He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Protestant Intuition: Church & Empire

Recently, a friend shared an article from the National Catholic Reporter with me, wanting my thoughts on it.  I'm sure that my orthodox Catholic friends already have their suspicions about the contents of the article, given that the National Catholic Reporter tends to heavily feature heterodox views.

But what I found when I read the article is that it articulated fairly well what I have called previously a Protestant Intuition.  By that I mean something that Protestants often take for granted, and more specifically something I have taken for granted because I was once a Protestant.  I really value my Protestant upbringing; I have many wonderful and loving Protestant family members.  At this point, I just no longer agree with some of the intuitions I once had about the world and religion that were inculcated in me by that upbringing.

For those interested, I have included links to my other work on Protestant intuitions and why I no longer agree with them.  The particular intuition that I found presented in the article was not any of the above, and I thought it worth addressing because it was one of the intuitions I held onto even into my early twenties when I began gravitating away from the Catholic Church and toward Mahayana Buddhism.

Like many people in my age group, my intuition was that the relationship between religions and governments was pretty straightforward: either the religion and the government were completely separated and the religion had a chance to be pure and unchanged, or the government and religion were intertwined and the religion was inevitably changed radically for the worse.

So quite understandably in light of those assumptions, I tended to think that the relationship between the early Christian Church and the Empire of the times had made Christianity something other than what it should be, that it had messed up Christianity and that it needed to be reformed to remove the poisons administered to it by the Imperial interference in its affairs.

As I got older and studied more about Christianity and many other religions, I realized that the relationship between religions and governments were rarely so simple and straightforward as I had thought.  But at the time, I would have probably agreed with what Joseph Martos wrote in the aforementioned article at National Catholic Reporter.  He seems to know some things about the ancient world, but not enough about how people actually thought and prayed, not to mention the patristic writings.

He has a few facts which he has selectively edited to spin the narrative that people really want to hear, an old Protestant narrative I know from being raised a Protestant who belonged to a restorationist church. The narrative is that there was a loss of continuity between the Apostolic age and the next generations, that the true Church was killed and buried by the Empire, leaving it an empty shell to advance political ends while not advancing our spiritual ends. This is the typical contemporary view of religion, and many contemporary thinkers can't imagine anything else being the case, so it's easier to just pretend that it's almost always been the case.

And it certainly doesn't hurt that it's a convenient narrative for their desire to reshape the Church in their own image, the image of contemporary values which are in many cases antithetical to the Apostolic values they hold up as being the true Christian values.  This of course is exactly what the author is leading us toward in the end when he claims that, "We need to rediscover what is essential to the Christian way of life, reinvent ways to ritualize that, and reformulate what those rituals mean in terms that are faithful both to the teachings of Jesus and to the experience of living in accordance with them."

Inevitably given our current cultural tendencies and normal human confirmation bias, the "reinvention" of the sacraments instituted by God and handed down to us by the Apostles and their disciples would become just another example of man remaking God's grace into something more palatable to his personal preferences.  We would only need to reinvent the sacraments if they were susceptible to being reinvented by us, which I don't think they are.  At most, they might need to be recovered if they were truly lost during some historical period.

This is of course what Martos suggests happened earlier in his article:

"In the first two centuries of Christianity, theology was based in experience. Words that were later taken to refer to things that are outside the realm of experience were originally attempts to talk about things that the followers of Jesus were experiencing.
For example, when Paul wrote about justification by faith, he was not talking about getting right with God by believing in Christ, but getting your life straightened out by trusting that what Jesus taught is true. When the Book of Acts talks about being saved through baptism, it does not mean washing away sin by going through a ritual, but being rescued from selfishness by being immersed in a caring community."

I found myself a bit baffled by the implication that after the 1st and 2nd centuries of Christianity, theology was no longer based on experience.  From what I can tell, Christian theology remained based in experience all the way from the Apostles to the present day.  The early church writings, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, Maximos the Confessor, Pope Gregory the Great, the medieval mystics and scholastics, and even the writings of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI all show us to one degree or another show us the influence of their experiences on Christian theology.  I have to wonder: are he and I reading completely different documents?

