Sunday, 7/17/16

  1. Morality vs. Virtue
  2. Giving God the finger
  3. “Is ___ a sin?”
  4. The (right) context of faith
  5. Who needs reenchantment?
  6. Martyred for a conclusion!?
  7. Persistence

1

From the launching pad of Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue:

Morality asks questions of right and wrong. What constitutes right action and why? Virtue asks an even deeper question. What kind of person is able to think and act in a right way? In terms of the gospel, we can see virtue as lying at the heart of Christ’s statement, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” For someone who lacks virtue (is not “pure in heart”) even their reason and perception will be distorted. They will not only fail at doing the good, they will not even be able to see what the good is.

To suggest that we live in a culture in which virtue is absent is thus a very serious charge. It means that we are unable to agree on even the most mundane matters about what is right and wrong. Worse still, we have become the kind of people who are unable to even know the answer to such questions …

If no one is pure in heart, then who can teach us about God? The answer is, Christ Himself. Christ is the one who is pure in heart. He Himself is the man of virtue. And so it is that Christ establishes the Church …

The Church … is the living and abiding remembrance of virtue – the character of Christ Himself …

Today, the parishes of Orthodoxy remain as treasure houses of virtue. There is within them the remembrance of virtue and the fullness of the Divine, life-giving energies. But they are also a mixed-bag. For though all of the treasure remains present, the culture has very deep roots in the lives of many of its members. Their formation is far more driven by the moral confusion and consumerism of the mainstream than it is by the liturgical and dogmatic life of the Church.

I remain convinced that only a major increase in the level and quality of the monastic presence in Western culture will make much of a difference. But, “making a difference,” is God’s business. We ourselves can never really measure such a thing …

Go to Church. Say your prayers. Teach your children. Shop less. Share your stuff. Keep the commandments as we have received them. Pray for the grace to suffer well. Help those around you who are suffering. There is no need to wait for someone else to do it.

Those who plant olive trees know that they will not yield a crop for at least 25 years.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman in The Long-Range Option)

2

I called out those Wednesday who neglect the religious instruction of their children. Well, what goes double for them doubles again for Catholics (and Orthodox):

[T]he Second Vatican Council called the Mass “the source and summit” of Christian life, and the most important thing the church does. Not prayer. Not right belief. Not good deeds. Those things are important. But in the Catholic view, you will not have those things, or you will get them wrong, if you get the liturgy wrong. At Mass, you are filled with the Holy Spirit, who gives you the power and discernment to be holy in the rest of your life. That is the most important thing.

This is why the Catholic Church says it is a mortal sin — an action that will send you to Hell if you do it knowingly and unrepentantly — to not attend Mass on Sundays. This doctrine has become taboo in the modern Catholic world, but if going to Mass is literally the most important thing you can do as a Christian, and if it really is the place where God is literally coming down from Heaven specifically to meet you, by not going you’re essentially giving God the middle finger.

The Mass is that important.

(Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, emphasis added) The Orthodox Church believes substantially the same think about the Liturgy, and one is considered (without much rigor in enforcement, for better or worse) to have excommunicated oneself by missing three successive Sunday Liturgies without permission.

3

I often struggle when people speak of their “sins.” Indeed, it is not unusual to be asked, “Is ___ a sin?” The question always makes me feel like a lawyer.

Imagine that, instead of a doctor, you have a lawyer whom you consult for your medical problems. You are having trouble breathing. You’re short of breath and occasionally you cough up blood. You go to your doctor (lawyer) and he examines you. He doesn’t listen to your chest, take x-rays or do a scan. Instead, he asks you some careful questions.

“Have you ever smoked?”

“No,” You answer.

“Have you ever been exposed to asbestos?”

“No,” you reply again. His questions continue in a similar manner.

“Have you always tried to take good care of your health, eaten correctly, and exercised?”

“Yes,” you say.

“Well, then,” he concludes. “I see no problem here.”

“But I can barely breathe and sometimes I cough up blood.”

“Well, clearly it’s not your fault, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. But how’s that bunion we discussed last time? Have you become truly sorry for buying those cheap shoes?”

Sin is not a legal problem because God is not a lawyer (and neither is a priest if he knows his business). Sin is a death problem. It’s far more like a disease than anything else.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman)

4

The most radical changes that have occurred in Christianity have always been associated with changes in the shape of worship. There is an ancient rule, lex orandi, lex credendi, the “law of praying is the law of believing.” The abstracting of doctrine allows Christians to imagine that the shape of worship is malleable without consequence. History has proven otherwise, time and again.

In reading Scripture, a consistent mistake is to imagine that the meaning is in the text. This is never the case when we read anything. In High School, I found reading Shakespeare to be somewhere beyond boring. I labored over the assigned texts, finding occasional familiar lines, but experiencing an opacity that stood as a barrier. “Why does anybody like this stuff?” I wondered. But in 1968, Zeffirelli produced the film version of Romeo and Juliet. It was an epiphany. Plays are not written to be read – they are written to be played!

The Scriptures are no different. When the Church considered the “canon,” the question was never an abstraction about the text. The authoritative question was centered around what was read in the Church. The gospels are liturgical texts. The epistles are expressly written to be read in the Church. The concern about Revelation was the fact that it was read in so few Churches (had it not been read in the Church of Rome, it would probably not be in the New Testament today).

