of the Holy.  The point he makes here opens up several lines of thinking:

“Today the most significant misunderstanding of the Christian liturgy is that it is sacred. Let me clarify. The problem is that ‘sacred’ has been opposed to ‘secular,’ and the two are presumed to describe two separate—but occasionally related—orbits. The problem is not simply that this separation leaves the church’s liturgy begging for relevance to the ‘real world.’ The problem is rather that the supposedly ‘secular’ world invents its own liturgies, with pretensions every bit as ‘sacred’ as those of the Christian liturgy, and these liturgies can come to rival the church’s liturgy for our bodies and our minds. In this brief essay I want to explore in particular some of the liturgies of the American nation-state. I will suggest first that such liturgies are not properly called ‘secular,’ and second, that the Christian liturgy is not properly cordoned off into the realm of the ‘sacred.'”

These comments come from the chapter “Liturgies of Church and State,” which happens to be available as a standalone ,pdf read right here.

This expanded notion of liturgy might be useful for literary criticism, probably also political science, or at least for the reading of Czeslaw Milosz in my case.  Charles Taylor is onto the same insight in A Secular Age with his notion of cross-pressuring:

“Our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief. The secular age is schizophrenic, or better, deeply cross-pressured.”

Liturgy: It's not what it looks like.

Liturgy: It’s not what it looks like.

The cross-pressuring by both the liturgy of the church and the liturgy of the state (and modernity as scientism) is especially strong in the Milosz poem below.  What’s remarkable about it is how the two liturgies are presented as overlapping, even coinciding.  The secularizing withdrawal of judgment and punishment turns into a hellish Divine punishment in itself.

Oeconomia Divina

I did not expect to live in such an unusual moment.
When the God of thunders and of rocky heights,
The Lord of hosts, Kyrios Sabaoth,
Would humble people to the quick,
Allowing them to act whatever way they wished,
Leaving to them conclusions, saying nothing.
It was a spectacle that was indeed unlike
The agelong cycle of royal tragedies.
Roads on concrete pillars, cities of glass and cast iron,
Airfields larger than tribal dominions
Suddenly ran short of their essence and disintegrated
Not in a dream but really, for, subtracted from themselves,
They could only hold on as do things which should not last.
Out of trees, field stones, even lemons on the table,
Materiality escaped and their spectrum
Proved to be a void, a haze on a film.
Dispossessed of its objects, space was swarming.
Everywhere was nowhere and nowhere, everywhere.
Letters in books turned silver-pale, wobbled, and faded
The hand was not able to trace the palm sign, the river sign, or the sign of ibis.
A hullabaloo of many tongues proclaimed the mortality of the language.
A complaint was forbidden as it complained to itself.
People, afflicted with an incomprehensible distress,
Were throwing off their clothes on the piazzas so that nakedness might call
For judgment.
But in vain they were longing after horror, pity, and anger.
Neither work nor leisure
Was justified,
Nor the face, nor the hair nor the loins
Nor any existence.

The line “Letters in books turned silver-pale, wobbled and faded” cannot but remind me of this tragically magical scene from Fellini’s Roma:

More literature on Cosmos the in Lost can be found here, here, herehere, and in plenty of other places.

Pagan Symbols and the Coming Christianity

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Cromwell or: How are they gonna keep ’em away from the farm once they’ve seen Karl Hungus?

Philip Jenkins of Baylor U is probably our most perceptive commentator on religion.  His views are almost always even-handed, even if he’s describing trends he’s not quite comfortable with.  One cannot help but be extremely impressed when reading The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.

There he described, in the first edition of 2002, an ineluctable shift of Christianity south of the equator, long before it was popular to say so, long before Bergoglio became Francis.

What’s impressive about his writing is that according to him–even though Jenkins himself appears to be a very mildly liberal Episcopalian, even though he seems to be squirming in his seat as he writes the words–Christianity will become much more “conservative and supernaturalist” than comfortable for First World Christians.  What’s more, he predicts a shift of focus away from petty First World bickering to real Third World problems.

Great read and a must read.

Great read and a must read.

