Home/Daniel Larison/Merits and Flaws of Against Christianity: Preliminary Remarks

Merits and Flaws of Against Christianity: Preliminary Remarks

Thanks to the recommendation of Jon Luker of Retrospect, I have started reading Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity and have a few early comments at the outset. It is my goal for the next few weeks to compose a more complete response to each of Leithart’s five chapters, as I anticipate that each one will be very interesting in different ways. Though I have a generally very favourable impression of the thesis of the book, to the extent that the “bricolage” modeled partly on Notes From the Underground and partly on Pascal’s Pensees has a thesis, my early remarks will focus on the two sections where I always anticipated the greatest disagreement with Leithart, namely those on theology and sacraments. Before I start with that, I would just note that what he is calling Christianity, mainly a disembodied spectre of privatised Biblical reading, does not deserve the name and so in this sense he has done the Faith a disservice by abandoning the term Christianity to those who do not understand the Faith.

Leithart’s conception of theology explains why he reacts so negatively against it. For him, theology is concerned with “timeless truths” that are somehow divorced from life. Naturally, any sensible Christian would want nothing to do with any such theology, and it is unfortunate that Leithart is correct that the study of theology today, to the extent that it is concerned with any kind of truth (which is itself questionable in some cases), fits his description. In other words, Leithart despises academic theology. No complaints there–academic theologians may or may not be good scholars, but virtually none of them is teaching the Gospel in a way that does not contribute to the privatising, intellectualising sort of Biblical religion that Leithart has condemned under the name Christianity. But they are not doing theology. They are engaged in a travesty of theology.

Most of the writers whom these academics are studying (or pretending to study) were doing something very different. They were interpreting Scripture in the light of the historical experience and Tradition of the Church–they were explaining the eternal truths of revelation as part of living out the life in Christ–and some of the most important productions of many Fathers are their commentaries on the Gospels, the Psalms and other books of the Bible. St. Cyprian formulated an ecclesiological theory, which is to say a vision of the way the Church should be, in response to the immediate pastoral needs of the African church–such theology is practical and meaningful and necessary. If modern people have corrupted the meaning of the word, it is incumbent on those who see the damage they have wrought to take back a venerable and good term and restore it to its proper meaning.

For the Orthodox, true theology is prayer, and we learn to pray from Scripture and from liturgical practise where we encounter Scripture first of all as a body of the faithful. All genuine theological statements come from an interpretation of Scripture, prayer and experience of the life of the Church liturgically.

Why does St. Cyril insist on the title Theotokos for the Virgin Mary? Because he must affirm the scriptural revelation and eucharistic reality that Christ is the Word become flesh: if the Word has become flesh, then we must find a way to say that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Word in the flesh. If we partake of Christ’s flesh, and we are also said to be partakers of the divine nature, how else do we understand the transformative power of the Eucharist except by working out how Christ’s humanity was deified and thus made ours capable of being raised up to God in like manner?

The possibility of that divinisation, and so of our deliverance, rests on the reality that God the Word Himself was made flesh, and Theotokos expresses that truth in all its paradox and wonder. Moreover, before it was a theological definition, Theotokos was a term of devotion arising out of hymnography and popular piety. All the ontological arguments St. Cyril makes are not made for the sake of a particular set of assumptions about ontology or for the sake of philosophy, but for the sake of guarding the truth of the Incarnation and the promise of salvation.

If theology has become a sterile, marginal or otherwise dreadful pursuit, this is a function of the marginalisation and privatisation of the Faith. Clearly, Leithart loathes Stanley Hauerwas and the like, and I can only congratulate him for this, but Hauerwas and all the bad “theologians” before him should not be allowed to drag the good name of theology into the mud. Real theology, such as that practised by St. Gregory the Theologian and the other Fathers of the Church, cannot be divorced from life because the life of the Church is the source and the ground of any theological statement of any worth.

Theology can only come from what God reveals about Himself–that is a given. What patristic theology did was only to create a consensus about what the revelation taught (God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is One, Christ is truly God and truly man, and Christ is One) and how we are to understand this. It did not accommodate to Neoplatonism, but appropriated and subverted Neoplatonism, just as St. John appropriated and subverted Stoic and Platonic language. Theology did not develop in a vacuum, nor was it the product of ivory tower-dwelling intellectuals, but was on the whole the product of bishops engaged in pastoral care of their flocks and their instruction in the Faith. Ascetic theology is even more deeply rooted, if I may say so, in the life of prayer and is permeated with the language of the Church.

The more I delve into this little volume, the more I am concerned that what seems most exciting and intriguing about it is its successful ambushes of other modern theologians and their conceptions of the things that Leithart has declared himself to be against. If you like to see Stanley Hauerwas mocked and ridiculed, this is the book for you. In this sense, it is very much an insider’s complaint (and a very welcome one) about the miserable state of a field of study and a lament about the failure of mainline Protestant thought. When Leithart, a Presbyterian minister, complains about the state of “the Church,” Orthodox might have a hard time recognising what he is describing, and even traditional Catholics, though exposed to many of the same pernicious trends, be it from liberation theology, American neocon Catholics or even the potentially enervating influence of neo-Thomism, might be a little puzzled about what he means.

It becomes questionable whether Leithart is really reacting against any sense of Christianity that exists before the 19th century with the rise of higher criticism and “rational theology,” and still more questionable whether he is not simply reacting against the Christianity that modern Protestantism has turned itself into. He consistently insists on the Church mastering and using Her own language, rather than using the language borrowed from various modern disciplines, but it would be hard to accuse the Orthodox (in spite of a small boom in trying to sell Orthodoxy in terms of “freedom”) and Catholics of abandoning that language, whether or not Leithart could agree with what other Christians say in that language. To the extent that Leithart wants Christians to abjure modern and secular language in public discourse and rely on Biblical language, I applaud him. I can only add that to this we should add the language of the Fathers, which is fundamentally and substantially the same.

Clearly, pietistic trends in all confessions would be troubling to someone who sees the “heresy” of Christianity in its privatisation and interiorisation of the Faith to the detriment of the Church’s evangelical mission and witness in the world. The culturally transformative, public, ‘political’ (in a special sense) imperatives of the Gospel are what Leithart seeks to reemphasise, but I am not sure how much his entire argument is preoccupied with a fight among modern Protestant theologians and how much of it is a sustained reaction against the modernisation of Christianity. Certainly, Leithart intends for it to be a thoroughgoing reaction against that modernisation, and if he succeeds in this I will congratulate him. Closer reading will tell.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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