Thursday, June 21, 2012

Theotic Politics

I was talking to a friend tonight about the sad state of local politics here in Beaver Falls. I won't go into details, for they are already well known to any observant local here. Things do not change with any ease. One of the features, though, that stuck out in our discussion is that the goal or telos of government (local or otherwise) is quite murky as of late. Possibly, although I am no expert or pundit on matters political, this is the reason that I have seen neither Obama nor Romney signs in peoples' yards: the finish line being represented by either of those candidates is chilling.

I digress, though. When speaking of ends, or goals, we are necessarily speaking theologically, for a goal assumes a structure, and a structure assumes an Architect (I am aware that this is a controversial thing to say, however the chaos of modern Evolutionary theory is self-referentially incoherent, so I have no reason to countenance it as a viable option). The telos of all life, whether we are speaking of the specifics of "the art of living together" or not, is to be united to God, to have God's Life work in and through us: to be filled with His light and love to the utmost brim. In a word, theosis. We are to be by grace what Christ Himself is by nature. I have argued that elsewhere on this blog. While I initially chaffed at the doctrine, I have come to see that it is the Chestertonian "Golden Spike" that fits the hole in the world, perfectly.

If theosis is the ultimate goal, that God might be "all in all" (I Cor. 15) for Christ "fills everything in every way" (Eph. 1) already, then that has political implications, especially at the structural level. Our "art of living together" is supposed to work towards the filling of our social and civic life with God's Life. Our societas is to be an outpouring and indwelling of the holy Spirit. All levels of government, from the basics of self-government (ascesis) to magisterial government, are to be oriented (and Romans 8, I think, can be argued to assert that they are already oriented: "predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son") towards this telos.

The cash out of this (and I do realize that I am painting with broad brush strokes -- this is a blog, after all) is that our local life together here in Beaver Falls is oriented wrongly. It is not theotic. And if something is not theotic, not oriented towards filling the world with God's Life, then it is oriented towards death. There is no other option. Death, certainly, doesn't happen in a day at the civic level, but I think it would be hard -- if not impossible -- for any denizen of Beaver Falls to argue that we are not in a state of civic death. Part and parcel of this must be the realization that holding onto the past, the "good old days" of steel mill prosperity and abundance, must stop. They were not "good old days" because they were not theotic: they partook of human avarice (let us not forget that greed is still a capital sin), a debasement of the human person via industrial drudgery, and a destruction of the necessary natural capital of the area (the water, the air, and the land still bear scars and are choked with poisons of various sorts). If Beaver Falls, and anyplace, is to be full of life, it must be full of Life. Our old way of life, that life that pines for material prosperity at any cost, must be put to death on Christ's cross. God forgive us for not doing that as of yet.

The first rule of theotic politics is "love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind and strength"; the second is like unto it, "love your neighbor as yourself." How shall we love God and neighbor politically? It involves putting our political aspirations, both individual and corporate, to death: do we want the "good old days"? This dream must be forsaken. Instead, we must "do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God." We cannot bring Beaver Falls to life, or to Life; God must do that through His Body, the Church. However, the politicos and concerned citizens can take two concrete actions for that to happen: join the Church and clear away the impediments to the Church's work. In the midst of that, they will see that taxes do not need to be what they are, nor do we need to kill business proposals through a thousand qualifications, but rather we must trust that the Spirit is working in our political freedoms to start businesses, to raise families, to clean up our environs, and to worship God.

Theosis does not happen in a day, it is a constant struggle: but we are called to nothing less.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Coming full circle

It really seems, given some recent developments in the "Reformed Catholicity" camp (see here and here, that this post isn't far off the mark, even though certain things I said in it have to be matured or rejected. Authority, or more properly the multiple authorities with which Christians have to do, continues to be the touchstone issue of Protestantism.

More rethinking is needed, but more on this anon.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Review: Early Christian Attitudes Towards Images

Steven Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes Towards Images (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute), 2004.

Dr. Steven Bigham has done the theological world a great service with his readable, concise, and well-argued little book. One does not have to go far on the internet, especially if one is associated with the "Reformed Catholicity" movement that sprang out of the defunct "Federal Vision" movement in the Reformed Christian world, to see back-and-forth on the question of early Christian (and therefore normative) attitudes and views towards the use of images liturgically. This seems to be because some (many?) who tred the Mercerburg-Moscow road end up crossing either the Tiber or the Bosphorus, both locations having well-developed iconographic traditions. Responses by the leading theologians of the movement (such as Peter Leithart or James Jordan) often include statements to the effect that early Christians were universally opposed to figurative art being used liturgically, as that would constitute idolatry. If that is what the early Christians believed, this would be a linchpin argument for Reformed scholars over against the Tradition of both Rome and the Orthodox. Bigham, however, puts the lie to this line of argumentation: every Reformed scholar should carefully consider this book and the argument presented.

Bigham's argument is simple enough: determine whether or not early (from AD 33-313) Christians were aniconic and iconophobic; that is, whether they had any images (whether liturgical or not) and, if not, was it because imagery was viewed as essentially idolatrous. He does this by examining two major parts of any iconoclastic argument: the "hostility theory" and a "rigorist" (a favorite word of Bigham's) interpretation of the 2nd Commandment.