A recent article of his,“Farewell, Old Pagan World,” is presently making its rounds through social media.  In it Jenkins goes through several examples of how Christianity supplanted paganism in the Western imagination.  He points out how several cultural artifacts, which were taken to be pagan by most moderns, have time and again proven to either be saturated by Christian redactions or totally fabricated by Christians.  The most amusing example, at least to my mind, is the striking Cerne Abbas pictured above.  There is a certain relish to what Jenkins says about it:

“Scholar Ronald Hutton points out that the figure is not even referred to before the late 17th century, unlike other authentic monuments like Stonehenge, which had intrigued travelers through the Middle Ages. By far the most likely conclusion is that this impressive figure, with his giant phallus and club, is meant to depict not Hercules but… Oliver Cromwell. The local landowner in the 1650s was a Royalist Anglican who loathed Cromwell’s Puritan regime. In internal exile on his estate, he whiled away his time ordering the construction of a savage chalk-cut cartoon of the dictator, with the large club indicating the regime’s total lack of legitimacy.  Cerne Abbas isn’t a pagan idol, it’s a dirty joke.”

He deconstructs Beowulf much in the same way.  The ultimate takeaway is that:

“In modern times, books by authors like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have inspired hugely successful popular culture treatments, although they are sometimes accused of imposing their Christian interpretations on the older mythologies. In reality, it is very hard indeed to excavate through those medieval Christian layers to find Europe’s pagan roots. Never underestimate just how thoroughly and totally the Christian church penetrated the European mind.”

Much to my chagrin, Jenkins seems to come too close to something like an anti-pagan supersessionism when he ignores how the penetration goes both ways.

The Rick Perry episode I mentioned here is an example of what I’m talking about.  The governor thinks the secularists are persecuting Christians when “They can come in very large ways like the war on terror or our freedoms can be taken away in small ways like the removal of a Christmas tree from a classroom.”  The mention of the Christmas tree is peculiar because, as any pedantic village atheist will tell you, it’s (GASP!) a (spoiler alert!) pagan symbol.

I believe the Cambridge theologian Catherine Pickstock does a much better job of capturing this double-penetration and some of its anthropological and political implications in the article “Liturgy and Modernity” in Telos (113):

“Catholicism much more tolerant than [classical] liberalism [/capitalism/globalism]. In this schema, each difference is fully tolerated precisely because it is more than tolerated, since each difference is a figural repetition of the other differences. Thus, Catholicism has allowed many local rites and variations, and has sheltered much traditional folk narrative and practice. It has been able to reconstrue pre-Christian myths and rituals as figurative anticipations of Catholicism. This may seem like an imperialist gesture, but this figurative reading enriches the sense of Catholicism. Thus, in the legends of the Holy Grail, Celtic ideas of inspirational cauldrons are read eucharistically. This also discloses new dimensions in eucharistic understanding.”

This should give pause to those who are worried about the leveling and cultural destruction globalism leaves in its wake.  Why imprison oneself in hegemony-envy of the Catholics like Gramsci?  Why wish for a St. Francis to radicalize the multitudes like Hardt and Negri?  Why, when there’s pope Francis and the hybrid God and the hybrid institution he represents?

He’s also from the Global South.

new pope woody allen

both/and

Rabelaisian Catholicism Redux or: How to Keep the Church Impure

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The Cappadocians: Keeping it impure

Yesterday’s post discussed (here) how early Christian theology was fundamentally “polluted” by the Greek tradition of philosophy as a way of life.   But historian Jaroslav Pelikan suggest the contagion goes down even further, right down into the marrow, into the very language used to compose the New Testament:

“It remains one of the most momentous linguistic convergences in the entire history of the human mind and spirit that the New Testament happens to have been written in Greek–not in the Hebrew of Moses and the prophets, nor in the Aramaic of Jesus and his disciples, nor yet in the Latin of the imperium Romanum; but in the Greek of Socrates and Plato, or at any rate in a reasonably accurate facsimile thereof, disguised and even disfigured though this was in the Koine by the intervening centuries of Hellenistic usage.”

