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Monday, September 19, 2011  

Theology That Matters

Something that landed on the cutting room floor when I was working on my Savage article for The Christian Century was a description of the poem cycle Handlyng Synne by Robert Mannyng. It's a series of stories illustrating the Ten Commandments. For the sixth, a man and his wife flee their enemies and hide out in a monastery. Housed in a room adjoining the church, the couple have sex one night. God is displeased by this, so he keeps them stuck together. After many tears of compunction, the prayers of the monks unstick them.

This is charming literature, but as ethics it's useless and as theology it's worse. Superstitious, magical, irrelevant to the actual sin, and more to the point, it doesn't even touch on the law and gospel of adultery. And yet it's not at all unrepresentative of Christian attempts to teach the unruly faithful about the proper expression of sexuality (contemporary parables about chewed gum come to mind).

That we haven't consistently learned from the futility of stories about the magic, scandalized God is part of a larger problem with Christian thought, one that I have not been able to shake since reading Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison again (more on them here and here). Bonhoeffer chartered a lot of post-war theology with those letters, good and bad, and I don't think we've come to the end of the challenges he left us. Forgive the lengthy excerpt:

Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the "working hypothesis" called "God." In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without "God"--and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, "God" is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.

Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians agree that it is in this development that the great defection from God, from Christ, is to be seen; and the more they claim and play off God and Christ against it, the more the development considers itself to be anti-Christian. The world that has become conscious of itself and the laws that govern its own existence has grown self-confident in what seems to us to be an uncanny way. False developments and failures do not make the world doubt the necessity of the course that it is taking, or of its development; they are accepted with fortitude and detachment as part of the bargain, and even and event like the present war is no exception. Christian apologetic has taken the most varied forms of opposition to this self-assurance. Efforts are made to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of "God." Even though there was been surrender on all secular problems, there still remain the so-called "ultimate questions"--death, guilt--to which only "God" can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the church and the pastor. So we live, in some degree, on these so-called ultimate questions of humanity. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered "without God"?...

The attack by Christian apologetic on the adulthood of the world I consider in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place unchristian. Pointless, because it seems to me like an attempt to put a grown-up man back into adolescence, i.e., to make him dependent on things on which he is, in fact, no longer dependent, and thrusting him into problems that are, in fact, no longer problems to him. Ignoble, because it amounts to an attempt to exploit man's weakness for purposes that are alien to him and to which he has not freely assented. Unchristian because it confuses Christ with one particular stage in man's religiousness, i.e., with a human law.

I don't know that I'd accept this account quite at face value--I'm reluctant to ever say that humanity has "come of age," though this is perhaps a separate question from whether the world as a system of thought and action has weaned itself from the old gods. Anyway, apart from niggling details, I still think this is a hurdle theological writing needs to clear to be of any real value. The Pope is right to diagnose western European societies with "amnesia" about the deep sources of their cherished values and institutions, but I wonder what exactly his point is in doing so. A remembered past is more like a forgotten past than it is like a living present. Even if we manage to convince Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins that the cosmopolitan humanism they claim to hold dear is not the contradiction but the fruit of Europe's Christian heritage, what of it? These "values" are doing as well or as poorly on their own as they ever did under our religious tutelage, and in fact I'd see a Pyhrric victory in gaining the concession. Well done, tutor-Church; here's your watch and your pension, and we'll get on without you now.

So I've come to think that anyone peddling some ancient virtue of obedience, or a return to a more-Christian past, or God as a backstop for our preferred values or ways of life, or a cosmic "or else" enforcing our ideas of right and wrong from the margin of lived experience, is basically wasting your time.* Yes, we all enjoy using Law to mark out who's in and who's out, who's good and who's bad (the Gospel is useless for this purpose). Few of us church folk are really and totally averse to inviting God along with our argument to provide a tingle of fear in our adversaries. And I in particular am guilty of savoring the arguments of 1530 as if they bore any weight in the world today. But in light of Bonhoeffer's remarkably clear-eyed view of the place theology finds itself in, it's pretty obvious that these are unhappy substitutes for speaking to the world. They issue in power madness when we feel ourselves on top and in petulant withdrawal when we think we're losing.

On the other hand, you may as well hear out anyone--Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, "progressive," "traditionalist"--who is willing to engage with a world that does not acknowledge a God-shaped hole that we can fill with our specialized knowledge. I don't by any means imagine that I'm all that good at this. One of the things I appreciate about the Century is that it isn't trying to exercise any compulsion over the world. Maybe there isn't any future for that sort of thing--maybe, as Joe Carter enjoys imagining, we're on our way to the dustbin of history lonely and unlamented because we are not willing to condemn and judge as if the world were, in fact, listening to us. The percentages might be higher in goosing our little tribe into a stronger sense of solidarity by waving the totems. It all depends on what you imagine the purpose of invoking God to be, I suppose.

*NB: This is not to say that we shouldn't read, cherish, absorb, and learn from the old masters and the historic interpretations of Christian virtues. I in fact find Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and many others more bracing than I find much contemporary theology. But this is because they were speaking so fully to their time; they weren't engaging in the ridiculous Rip Van Winkle act that someone like C.S. Lewis engaged in during his weaker moments. And it's no knock on them that they can't speak to our age, and define it, just as they did their own.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:28 PM
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