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Conservatism Will Not Save Christianity

It is not enough to think in a small-o orthodox way

A couple of readers have sent me a column by the Catholic priest Fr. Dwight Longenecker, in which he lists Twelve Reasons Why Progressive Christianity Will Die Out. Here’s how he sets up the list:

The historic Christians believe their religion is revealed by God in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, and that the Scriptures are the primary witness of that revelation. They believe the church is the embodiment of the risen Lord Jesus in the world and that his mission to seek and to save that which is lost is still valid and vital. Historic Christians believe in the supernatural life of the Church and expect God to be at work in the world and in their lives.

Progressive Christians believe their religion is a historical accident of circumstances and people, that Jesus Christ is, at best, a divinely inspired teacher, that the Scriptures are flawed human documents influenced by paganism and that the church is a body of spiritually minded people who wish to bring peace and justice to all and make the world a better place.

I realize that I paint with broad strokes, but the essential divide is recognizable, and believers on both sides should admit that “historic” and “progressive” Christians exist within all denominations. The real divide in Christianity is no longer Protestant and Catholic, but progressive and historic.
When I say “divide” I should say “battle” because both sides are locked in an interminable and unresolvable battle. Interminable because neither side will yield and unresolvable because the divisions extend the the theological and philosophical roots of both aspects.

However, it is true to look at the dynamic of progressive Christianity and see that by the end of this century it will have either died out or ceased to be Christianity.

I agree with this, with a slight modification. Most of the progressive Christians I know would say that Jesus was (is) divine. Yet they live their theology as if he were little more than a divinely inspired teacher. It’s a distinction without a lot of difference, but I do want to acknowledge that many progressive Christians do profess Christ’s divinity.

His main point is generally true, in my experience, and so is his list. Yet the reading that I’ve been doing lately leaves me unsatisfied with it; the list is true, but only a partial truth. Indeed it makes me think that many Christians who identify with the conservatives are much more vulnerable to the same dynamics that will eliminate progressive Christianity than they realize. Let me explain.

As many of you know, I’ve been much taken with the Reformed theologian Hans Boersma’s 2011 book Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. In it, Boersma talks, in everyday, non-technical language, about the theological and philosophical basis of the first thousand years of Christianity. He calls it a “Platonic-Christian synthesis” — that is, the belief that all matter, all nature, is metaphysically anchored in God. That is, that everything that exists receives its very existence from God, and subsists mysteriously in God.

This changed radically in the High Middle Ages for a number of reasons Boersma detailed. The most significant of them were the rise of univocity and nominalism. I’m greatly simplifying here, but univocity means that God is not Being itself, but a category of Being. He sits atop the hierarchy of Being, as its supreme entity. This served to crack the metaphysical bond between God and Nature. As Boersma writes, no longer did earthly objects receive their reality from God’s own being. Rather, they possessed their own being. This effectively makes the created order independent of God.

Then came nominalism, which denies that there is an intrinsic essence in anything. Matter has meaning through an act of will. Ockham and the nominalists did not deny God’s existence, but they said that insofar as anything meant anything, it was because God willed it to be so (this, as distinct from the view that it is part of His nature, because he is in some sense united to Nature). Move God out of the picture and then man’s relationship to Nature is one in which we can do anything we want with it, bound by no natural laws. There is no natural teleology.

These and other factors at work in the West laid the groundwork for the ongoing exile of God from, well, life. (Interestingly, Boersma points out that almost all of this took place before the Reformation, though the Reformation, and the Counter Reformation, accelerated the process already underway.) In the Great Tradition, nothing existed on its own; everything was really connected in God and through God. Modernity — starting with the Late Middle Ages — progressively unraveled the “sacramental tapestry.” Boersma says that only a return to the sacramental vision of the Great Tradition can save the church today from dissolution.