The "hostility theory" states "that the early Christians had no images and were hostile to them because their religion forbade figurative art" (1). Most scholars, especially those from Protestant backgrounds (although Bigham notes various Roman Catholic scholars who also hold to this point), hold to some form or other of the "hostility theory." This raises the question: if the early Christians were uniformly and universally anti-image (aniconic), then how did the iconic tradition, codified in the 7th Ecumenical Council, get such a strong and enduring footing in the Church of Jesus Christ? The dominant theory, which one can see in much Reformed scholarship on Church history, is that the conservative clergy (who were more loyal to the Jewish aniconia that they inherited) bowed to popular pressure from the laity, which was unwilling to jettison their pagan ways upon entry into the Church. After time, especially after the linking of Church and Empire with the conversion of Constantine (and its aftereffects), the clergy joined the party and even came to defend and promote the use of liturgical images.

However, Bigham notes, "The strength or weakness of the modern form of the hostility theory, as well as of Byzantine iconoclasm itself, depends on whether an icon is distinguished from an idol, veneration from worship" (9). An icon is honored (or venerated) due to the role of those pictured in redemptive history (in which I include Church history, since Christ is still redeeming the world through His people); God alone is worshipped. Veneration is visual, worship is not (since God the Father is invisible); Christ is venerated and worshipped together, since He is theandros -- this, of course, is one of the more controversial claims of any iconodule, a lover of icons. If an icon is an idol, then the clergy-laity split not only is the only workable theory, but also one of the greatest tragedies of Church history. This raises the question of whether or not the holy Spirit is actually guiding Christ's Church into all truth. Bigham rejects this theory based on the close differentiation between an icon (to be honored because of who is pictured) and an idol (which claims to at least represent a god or God the Father). The early Christians (or, at least, the bishops and lay teachers: the run-of-the-mill lay Christian did not leave writings for us, but they did leave Church art) were implacably opposed to idolatry, which all parties (Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic) agree on. However, and this is the brunt of Bigham's work, they were not opposed to "non-idolatrous figurative art" (as Bigham normally describes it), even in the context of the Church's liturgy. He argues this by going through all relevant early Church sources, both written and non-written (painting, mosaic, sculpture), and determining the attitude towards art being presented. In each case, with the possible exception of one possibly inauthentic letter in Eusebius' corpus, the early Christians either are silent concerning non-idolatrous art or speak positively concerning it. Part of the problem, Bigham argues, is that "hostility theorists" come to the table with a set of errant presuppositions that color their reading of the evidence.

By the end of the book, it is obvious that non-idolatrous art was not a major concern of early Christian writers. Idolatrous art, of course, is and will continue to be till the establishment and conquest of Christendom. To argue that early Christians uniformly were aniconic or iconophobic is a misreading of the evidence based on faulty presuppositions. Where, though, do these faulty presuppositions come from? Bigham argues a falsely "rigorist" interpretation of the 2nd Commandment.

"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them..." Thus speaks the 2nd Commandment, which seems to forbid any figurative art, not just idols ("or any likeness..."). However (and Bigham doesn't argue from the Masoretic or Septuagintal text grammatically here, which would only bolster his case), the Old Testament itself should give pause to any such "rigorist" interpretation: five chapters of Exodus later, God Himself commands golden cherubim ("in heaven above") to be crafted for His glory, cherubim to be woven on the tabernacle linens, a bronze serpent to be made for the healing of His rebellious people, and so on (25-32). For adherents to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), which many Reformed people are, this should give pause. The point of the 2nd Commandment isn't the forbidding of images, whether liturgical or not, but rather the forbidding of idols, that which is worshipped instead of God. God Himself, in the Old Testament at least, is not to be figured artistically, but (and this is the point of St. John of Damascus) since God has appeared in the flesh, giving His own icon (or image, as in, "He is the image of the invisible God" from Colossians 2 and elsewhere), we are now allowed to make liturgical use of it. Bigham does not get into what the proper liturgical use of non-idolatrous art is (a debate that I, at least, consider far from over, at least as far as Protestant-Orthodox dialogue goes), but does set the stage for fruitful dialogue. Early Christians did not have a problem with non-idolatrous figurative art, nor did they interpret the 2nd Commandment in a "rigorist" (RPW-like) way; rather, there are more questions and further research that needs to be done, especially on how such images should be "used" in a liturgical context.

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Importance of Ignorance

The truth is: I don't know.

I've studied theology, and engaged in prayer (which, as Evagrius of Pontus reminds us, shouldn't ever be separated), for a long time now, at least relatively speaking. And this is what I've found out: I don't know.

This used to irritate me. Frustrate me. Anger me. Infuriate me.

Not anymore.

The best place to be is "I don't know," because if I don't know (and I don't), then I can finally submit to God. Instead of trying to lord it over Him with my own knowledge ("but it must be this way"), I can say, like Mary, "I am the servant-at-hand of my Lord, let it be unto me according to Your Word" (do pardon the re-gendering of her prayer -- I continue to not be a woman).

It is a freeing thing since I no longer have to hold up and onto my "faith," which turned out to be little more than a flimsy set of rationalistic propositions. Instead, I can have a Faith, once for all delivered, protected by the Spirit through all ages (even though it is a messy business, Church history) that is not dependent on my rationality, but rather on His free gift of the Life who is Jesus Christ.

So, I read internet debates on points of dogma or praxis and I don't want to engage them. I'd rather listen, preferably to those who have proven themselves to truly bear the Spirit (the Fathers, many of the monastics, etc.), and from there I'd like to take my steps towards "being conformed to the image of the Son."

Ignorance is the only entrance into humility.