Reading in the Church will seem unimportant to many, inasmuch as Church has become little more than an audience. Indeed, for those whose experience is a product of the repeated deformations of liturgical life, most of what I am saying will seem absurd. The Reformation restricted meaning to the text itself, separating it from the Church. One immediate result was the fragmentation of the Church (a process that has continued unabated). The text is everything; the Church, incidental.

The liturgical life of the Church, in its fullness, is drama, worship, instruction, character formation, sanctification and illumination. It is more kinesthetic than intellectual. It is of note that the Revelation of St. John describes a liturgy in heaven. Heaven is always depicted in a liturgical form. The liturgy of the Church is a living icon of heaven itself.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Context of Faith)

5

I have a secular friend (“well, as you probably know, I’m not the most religious guy in the world …”) who has a quirky outlook on life, but sometimes hits upon a truth: “Why should I go to church for some songs and an uplifting talk? I can get those anywhere.”

His church was mainstream Presbyterian. His approach is akin to the God is Dead kerfuffle of 50 years ago:

The central fact of American religion today is that liberal Protestantism is dead and everywhere triumphant. Its churches are empty, but its causes have won. In 1995, the sociologist N. J. Demerath observed that mainline Protestantism has a paradoxical status in American life. It has experienced both “institutional defeat” and “cultural victory.”

Liberal Protestantism made people like my friend confident in their intrinsic ability to figure things out, and thus made itself irrelevant. (If we were really that competent, institutional seppuku would be only the right thing to do, of course.)

But is your Protestant church, however conservative or orthodox, really anything more than that songs and inspirational talk? How can it put forth simultaneously the all-sufficiency of scripture and the necessity of the church?

While there is a moral, political, and spiritual story to be told about the emergence of our “secular” age, in many ways the roots are metaphysical. Or perhaps better: the spiritual shifts are at the same time metaphysical shifts.
In ancient, biblical, medieval understandings of the world, creation is “suspended” in God – the entire cosmos “participates” in the sustaining divine in such a way that the material is once charged with the grandeur of God — and thereby expanded and stretched into a fullness it could never possess on its own.
I expect it will be forms of reenchanted Christianity that will actually have a future. Protestant excarnation has basically ceded its business to others: if you are looking for a message, and inspirational idea, some top-up fuel for your intellectual receptacle – well, there are entire cultural industries happy to provide that. Why would you need the church? You can watch Ellen or Oprah or a TED talk.

(James K.A. Smith at the Eighth Day Symposium 2015)

Or Christianity that never lost the enchantment and needs no “reenchanting.”

6

Reason is not something that inspires greatness in a man. Newman explained that “this is why science has so little of a religious tendency; deductions have no power of persuasion.” He goes longer explain that man is not primarily a reasoning; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal. Newman says that “the heart is commonly reached, not through the reason but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma; no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.”

(Bishop James Conley at the Eighth Day Symposium 2015)

7

Seth Godin:

For a generation after people realized that smoking would kill them, many smart, informed people still smoked. Then, many of them stopped.

After discovering that an expensive luxury good is made out of the same materials as a cheaper alternative, many people stick with the expensive one. And then they gradually stop going out of their way to pay more.

After a technology breakthrough makes it clear that a new approach is faster, cheaper and more reliable, many people stick with the old way. Until they don’t.

And inevitably, it doesn’t matter how much people discover about their favorite candidate, they seem impervious to revelations, facts and the opinions of others. For a while, sometimes a very long while. But then, they assert that all along they knew something was amiss and find a new person to align with.

Computers don’t work this way. Cats don’t have a relationship like this with hot stoves. Imaginary logical detectives always get the message the first time.

For the rest of us, though, the flip isn’t something that happens at the first glance or encounter with new evidence.

This doesn’t mean the evidence doesn’t matter.

It means that we’re bad at admitting we were wrong.

Bad at giving up one view of the world to embrace the other.

Mostly, we’re bad at abandoning our peers, our habits and our view of ourselves.

If you want to change people’s minds, you need more than evidence. You need persistence. And empathy. And mostly, you need the resources to keep showing up, peeling off one person after another, surrounding a cultural problem with a cultural solution.

Godin presumably had business in mind, but I’ve been “persistent” for many years now, extolling the Orthodox Church, calling the desired change “epiphany” rather than “flip,” and aware that the stakes are higher than wasted money.

My epiphanies 20 years ago, in case you haven’t seen them before:

  • The “sola” part of sola scriptura itself is not scriptural, and that doctrine in its popular distortion is almost certainly the culprit in multiplying schisms in Christendom. Father John Whiteford provided the illumination, coincidentally or providentially. In any event, it caught me receptive.
  • “One holy catholic and apostolic church” in the Nicene Creed does not mean “everyone who believes in Jesus is invisibly somehow united with everyone else who does, and we call that ‘Church.'” When you understand that, the plausible candidates get narrowed to those Churches with unbroken continuity back to the apostles. For my money, that means Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy (depending on which of the two you think was the schismatic side in the Great Schism).

* * * * *

“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.