Saturday, March 16, 2013

On Detachment from the World

For a long time, some of which is cataloged on this blog, I was averse (to put it mildly) to any sort of asceticism or "world-denying" practice. Put simply, in the terms of one of my collegiate teachers (and now colleagues) that was dualism. And dualism is bad. How can one deny the world that God had created (Gen. 1), that He so loved (John 3), and that He is going to recreate (Rev. 21 & 22)? That and, of course, asceticism was somehow thoroughly Platonic and therefore a corruption of the purely Hebraic Christian inheritance (I knew this because I was told so; I hadn't read a lick of Plato). So, whenever I would encounter language in the Fathers or the early Christians that spoke in terms of world renunciation, I would discount it: sometimes I would discount the Father or saint who spoke it as well. They were deluded by philosophy (Col. 2:8), I said, and since I didn't want to be contaminated by such things (for, of course, I was free of such philosophical influences), I must reject them.

This led, as I've spoken about before, to my statement that "either the Holy Spirit has abandoned the Church since the days of the Apostles, or He has abandoned me."

What I didn't understand, though, was the purpose behind denying the world. What I didn't understand, though, was the necessity of denying the world. What I didn't understand, though, was that to love the world, as Christ loves the world (John 3:16), required that I follow the path of Christ to crucifixion. One can only inherit the world, can only be meek, if one "daily takes up the cross, denies himself, and follows [Jesus]". But, why?

Part of my problem was that I thought sin was the problem: sin understood as the breaking of God's divine Law, codified in the Torah, for which I stood condemned. While this certainly is a problem, it isn't the problem. Sin can be taken care of through repentance. All the Scriptures assume this, even Leviticus, which is arguably the most concerned with the effects of sin in the context of blood sacrifice. Repentance, of course, is a good and necessary thing (as I've argued here before). But, there is something more than moral rebellion happening in the world. How do we account for the "righteous pagan"? The person who, even if they outwardly hate Christ, act more like Christ than many Christians (especially oneself), especially in light of Matthew 25 (note that the "sheep" don't know they served the Master)? There is something more that I had missed. To deny the world because sin was the main problem would be to say, ultimately, that the world was inextricably tied to sin. The whole creation would be totally depraved, to use some old Calvinist terminology. This would lead straight to dualistic Gnosticism.

What I had missed, though, was the fundamentally ontological problem that man is faced with: he is dying. Sin is a problem, but the broken moral relationship between God and man can be healed through repentance (assuming, of course, God's mercy at the outset); yet we still die. "For dust you are and to dust you shall return." Since Adam was the "federal head" of the world, all the world inherited death. Adam was the mediator of Life to the world, his original task was incarnational in a way. His communion with God, at the Tree of Life, was not only Life for him, but Life for the world. He failed at that task, bringing death into the world and corrupting everything with possible non-existence, a detachment from the source of Life. Biology isn't a closed system: it depends on connection to a Life that is not bound by finite necessity. All things fall apart because they are finite, but that does not mean they were created to fall apart. They, all things (Eph. 1:10), were created to partake in God's Life. All things, instead, share in death. Our communion with them, even though necessary to sustain bodily existence (food, drink, shelter, sex, work, rest), is either a communion with non-existence or a communion with God through Christ.

Why deny the world then? Because we are carriers of death in a world that is dying without Christ. We deny the world, we fast, we abstain, we "mortify" because we know -- from the sacramental example of Christ -- that Life for the world only can come when this creation dies. Christ, the Life of the world, had to die -- to take on the penalty of Adam's choice -- so that it could be defeated. For how could death hold onto Life Himself and whatever He had united Himself to? This is how Christ defeated death by death. We participate in that victory by following the same path: we are baptized into His death so that we might walk now in the newness of Life that is communion with Him. But that means we cannot hold tightly to the world as it now is, but instead look forward to the end goal when all things are gathered up in Christ's Life (Eph. 1:10) and God is "all in all" (1 Cor. 15). To hold tightly to the things of this world now means we desire to keep our communion with death. We recognize our current need of them to stay biologically alive, but we cannot let them become (or remain!) our masters, for they are being used by a malevolent power that seeks only death for all things (it even went so far as to crucify the Lord of Glory). We will inherit the earth, the earth filled to the brim with God's Life, as we let go of it in its present state. Let no thing be your master but God. Love the world so much that you will die to it.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Why I'm No Longer an Evangelical

Christianity Today recently tweeted about their sticking to the word "evangelical" as a self-identifying descriptor. I tweeted back that the problem with the word "evangelical" is that it lacks any objective content. Too many groups use it that have vastly divergent theologies (I'm thinking conservative Reformed groups and Rob Bell-types here) for it to actually be a meaningful descriptor. Certainly, it is not necessarily meant to be an exclusive modifier, but using it for "Christians in every tradition and communion who seek to love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength" is the same as saying "evangelical = Christian." In that case, why not just say "Christian"? They might (and I'm guessing here, I haven't had the pleasure of meeting either author of the piece, although Mr. Galli did speak at my recent seminary graduation) say that "Christian" is too broad of a label itself, including anyone within the liberal-conservative orbit, whereas "evangelical" comprises those more centrist (how else will we fit in the Sojourners with the Moral Majority?). What, in the end, it reduces Christianity to, since it is such a broad, all-encompassing label, is a movement, whereas Jesus came to found a Church. There is, as they note implicitly in the quote above, no institutional unity to be found among evangelicals. In fact, you can be evangelical whilst not recognizing the baptisms of those in other groups of ostensible evangelicals. It is, then, a superficial and overly rationalistic (since it is based on some form of doctrinal communality -- but not unity) movement that will be more destructive of institutional unity (Christ came, we must insist, to found One Church, not many, often warring branches, denominations, or sects) than healing.

This was brought to my attention somewhat obliquely a couple of weeks ago by a colleague at Geneva College when I griped on Facebook about the lack of engagement and interest evangelical students brought to the study of the Scriptures (after all, if sola Scriptura is true, then oughtn't we to be fully engaged in learning what those infallible Scriptures say?). He said that he was uncomfortable with the term, preferring to qualify it with "non-confessional" and "confessional" evangelicals (if I remember the proposed nomenclature correctly). If we need that sort of definitional differentiation, though, it seems more fitting to abandon the label altogether. That was confirmed by the CT article: it just doesn't work anymore.

So, I propose we either adequately qualify the label so that it doesn't mean all things to everyone, or we drop it all together. Really, in the end, it seems to mean just Christian anyway, with a decidedly weak ecumenical bent ("oh, you're a Catholic Pentecostal Reformed too, even though I'm also a Calvinist Orthodox Organic Church Emergent!") that glosses over the tough issues we are supposed to be hammering out.

I'm not an evangelical, then. I'm a Christian. Often confused and rarely right.