He continues in Christianity and Classical Culture:

“As a result of this convergence, every attempt to translate the New Testament into andy of almost two thousand languages–including a Semitic language such as Syriac, despite all its affinities with Hebrew and Aramaic–has, on encountering any term, been obliged to consider above all its previous career in the history of the Greek language; and that was a problem of natural theology [metaphysics] no less than a problem of philology.”

god greek

Well . . . YEAH.

There’s been quite a lot of talk about divorcing God from the Greek heritage at the very least ever since Harnack (one of the great enemies of this blog . . .  The hope is to keep him continually rolling in his grave).   While trying to argue away the Greek “accretions” to some vaguely “pure” Gospel he said, “. . . Roman Catholicism has nothing to do with the Gospel, nay, is in fundamental contradiction with it.”

We’ll see about that as tomorrow we turn to the article “Farewell, Old Pagan World” by Philip Jenkins, one of our leading public commentators on religion, and modify its claims, to the advantage of impurity, with the help of Catherine Pickstock.  This being Bloomsday, listen to Joyce playing upon the theme of purity from the life of Moses here.

James Joyce sings

James Joyce sings “From the Fathers”

Meanwhile, today’s readings please our Rabelaisian sensibilities (read the manifesto here) with one of the seediest episodes from David’s life and a Gospel reading about “a sinful woman [from] the city.”

“Socrates and Other Saints” Preview!

sokrates i inni

Check out the big font on the title!

The book Socrates and Other Saints Dariusz Karłowicz, which I recently finished translating, is a mainstay of this blog here and somewhat controversially here.  Karłowicz’s book deals with the Church Fathers whose writings, problems, and practices remain highly relevant as suggested here and here.  What follows is the conclusion of the book.  It’s a tantalizing glimpse into the Polish philosopher’s groundbreaking research into how early Christian theologians adopted the tradition of philosophy as a way of life to their own purposes.  The story he tells sullies any hopes for a pure Christianity, which is something I’ve written in my most notorious post here.

We are still courting publishers in the States.  Feel free to contact me about the right for publishing this book.

Conclusion

Satan hasn’t stolen our world. The world wasn’t created by an evil demon. Even if it seems to be broken, Genesis demands we remember it was created “good” by God. The Christians (unlike those who succumb to Manichean temptations) cannot simply wipe out the world, which obviously does not mean the world is perfect, because, after all, a disposition toward the good and its actualization are two different things. Even if the world contains so much luster, even if it promises a compromise, we should still not forget that we are in conflict with it. The conflict is life or death. We can admire the world, learn about it, we can use it, but we should know its dangers, and that it needs to be saved. Above all: it needs to be saved!

This is what the Apologists can teach us about the world, culture, and philosophy. The pendulum steadily swings between contempt and wonder. The aim is not compromise between these stances, rather we need both the extremes of the swing simultaneously. Each extreme taken on its own is too confined for Christian teaching, and so: neither unconditional rejection, nor unconditional embrace. After all, we are on the way like Odysseus to Ithaca. We find ourselves here for a short moment, being here is like finding ourselves strangers in a strange land. As guests and passersby we must take care of what’s been entrusted to us; we should use it sensibly, but we should not make ourselves too much at home, because we ought not forget where we are heading.

If we are on the way, said Augustine many years after the Apologists in his treatise De doctrina christiana, if we are wayfarers who want to return home, then we must see the world as a means of transportation (terestibus vel marinis vehiculis) and always remember to distinguish the means and ends. The metaphor of returning home serves to demonstrate the order of goods and so the right attitude toward earthly goods. Augustine enjoyed this homely comparison greatly. It served him during his youth (when he was a Marinist) as an image of the path to happiness. In his maturity it returned as an image of the path to salvation, “So in this mortal life we are like travelers away from our Lord [2 Cor 5:6]: if we wish to return to the homeland where we can be happy we must use (utendum) this world, not enjoy (fruendum) it . . .”

