Thursday, June 01, 2017
I have not yet read The Benedict Option. But I have been exposed to quite a bit of what Rod Dreher (who is Greek Orthodox) has to say in the book, which has been foreshadowed in his very readable and informative blog. He has boundless energy and often good judgment in assessing political and social questions. Above all he is concerned with the survival of the Christian faith and Christian culture alive in the current American climate. He writes against the background of the sudden disappearance of ‘Christian America’ and the withering of the assumption that with the right appointments in the Supreme Court, and the electoral success of the Republican Party, the safety and prosperity of the Christian Church in America would be assured. Not so, as we clearly see. See in the US and (with the corresponding changes), and see in the UK and in Western Europe more generally.
The link with St. Benedict and the monastic life with Dreher’s proposals of what to do is a bit misleading, I think. It suggests (despite protestations to the contrary) to Reformed Protestants the formation of groups who flee to the wilderness, and who set up a monastery, or similar, devoted to the liturgy of the Church and to works of charity But I think that the substance, or the centre of gravity, of the BO is rather different. This is not an argument to flee from all that is anti-Christian. Dreher’s recommendation is not this. He is concerned with the Christian family, with the education of the young, with the inter-generational support of the young and the fear of being lost or at best marginalized. Particularly he is concerned with the induction of the rising generation in the traditions and identity of the church, and of being a Christian. And to weigh these of things against a manner of life that will currently and forseeably leads to Christian compromise.
But there will be no advice from Dreher to instruct one’s Benedict group in 2K and its implications, for he adopts a more relaxed view to church traditions. After all, his is a reaction to a situation in which Christianisation of society is declining. It is an exercise in re-christianisation.
Take for example the issue of education. Forty or sixty years ago the state system could be relied on to uphold a general moral framework, regarding behavior, language and sexual morality. So that to seek Christian education for one’s children by attaching them to a Christian school was regarded by the education by the state system as over-protection. The simple argument was ‘If sooner or later children grow up and have to take their place in the wider world, the sooner they meet such knocks as they’ll receive when they grow up the better’. The state school was regarded as a microcosm of wider society. Knocks received at school foreshadowed the wider knocks of life. We did not realize that what was then regarded as normality, permanence, was rather fragile and rose-tinted. ‘Normality’ was in fact the last waltz of Victorian and Edwardian social mores, kept in place by legislation. Remove that legislation (as it is now largely removed) and it lost its support in the new generations. What was change to the older was normality to the newer. One of the features of modern western societies hastening change is how they have come to identify morality with legality.
If it is self-consistent, 2K takes a different generational approach than this. The presence of two kingdoms is a fundamental teaching of Jesus, not a political re-positioning for tactical advantage. The Benedict Option does not recognize it as mandatory. In Christianity there is always the kingdom of God and of his Christ, and the kingdom of this world. In not recognizing this the BO was making a serious error.
It is not that the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ is a woolly metaphor for which by alliances with kings and emperors, with the ‘elites’ as we now talk, the church can ‘Christianise’ politics and so protect its own identity, and secure its flourishing, is a serious theological error. Christ refers to ‘his kingdom’ as having spiritual, ethical and political consequences, and it is defined or characterised without any positive references to the kingdoms of this world.
A glance at data in the NT shows that the kingdom of God, or of Christ, is closely integrated into the work of Christ for us……It is the subject matter of his teaching, and of umpteen of his parables, in which the growth of the kingdom - secret, inexorable - is emphasized, and its sharp contrast with the kingdoms of this world is clearly defined. It has a manifesto, but not one such matters as housing, or social care, or Brexit, or the cost of domestic electricity. Not even policies on education. For it is a kingdom that is not of his world, ‘else would my servants fight’, or drum up electoral support, or identify it with certain political or social initiatives, or a foreign policy for the Middle East.
Its central soteriological significance can be seen in texts such as Luke 7.28, Christ’s assertion that whoever is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist. The kingdom is a dispensational matter. Or ‘For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.' (Rom.14.17) Glossing that, we might say that the kingdom of God has not to do with social policy of any kind, particularly, (in this instance) with dietary regimes. Being obese or skinny is not a matter of the kingdom. Or how about ‘He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son’? (Col.1.13). Being in the kingdom is the result of the enlightening and vivifying work of the Father. Or, ‘Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fail. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. (2 Pet. 1.10-11) The qualities referred to are the various virtues outlined earlier in the chapter.
