Skeletons in the Saeculum

Posted on January 27, 2012

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At first, it was just my curiosity: what would happen if I stopped calling myself a Christian? Soon I began to feel a window had been thrown open and I  could breathe.What had made my Christian cloister so stifling in the first place? In my youth, I read the Bible and saw renunciation of the world as the governing ethic. This world is counted as rubbish–laughing, telling family stories, becoming rapt in a concerto–these are a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. In truth, I soon had a prolonged mystical experience of Christ and could testify to that surpassing worth. But then it vanished. No matter what I did, I could not regain that abiding awareness of God’s presence. I was left in an indeterminate state, turning my back on the world and feeling like God was turning his back on me.

This is tricky business. If I had been less radical in the first place or if my zeal had not been met with a mystical experience, I might have approached the Bible and the Christian life with a healthy esteem for the good things of the world. Knowledge of the goodness of the world is the bedrock of Christian renunciation. We do not renounce the world because it is evil. We renounce it despite its goodness for something surpassing.

I believe the New Testament takes an understanding of the goodness of the world as a given. It’s central ethic is intended to be a counterpoint to a stable cultural tradition of love of the world, law and order, and the manly virtues. The New Testament, then, inasmuch as it communicates an ethic, is in dialogue with an ethic outside of itself. Much of that external ethic is laid out in the Old Testament (nevermind that the OT is in dialogue with its own exterior ethic), but it also includes elements of Roman and contemporaneous Jewish culture. A “Christian Ethic,” then, is a complex of Biblical and extra-Biblical ethics. Here’s Lewis Mumford:

It is not the purity of the orthodox Christian doctrine that has kept the Eastern and Western churches alive and enabled them to flourish even in a scientific age, but just the opposite: the non-systematic elements, seeping in from other cultures and from contradictory experiences of life; covert heresies that have given the Christian creed a vital buoyancy that seemingly tighter bodies of doctrine have lacked.

Mumford uses terms (e.g. heresy) that a more sympathetic observer coming to the same conclusion might avoid. Nevertheless, his witness is true. But as I was out trudging the wilderness between Epicurean delight and mystical communion with God, I was a long way from hearing his voice. Instead, I found my legs hobbled by two tethers: 1) the belief that the nature of everything created is infused with a tincture of sin and 2) the belief that Scripture is sufficient unto itself as a spiritual elixir. Scanning that wilderness of Reformed theology, I was often baffled to see other folks out running. How could they so freely acquire possessions, defend capital punishment, and wonder at the purple mountains’ majesty?

I contend that a degree of eisegesis is necessary in order to end up with a few of the old stand-bys common in American Christian homes: Settle down with a nice little wife in a nice little house. Your innate talents show you how God wants you to serve him. Stand up for yourself. But let’s assume that even these can be found in the Bible. Still, the sun that anchors the entire sola system in place cannot be found in Scripture. I am referring to the method by which systematic theology is derived from the Bible (to say nothing of the method by which books of the Bible are deemed legitimate). This method must be imported from somewhere outside the Bible.

In the early Church, two methods of Scriptural interpretation in particular came to the fore. One was an allegorical method which found its locus in Cappadocia. The other was a historical-literal method which found its locus in Antioch. The fact that not one but two methods were acceptable in the early Church is telling. If the goal is to know Christ and to bring others to the knowledge of Christ, then any method that gets you there is acceptable. If, however, the goal is to create an airtight system on which to base your assurance of salvation or your counseling practice, then the playing field is narrowed significantly.

In fact, as Enlightenment values permeated the modern Protestant churches, those who did not capitulate to liberalism resorted to demanding that Scripture provide a complete, consistent, and closed system. As a result, there is an idol sitting on the lap of many a Reformed church-goer today. That idol is certainty. Every Sunday morning a refined version of the historical-literal method (the method most well-suited to the modern scientific mind) is laid before this idol as a sacrifice. Lest the abomination become apparent, an astounding feat of sleight of hand is performed. Even the earnest magician standing at the pulpit believes that his love of certainty is love of the word of God.

Congress with secular culture is inevitable. By making an honest relationship of it, you can set the terms and limits. By hiding it in a closet, you will emerge either with its odor all around you or with a complex of neuroses. My lot was the latter.

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Posted in: Faith