The Latin “uti” and “frui” are not easily translated into Polish or other languages without losing meaning. In the hierarchical world of Augustine the formula uti-frui allows us to distinguish three categories of being. The first category is composed of what we must feast upon (frui), rejoice over, when we posses it, or rather our clinging to it (how helpless language is here!) makes us happy. This is the Truine God. The second category is composed of all those things which aid in the attainment of the goods that make us happy. The work of philosophy is surely among them. The third category is composed of beings somewhere between those of the previous categories. They are not ultimate ends, but they reward us with a happiness that is a foretaste of perfection, they are a signal that we are headed in the right direction (another human being is such a good, when we can rejoice about them in God and when they direct us toward God. We ourselves are such a good and so are the holy angels). This obviously is the proper order of love. When it reigns within man it becomes the capacity to love things in proportion to their good. This is the love which sets us free.

The metaphor of a “means of transportation” helps to reveal the absurdity of giving autonomy to particular instruments, the ineptness of exchanging means for ends. Augustine writes, “. . . but if we choose to enjoy things that are to be used, our advance is impeded and sometimes even diverted, and we are held back, even put off, from attaining things which are to be enjoyed . . .” In relation to philosophy, the wonderfully flexible formula uti-frui confirms the teaching of the Apologists. These concepts are crucial for analyzing Greek wisdom and practice, in its capacity to help us die to the world and liken ourselves to the truth. Philosophy as a goal in itself and for itself can only lead to death.

This is an important element of the legacy left behind by the Fathers. It can be observed in their openness, which is not naive. These are people who only read the Bible on their knees. They are aware of the similarities, but they can see the differences, and they are not afraid to clearly define the boundaries of orthodoxy and the boundaries of inquiry. They are brave in entering the dispute, but, above all, they are courageous—this is difficult to define, but it is obviously noticeable upon every page written by them—they do not retreat into the catacombs. They posses the boldness and aggressiveness of people who through imitating their Lord want to transform their world. They neither want to justify it, nor do they want to condemn it—they want to save it.

The latter tradition also confirmed the distaste of the Apologists for fideism. Both the Augustinian “faith seeking understanding,” and the philosophy of Aquinas grow out of the perspective of the Fathers upon this matter. Mind you, this is not some linguistic manipulation, which confuses contemporary philosophical standards with rationality. What’s at stake is an attempt to measure up to the task laid down for philosophy by academic skepticism. It is a difficult trial, which from the start eliminates the pre-Pyrrhic dogmatic naivete as an option for Christian philosophy. The Apologists take up this task going arm in arm with the representatives of philosophical schools, and they willingly borrow their best achievements. The following are the most important fruits of these undertakings: the cosmological argument, Tertullian’s testimony of the soul, the apodeiksis of the witnesses, Justin’s doctrine of the Logos, the original understanding of pistis as the initial axiom for a systematic knowledge of God. They cannot be circumvented, no matter what we think of them. It is also impossible, without using anachronistic criteria, to place them safely within the confines of faith, or place them in opposition to the philosophical standards of the time. The stance of the Apologists on reason is one of the most important stories in the testimony they leave behind. From the beginning this testimony excluded gnostic fables from the Christian heritage and it fused the question of reason with the living tradition of the Church permanently. Christian philosophy discovered its tone in the controversies against Pyrrhonism and fideism. It did not change its principles, but, it learned its lessons. Pyrrhonism became a vaccine of humility against the dogmatic naivete of reason, while gnosticism became a warning against faith celebrating its irrationality.

The last crucial matter in the testimony of the Apologists taken over from philosophy—or more precisely, developed thanks to it—is the idea of spiritual development and the spiritual exercises. The Execrcitia spiritualia best confirm the lasting connection between Christian spirituality with ancient philosophical ascesis. There is no need to describe the further history of this connection in order to imagine how different Christian life would be if we were to deprive it of the techniques of spiritual conversion it borrowed from philosophy. Of course there are difficulties in adopting this tradition. One of them is the holiness of ordinary believers, not only of interest to Clement’s gnostic, but also for Tertullian’s artisan who has ordered his life with a severe discipline of philosophical exercises. We have already discussed the problems associated with intellectual and/or ascetic elitism. We should remind ourselves that individual spiritual work invites Pelagianism into the Church through the back door, which ends up questioning the meaning and need for the sacrifice of Christ. The teaching on grace is the cure for both ascetic elitism and for Pelagianism. We should remember how the elderly man put emphasis upon this teaching in his conversation with Justin the Platonist. This emphasis did not let up over time. It became the topic of great controversies and schisms. The balance sheet between the necessity of spiritual effort and the consciousness of how evanescent our efforts are will no doubt remain one of the most important traits of the spiritual culture of the Christian world.

