I haven’t blogged in a while, largely because I have been busy with other things, but I have been watching US politics rather more than previously, and not liking what I am seeing. The polarization of the two-party system has been expressed in isolated discourses with minimal cross-over, in which vocal members of each group express outrage and ridicule at the other group’s viewpoints, mock the appearance of representatives of the other group, engage in ad hominem (and ad familiam) attacks, and do all this while expressing outrage that members of the other group should treat them in the same discourteous manner. Civility seems to be nearly extinct. If the American way of government is to be saved, and I must admit great appreciation of the freedoms to which we have grown accustomed, we must reclaim civil discourse, not only in the sense of discourse about issues related to the civilian society, but also discourse which is civil in tone, even when disagreeing strongly. (more…)
The issue of homosexuality has been prominent in church discussions for several years now, long enough for most parties to be sick of the issue and incredulous that other people don’t see the matter as seems obvious to them. In many ways, the debates have resembled the debates about American slavery in middle third of the nineteenth century: both sides dug in and called the others non-Christians, and almost every denomination split over the issue in the period leading up to the American Civil War (and indeed, the Southern/Northern Baptist split remains to this day, even if the Northerners changed their name to “American Baptists” with all the arrogance of military victors). The disagreements over sexuality persist, in part, because both sides have been making really stupid arguments which are easily caricatured by their opponents. Conservatives have been accused by liberals of simply reacting with a knee-jerk “yuck” and seeking to justify their irrational prejudice with appeal to the Bible and tradition. Conservatives in turn have accused liberals of throwing out all that characterizes Christianity in their desire to kowtow to the current cultural trends. (more…)
A fascinating new website has been started over at danherrickphilosophy.com, all of whose arguments merit careful reading. This is not to say I agree with all of his arguments – I do not, which ought to surprise no one – but his essays often provide an interesting sidelight on the issue and frequently an unusual insight. In particular, he just finished a series of four posts on how to read Scripture: (more…)
Marginalia Review of Books just published an interview with Sebastian Brock, who was one of the main architects for the “rediscovery” of Syriac Christianity in Anglophone scholarship since the late 1960s. His interviewer, T. Michael Law, is himself an Oxford-trained expert in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), just as Dr. Brock himself started his academic career fifty years ago. Although in places the discussion turns to in-house matters among academics, many parts of the interview will intrigue those interested in Middle Eastern Christianity, such as the differences in the canon of the New Testament between Syriac and Greek or Latin Christians. The interview may be listened to here (unfortunately, I cannot find a transcript for those who prefer their media read rather than heard).
Readers interested in late antiquity and the rise of Christianity may also be interested in the interview with Peter Brown on the same site, in which he discusses his recent book, Through the Eye of a Needle (part 1, part 2). In the process he has some characteristically provocative suggestions regarding the shape of Christianity in a period of flux.
After the divergence of Christian denominations, important spiritual writers were located in different branches. I think of Brother Lawrence among the Roman Catholics, John Bunyan among the English non-conformists, Fyodor Dostoevsky among the Russian Orthodox, more recently C. S. Lewis among the Anglicans, and Billy Graham among American Evangelicals. But when people of another denomination read and cite with approval such a writer, members of that writer’s own denomination sometimes object to what feels like poaching. Surely, the sentiment may be expressed, that writer is “ours”; what write have “you” to appropriate him? Indeed, some Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox feel that way even about writers from before the schism. I have heard Eastern Orthodox Christians object to any “Western Christian” (Roman Catholic or Protestant) claiming Athanasius or the Cappadocians, and I have heard Roman Catholics object to members of other churches citing Aquinas or Gregory the Great. Is there any legitimacy to this objection?
The short answer is “no.”
The present is not the first time that Christians have fought over names. Already in Corinth in the middle of the first century, Christians were claiming to belong to different denominations, whether Peter’s, Paul’s, Apollos’s, or Christ’s (1 Cor 1:11-12). (It is unclear whether this last group were claiming to be mere Christians, including the others, or holier-than-thou, excluding all the others.) Among Paul’s many responses to this sorry state of affairs is the following gem:
“So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Cor 3:21-23, NASB)
All those, then, who belong to Christ may rightly claim and profit from all those who have gone before. I am a late-comer to Christ, I know, but even so my heritage includes Moses and all the prophets, all the apostles, the early Christian writers, the medieval Christian writers of East and West (and of whatever language, whether Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, or any other), the early modern reformers (such as Erasmus and Luther) and mystics (such as Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross), and modern thinkers and activists (such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr.). We have this great shared heritage, because it is Christ’s “inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18) and we are “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Let us all, then, profit from the riches of that heritage and be prompted by it to fulfill the New Command of our Lord: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, NASB)
(This was part of a comment on another blog, but I thought I would also post it here in its own right.)
For reading resources, I enjoy the advice of C. S. Lewis that one should read two old books for every new, and I can highly recommend Irenaeus’ Proof of the Apostolic Preaching (only relatively recently reintroduced to the West from an Armenian version). Augustine’s Confessions challenges many people in useful ways, as does the Imitatio Christi by Thomas a Kempis, although the latter’s monastic orientation needs to be “translated” for laypeople. The seventeenth century produced at least two spiritual classics, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. I read C. S. Lewis’s own Mere Christianity with profit, even though his arguments about marriage strike most contemporaries as peculiar to his generation; I know that John Stott and, I think, N. T. Wright have written more recent attempts in the same direction, of which I have heard good things, but about which I cannot comment from experience. These are all books which challenge the young in the faith to learn more, and provide a basic framework for that learning.
But even so, I suspect that many if not most Christians will learn their Christian faith primarily by other means. Continued use of the sacraments is instructive, and sermons should be, as well as simply what Bonhoeffer termed “life together” in a local congregation, with all its embodied specific challenges and opportunities. “Doing something,” whether serving the needs of the broader society or being helpful around the church, is important for most people to learn. Close mentorship was critical for me, and I suspect helpful for many; I have heard that the practice of “spiritual direction” is increasing. And, of course, contemplation has its place. So there are many ways for people to learn more, and perhaps most importantly they need simply to be instructed that the Christian life is one of continually learning more.