Even Martos himself seems to show this influence of experience on Christian theology, as many contemporary theologians do.  If his experience is that the sacraments are disconnected from the lived experience of Christians (and it seems to be), then it makes sense that he would propose that sacramental theology is disconnected from that lived experience and also propose to somehow reconnect the sacraments with the lived experience of contemporary Christians.

He seems to view the sacraments in the way a non-Christian emperor would have: as rituals which have communal significance and personal significance, but don't have the theological content their participants believe in as part of the sacrament.

"Over time, the experience behind the early writings was forgotten. The writings were recognized as precious, called sacred Scriptures. Even the Didache appeared in some early lists of sacred Scriptures.
Christian intellectuals in the third century, sometimes called apologists, tried to explain their faith to people in the wider pagan world who suspected that the followers of Jesus were members of a dangerous cult. One apologist, Justin, compared the Christian community meal to a temple sacrifice, where pagans shared food in the presence of their god, to show that Christians were religious even though they did not worship in temples."

When he claims that over time, the experience behind the early writings was forgotten, I'm left to wonder what evidence there is for that.  All the evidence I'm familiar with points to a shockingly contiguous experience of the joys and experiences of the Christian life and the sacraments.

And then his suggestion that the Eucharist was just a communal meal that later had a sacrificial gloss put on it by apologists was...odd.  As far as I can tell from the recorded oral tradition about Jesus in the Gospels, Jesus himself directly tied the Last Supper to the coming sacrifice on the cross that he had been preparing the Apostles to face.  In Luke Chapter 22, this is pretty glaringly obvious:

"14 When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve[a] apostles with Him. 15 Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.
17 Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I say to you,[b] I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
19 And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
20 Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you. 21 But behold, the hand of My betrayer is with Me on the table. 22 And truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!”"

Can anyone really blame Justin or his predecessors for seeing the Eucharist as Jesus' sacrifice when Jesus himself presented it in precisely that way?  He refers more than once to his impending death and explicitly calls the bread his body and the cup the new covenant in his blood which will be shed for them.  Any Jew would quickly be able to connect this to the temple sacrifices; they would not have needed any other motive, including explaining their religion to the pagans, for understanding that Jesus meant that the bread and wine were his body and blood which were sacrificed on the cross.

But wait, there's more!  No Protestant narrative about the discontinuity between the early church and the church as it existed later would be complete without a nod to Emperor Constantine.

"In the fourth century, Constantine wanted to unify the Roman Empire with a single religion, so he legalized and promoted Christianity. When Christians began to travel freely throughout the empire, they discovered that people in different regions had different theologies. Instead of uniting Constantine's empire, Christians argued and divided it even further.
Constantine ordered all the bishops to his villa in Nicaea, and forced them to stay until they produced a document they could all agree on. They came up with the Nicene Creed, a statement of belief that said nothing about living like Jesus, but only about God and the church. The first removal of theology from the experience of Christian living was complete."

This is such a hilarious oversimplification that I'm not sure where to start, but let's start with the Nicene Creed.  Unsurprisingly, Christians generally agreed that we should live like Jesus, and so that wasn't the source of their disagreements.  Also unsurprisingly, they didn't address that in writing a creed to resolve the disagreements because it wasn't something they disagreed on.  I'm not sure why this is such a difficult concept to grasp, but apparently it's more challenging than I thought, because it seems to have eluded Martos.

Also, a lot of history seems to have eluded him.  It's awfully convenient to not mention that Constantine invited the bishops to a council at Nicea at the recommendation of a synod of bishops who had already convened to address the Arian heresy.  That omission allows him to present the situation purely as an Imperial act rather than an ecclesial act which requested the help of the Emperor.

Martos presents to us the same old story of the Roman Empire conquering Christianity where the historical evidence looks more like Christianity conquering the empire and then outlasting it.  For Martos, the Church was lost like a sheep in the wilderness and now we must find its skeleton buried on the hillside and try to reinvent it from the bones.

For those of us who've actually read the record of Christian experience, it looks more like the sheep has survived and thrived against all odds, and we suspect that it must be because the Good Shepherd is looking after it.

Note:  Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.

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