Supersessionism: Two for the Price of One?

Cranach the Elder, Law and Grace, 1529.

Divide in two? Why not three?

Debates about supersessionism frequently flare up in America between evangelicals (generally pro) and mainliners (generally contra).  They look and sound like an outgrowth of the early modern law and grace controversies.  I would like to argue the real debate is elsewhere.

The following etymology is a helpful frame for what we want to talk about: “The word supersessionism comes from the English verb to supersede, from the Latin verb sedeo, sedere, sedi, sessum, ‘to sit,’ plus super, ‘upon.’ It thus signifies one thing being replaced or supplanted by another.”

Recent scholarship suggest that the definitive break between Christianity and Judaism is later than first supposed, much later, perhaps as late as the sixth century.  Things get even more complicated when you consider the following passage from Richard John Neuhaus:

“In fact, the early Christians, both Jewish and gentile, made no secret of the Jewish grounding of their faith. The second century Marcion who pitted Christianity against the history of Israel was condemned as a heretic. Many pagans did deride Christianity as a ‘Jewish sect,’ which did not prevent its continuing growth. Moreover, those Jews who did not accept Jesus were themselves involved in reinventing Judaism after the destruction of the second temple in 70 ad. It is not too much to say that there were two competing versions of the history of Israel that were presented to the world: what became known as rabbinical Judaism on the one hand and the Church on the other.”

This means that both rabbinical Judaism and Christianity in some sense superseded Temple Judaism as rival versions of Judaism.  Therefore, you get two supersessionisms for the price of one, or, alternatively, two legitimate theological developments.

Justin Tse says all of this appears to be in line with Dabru Emet, the historic statement on Jewish-Christian relations from a Jewish perspective.

Constantine, Socrates, and Other Saints

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Going up!

So far this blog has spent some time on unpopular causes by exploring recent historical research.  For example, this post took on the widespread idea of the early Church as a hippie commune, whereas this one suggests pluralism is an old hat issue for Christians.

In the latter post I quote Robert L. Wilken as saying, “Christians, however, have long had to face the challenge of other religions.”  My esteemed colleague Peter Escalante responded to Wilken with the following, “Christians have long had to face the challenge of other Christians.”  This is also true (even if Calvinism is a very recent phenomenon).

Messy pluralism always flourishes within Catholic orthodoxy, whereas heresies have attempted to clean up the holy mess.  Who’s responsible for this?  Dariusz Karłowicz, a Polish scholar of the Fathers, singles out the following benefactor:

“Christianity might owe its variety of legitimate paths, or as Clement of Alexandria puts it, streams that feed the current of a river, to this very detachment from any particular philosophy. This variety would have been unthinkable had Constantine chosen to impose the Stoic, Epicurean or Platonic ways of life, and their attendant restrictions, upon his empire after the Battle of Milvian Bridge. And so it is not just a matter of what would have been the official philosophy of the empire, but also what elements of the pagan heritage would have been decisively excluded. It is possible that dialectic (cynics) would have been excluded, or poetry (Plato), while everyone, without exception, including the butcher and tailor, would haven been required to learn astronomy, geometry or music. The varieties of Christianity, incomprehensible to the Greek spirit, point toward a certain non-rigorous optimism,which gives expression to the belief that the world is essentially good and so the greatest works of humanity could not have come into being without God’s will and God’s inspiration.”

This passage is from the book Sokrates i inni święci [Socrates and Other Saints] recently translated by yours truly.  The book contains plenty of other surprising insights as it goes through the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and their strategy of presenting Christianity as a philosophical way of life.