What such data underline in the reference to 2K, is that there is a serious equivocation of ‘kingdom’ as between the this-worldly kingdom and other-worldly kingdom. A person with a British and a Swedish passport (say) may be said to be a member of two kingdoms, but this is not a case of 2K. Such a kingdom may be a member of the United Nations, but Christ’s kingdom can never be. How we relate to a decaying culture and society is a matter of the individual Christian and the family. You may think that the Benedict Option is for you and your house. Others may be able to make a career in Caesar’s household, or as a slave, or as tentmakers, (to give New Testament options). Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind.
Monday, May 01, 2017
The new book may be thought of as an exercise in consistency, or better in Christian integrity. None of us have any difficulty in finding warm and comforting words from the Bible: Psalm 23, or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, or the way Jesus welcomed children, or fed the hungry and healed the sick. But the Bible has a darker side. Not only Jesus’ kind words and deeds, but his anger, his driving men from the Temple with a hand-made whip, his pointed remarks about the division his teaching will cause, and his statements on Hell as well as on Heaven, for example.
In this book Melvin is dealing with this darker side. If the Christian teaching about the Bible being one book, with one overall theme or message, is true, we must not overlook its darker side. The darker side of Jesus’ ministry, but also the deeds of the ‘God of the Old Testament’. In a day when the Bible is dissected by the critics, or divided by specialists, this in itself is a welcome emphasis. The Bible is the one word of God, and its entirety is to be taken seriously and faced honestly. The darker side cannot simply be brushed under the carpet. Apart from anything else, this is simply to push the culture further away from the sunnier side of its teaching. For as was aptly said, ‘If you belittle the disease you belittle the physician.’ The Lord our God is one Lord. Integrity demands that we form a consistent judgment of both the shadows and the sunshine.
Preparatory to this, we need to be reminded of God’s character. Any attentive reader of the Bible can see that it is impossible to make sense of it without the idea that God has a mind of his own. He is not simply the rather ineffective help to satisfying the latest desires of men and women. In any case, these are constantly shifting, with an ever-enlarging portfolio of ‘rights’ to benefit from. God is not a human agent, not even a human prime minister or president or business leader, but our Creator and Lord. He is not driven by his desires to please us, but is just and holy. Because of this his love, disclosed in his covenant with Abraham and in Jesus the Mediator of the Covenant, is not moody, but deep and unwavering, rooted in his own unchanging character, and involving the humiliation and death of God incarnate. God did not spare his Son but delivered him up for us all.
God has a plan. Much of the detail of this plan is hidden from us, but it is clear that it involves the choice of a people, the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of blessing of them through a gracious covenant. This arrangement both allows for the people’s chastisement if and when their fidelity to the covenant falters, and their protection from the attacks of surrounding nations intent on snuffing them out. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, says that in the Old Testament the people of God were under age, ‘under guardians and managers’ while being surrounded by bitter enemies. Both the correction and protection of his people required that their God undertook acts of holy discipline and destruction.
In other words, Melvin is arguing from the Bible itself, that it is necessary to contextualize the darker side of things. These are not isolated events which show us that God, is capable of losing his temper, or of being vicious and bloodthirsty. This is not how the destruction of the Canaanites is to be seen. Rather they are instances of his protective care of his people, just as the disobedience of his own people has to be visited with the destructive-corrective action of God. These are parts of one consistent picture, what Melvin refers to as the non-partisan action of God. Not an isolated case of bullying or of loss of composure, but the understanding of God as ‘the judge of all the earth’ who ‘does what is just’. Though God is high and lifted up, nonetheless he has a deep commitment of grace and love to his unprepossessing people. The nations surrounding Israel were not pure and innocent, but idolatrous and abominable. Their actions revealed their detestable character, calling for righteous punishment.
God does not suddenly grow up, as if the caterpillar of the Old Testament becomes the butterfly of the New Testament. However, his revelation does develop from being focussed exclusively on Israel to his concern for the international church of Jesus Christ. This is the true, the full, ‘Israel of God. ’It is in Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, that we see God’s wrath and grace best refracted.