He writes the book as an Evangelical Protestant theologian, primarily addressing Evangelicals, but he warns that Catholics, though retaining a more robust sacramentality, are in effect aboard the same modernist boat, headed over the falls. This is because we all live in the modern world, and modernism is powerfully anti-sacramental. We have all been formed by it; it is the water in which we fish swim. The Orthodox Church never lost the Great Tradition, but it has taken me almost a decade of being Orthodox to retrain my own way of seeing the world, to re-sacramentalize it. To see the world with the sacramental eyes of the Great Tradition requires real and sustained effort.

One of the most difficult things as a Christian to fight against is the idea that the Christian life is chiefly about studying the Bible (and, for Catholics, the Catechism) and learning through a process of rationality how to apply its teachings to govern our lives. In the Great Tradition, as Boersma shows so well, Scripture, the Church, and the doctrines that come out of them all derive their meaning from the living God, who desires radical communion with us: theosis. This is not a contractual agreement by us that God is real and His teachings are true (though we must agree to these things), but rather an ongoing absorption in His life, and a reweaving of the sacramental tapestry through His work in our own lives.

It’s a hard concept to understand, I know, and I don’t have the time or the space to go into it in more detail here. Besides, it’s more the kind of thing you have to grasp today, on the far side of the Modern era, by prayer and experience, as opposed to cogitation. Nevertheless, Boersma makes a strong case that reclaiming this Great Tradition the only thing that stands to stop and reverse the fragmentation and dissolution of the Christian faith in the West.

I believe he’s right about that. The forces dissolving our sacramental bonds to God and to each other, reducing us to individuals defined by our desires, are overwhelming. Conservative Christians are in a stronger position to resist them than progressive Christians, if only because they believe (in principle) that Truth is something outside of ourselves, to which we must conform our own lives — this, as opposed to the idea that we can rewrite the faith and redefine virtue according to our own experiences and felt needs, because the only thing that matters is that we feel a connection to an amorphous, beneficial God. But if you look at the way many of us conservative/orthodox Christians actually live, we are also headed down the river and over the falls too, just more slowly than the progressive Christians.

Here is a great passage from Boersma. He’s talking about the way we in modernity view time non-sacramentally — as the past and the future having no real connection with ourselves, because it exists separate from the eternal God:

A desacramentalized view of time tends to place the entire burden of doctrinal decision on the present moment. I, in the small moment of time allotted to me, am responsible to make the right theological (and moral) choice before God. The imposition of such a burden is so huge as to be pastorally disastrous. Furthermore, to the extent that as Christians we are captive to our secular Western culture, it is likely that this culture will get to set the church’s agenda. … The widespread assumption that Christian beliefs and moral are to a significant degree malleable has its roots in a modern, desacralized view of time.

If we forget the past, denying that we have any necessary connection to it, to tradition, we forget who we are, who we must be, and how we must live.

To the extent that today’s conservative Christians are alien to the Great Tradition, they (we) are not much better off than the progressive Christians whose dissolution in modernity we are observing, often with self-satisfaction (I’m guilty of this too).

I want to end by these passages from a great little book by the late Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément. He’s talking about the recovery of the sacramental:

The world is not a prison but a dark passage — an opening through which to move, a passage to be deciphered within a greater work. In this work, everything has a meaning, everyone is important, everyone is necessary. It is a work that we compose together with God.

… One of our daily tasks is precisely to awaken in our selves the power within the depths of our heart. Usually, we live in our heads and in our sexuality, with our hearts closed off. But only the heart can serve as the crucible in which our understanding and desire are transformed. And though we may not reach the luminous abyss, sparks may fly from it, and our hearts burn with an immense yet gentle shudder.

We must recover the meaning of this unemotional emotion, this unsentimental sentiment, this peaceful and overwhelming resonance of our whole being we feel when our eyes are filled with tears of wonder and gratitude, ontological tenderness and fulfilled silence. It is not merely the concern of monks; it is humbly and partially the concern of us all. And I would argue that it is also a concern of culture.  … We need music, poems, novels, songs and any art that has the potential to be popular art and which awakens the power within our hearts.

Culture is not just art, but fasting, feasting, the way we live as a people. Anyway, Clément here states a rationale for the Benedict Option. The recovery of the Great Tradition is not merely the concern of us all.