The author and I are currently courting publishers in the States.  Please let us know if you’re interested.  I’ll post a few more passages from the book in the coming weeks and months.

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Constantine was more money than you thought.

Modern Religious Pluralism is Neither Radical nor Modern

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Robert Wilken: not impressed with pluralism.

Commentators on religion are always harping about how our contemporary “radically pluralist” situation is unprecedented, and more likely than not, catastrophic for the Christian tradition.

Self-styled radical theologians such as John Hick in God Has Many Names, Charles E. Winquist in Desiring Theology, plus John Shelby Spong and Raimondo Panikkar in academically less respectable volumes (whose names I shall not mention), argue that Christian theology must change or die in the face of this revolutionary situation.

Robert Louis Wilken, one of our most important scholars of early Christianity, believes nothing could be further from the truth.  In the volume Remembering the Christian Past (Eerdmans, 1995) he proves that we’re only replaying the debates of early (and medieval) Christians:

“Christians, however, have long had to face the challenge of other religions.  For the first four hundred years of Christian history a traditional religious culture (which was not, as once thought, moribund) set the agenda for many Christian intellectuals, and its spokesmen energetically contested what seemed to be the [exclusivist] pretensions of the new religion.”

As much as I hate grading undergraduate essays that begin with “ever since the dawn of the universe / man / culture / religion / Christianity” or with “those who cannot remember the past . . .” the case of religious pluralism is an instance where one of those phrases apply.

Take a look at the arguments of Porphyry, Celsus, Cicero, and they all pretty much sound like Symmachus when he argues against the Christians:

“We gaze at the same stars, the sky belongs to all, the same universe surrounds us.  What difference does it make by whose wisdom someone seeks the truth?  We cannot attain to so great a mystery by one road.”

They also sound like today’s “radical theologians.”  Closer acquaintance with history should turn our notions who the conservatives and liberals are in the religious pluralism debates upside-down.  It makes all the difference.

As luck would have it, the book is available at a massive 60% discount from amazon.com.

The Early Church? Show Me the Money!

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Julian the Jealous

Early Christian history is usually presented as the parade of a motley crew of peasants, slaves, manual laborers, that is, the impoverished and uneducated masses.  We imagine them to be the equivalent of our local labor organizers, homeless, and hipsters; folks to whom most First World people can’t relate.

Curiously enough there is a consensus between the detractors of Christianity (Engels, Marx, NIetzsche) and it boosters (Deismann, Troeltsch, Rauschenbusch) regarding this detail of Christian history.  The only difference is that the boosters want to call their contemporaries back to a pure pre-Constantinian (communist or Anabaptist) past, whereas the detractors, usually following on the coattails of Nietzsche, want their contemporaries to escape from the soiled chains of a resentful slave-mentality.

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Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity rains on both of these parades.  He notes how the recent (last fifty years or so) scholarly consensus is a return to an earlier (pre-19th century) consensus about the early Church as a movement full of well-educated and well-placed urban dwellers (See: Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, 1983).

Stark draws the following historical conclusions from this historical fact:

“Finally, what difference does it make whether early Christianity was a movement of the relatively privileged or of the downtrodden?  In my judgment it matters a great deal.  Had Christianity actually been a proletarian movement, it strikes me that the state necessarily would have responded to it as a political threat rather than simply as an illicit religion.”

In other words the early Christians had friends and relatives in high places who made sure the lions were being fed with unbaptized food.

The implications for Modern day Christianity are, I believe, even more interesting.  If these conclusions stand the test of time (there is no indication they won’t), then we’ve always had (to borrow a book title from Ron Sider) rich Christians in an age of hunger.  This leveling out of the sociological differences means there are more similarities between the Patristic age and ours.  We might be best served by learning from the comprehensive Church aid and wealth redistribution programs of those times, which drove Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate crazy:

“Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.”

Real Church history always is a lot more interesting, challenging, and perhaps kinder to Constantine, but more about that tomorrow.

Early Christianity was a lot more like this than you suspected.