To spell out these dark themes in some detail is characteristic of the courage and commitment to the truth that is Melvin’s outlook. Some of this makes uncomfortable reading, but then Melvin’s aim is not to ‘speak to us smooth words….illusions’, but to be faithful to the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As he says, both Testaments portray ‘God in his holiness as implacably opposed to all sin which issues in judgment, and yet in his love he shows mercy which calls for repentance’.
Saturday, April 01, 2017
When in the City of God Augustine compares the two cities and their inhabitants in some way, the theme of pilgrimage becomes prominent. As in chapter 17 of Book 19, ‘The grounds of the concord and discord between the cities of on earth as being engaged in pilgrimage.(City of God, 17.19) Such people live by faith and at the same time take advantage of the peace of the earthly city. They live ‘as it were, in captivity, and having received the promise of redemption, and diverse spiritual gifts as seals thereof, it willingly obeys such laws of the temporal city as order things pertaining to the sustenance of this moral life, to the end that both the cities might observe a peace in such things as are pertinent thereunto.’
This peace [that is, the peace of the heavenly city], is that unto which the pilgrim in faith, refers to the other peace, which he has here in his pilgrimage; and then lives he according to faith, when all that he does for the obtaining thereof is by himself referred unto God, and his neighbour withal, because, being a citizen, he must not be all for himself, but sociable in his life and actions.(City of God, 19.17)
Another ingredient in his two cities view was his recognition of the ‘ordinary daily judgments’ of God ( City of God, 20.1) as operating on the just as well as the unjust. His view was not that the profession of Christianity afforded a cover of protection against daily troubles and disappointments, a bubble in which those within could see the problems of others while having none of their own. But as we have seen in his preaching for Augustine, being a pilgrim was fuelled by a disparagement of the achievements and standards of this world, and by the celebration of its passing and its supplanting by the eternal city of God.
He also has another argument for the same conclusion, an appeal to the ‘all things come alike to all’ outlook of the book of Ecclesiastes. (City of God, 20. 2,3) Though we have seen Augustine’s move to a view of history as ‘secular’, as not providing in the events of providence further any developments of his saving purposes, which were completed at the Ascension of the Saviour, nonetheless in this era God continues his judgments through providence. ‘[M]an, sometimes in public, but continually in secret feels the hand of Almighty God punishing him for his transgressions and misdeeds, either in this life or the next.’
Thus in the things where God’s judgments are not to be discovered, His counsel is not to be neglected. We know not why God makes this bad man rich, and that good man poor; why he should have joy, whose deserts we hold worthier of pains, and he pains, whose good life we imagine to merit content; why the judge’s corruption or the falseness of the witnesses should send the innocent away condemned, and the injurious foe should depart revenged, as well as unpunished; why the wicked man should live sound, and the godly lie bedrid; why lusty youths should turn thieves, and those who never did hurt in word be plagued with extremity of sickness; why infants, of good use in the world, should be cut off by untimely death, while they that seem unworthy ever to have been born attain long and happy life; or why the guilty should be honoured, and the godly oppressed; and such contrast as these – which who could count, or recount? (City of God, 20. 2)
Augustine’s argument is that neither the incidence of ups nor of downs in life correlates with personal character. God’s judgments are unsearchable, and his ways inscrutable.
Although, then, we see no cause why God should do thus or thus, He is whom is all wisdom and justice, and no weakness nor rashness, nor injustice, yet here we learn that we should not esteem too highly those goods or misfortunes, which the bad share with the righteous; but should seek the good peculiar to the one, and avoid the evil reserved for the other. (City of God, 20. 2)
In the next chapter he supports this by discussion of Solomon’s reflections in Ecclesiastes. This rule of historical interpretation, to treat the character of human lives as neither evidence for nor as evidence against the blessing of God, severely limits the historical judgments that observers may make as to the blessing or judgment of God, and makes the construction of a theological commentary of the period an impossibility. Nevertheless the apparent randomness of the happenings has lessons for those that have eyes to see.
The full version of this paper along with the others from the recent Affinity Theology Conference will be put on their website shortly