I blogged just yesterday, on the occasion of his death, about the odd metanarratives of “religion” Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens gratuitously spun in some of his religion clause opinions. I acknowledged (boasted?) that nobody else had noticed the falsity of his metanarrative.
And the response to yesterday’s blog seems to be that nobody noticed. Or they noticed and averted their eyes from my nakedness.
Today, in heat indices forecasted to reach 109° F and with a diagnosis of a torn ankle tendon requiring immobility, I decided to (among other things) catch up on some blogs I set aside because the author is always too substantive for a quick read.
And boy, was I ever rewarded! Sometimes, serendipity!
To appreciate why I was so delighted, you’ll need to go back to yesterday’s blog, painful though that may be, and see the parallels between what I wrote about what I called “integral Christianity” and what I found in The Struggle Against The Normal Life:
- a better description of classical Christianity (I guess I was becoming a classical Christian long before I became one formally)
- a contrast between it and modern Christianities (of the sort Justice Stevens had in mind),
- acknowledgement that modern Christianities are ascendant, if facile and false, and
- a call to the repentance and asceticism necessary to maintain classically Christian belief amid the hegemony of heterodoxy.
Excerpts (generous, but not exhaustive; this one needs to be read in full, then read again and again):
Within the Christianity of our time, the great spiritual conflict, unknown to almost all, is between a naturalistic/secular world of modernity and the sacramental world of classical Christianity. The first presumes that a literal take on the world is the most accurate. It tends to assume a closed system of cause and effect, ultimately explainable through science and manageable through technology. Modern Christians, quite innocently, accept this account of the world with the proviso that there is also a God who, on occasion, intervenes within this closed order. The naturalist unbeliever says, “Prove it.”
The sacramental world of classical Christianity speaks a wholly different language. It presumes that the world as we see it is an expression of a greater reality that is unseen. It presumes that everything is a continuing gift and a means of communion with the good God who created it. The meaning and purpose of things is found in that which is not seen, apart from which we can only reach false conclusions. The essential message of Christ, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” is a proclamation of the primacy of this unseen world and its coming reign in the restoration of all things (apokatastasis, cf. Acts 3:21).
The assumptions of these two worldviews could hardly be more contradictory. The naturalistic/secular model has the advantage of sharing a worldview with contemporary culture. As such, it forms part of what most people would perceive as “common sense” and “normal.” Indeed, the larger portion of Christian believers within that model have no idea that any other Christian worldview exists.
The classical/sacramental worldview was the only Christian worldview for most of the centuries prior to the Reformation. Even then, that worldview was only displaced through revolution and state sponsorship. Nonetheless, the sacramental understanding continues within the life of the Orthodox Church, as well as many segments of Catholicism. Its abiding presence in the Scriptures guarantees that at least a suspicion of “something else” will haunt some modern Christian minds.
The classical model is, in fact, the teaching found in the Scriptures. It utterly rejects the notion of spiritual knowledge belonging to the same category as the naturalistic/secular world. It clearly understands that the truth of things is perceived only through the heart (nous) and that an inward change is required. It is impossible to encounter the truth and remain unchanged.
The classical model, particularly as found within Orthodoxy, demands repentance and asceticism as a normative part of the spiritual life. These actions do not earn a reward, but are an inherent part of the cleansing of the heart and the possibility of perceiving the truth.
The struggle between classical/sacramental Christianity and modernity (including its various Christianities) is not a battle over information. The heart of the struggle is for sacramental Christianity to simply remain faithful to what it is. That struggle is significant, simply for the fact that it takes place within a dominant culture that is largely its antithesis.
A complicating factor in this struggle is the fact that the dominant culture (naturalistic/secular) has taken up traditional Christian vocabulary and changed its meaning. This creates a situation in which classical Christianity is in constant need of defining and understanding its own language in contradistinction to the prevailing cultural mind. The most simple terms, “faith, belief, Baptism, Communion, icon, forgiveness, sin, repentance,” are among those things that have to be consistently re-defined. Every conversation outside a certain circle requires this effort, and, even within that circle, things are not always easy.
Such an effort might seem exhausting. The only position of relaxation within the culture is the effortless agreement with what the prevailing permutations tell us on any given day. Human instinct tends towards the effortless life – and the secular mentality constantly reassures us that only the effortless life is normal. Indeed, “normal, ordinary, common,” and such terms, are all words invented by modernity as a self-description. Such concepts are utterly absent from the world of Scripture. Oddly, no one lived a “normal” life until relatively recently.
That which is “normal” is nothing of the sort. It is the purblind self-assurance that all is well when nothing is well.
(Fr. Stephen Freeman, emphasis added)
So, among other (much more important) things, I should not be surprised that “the sacramental world of classical Christianity” was unknown to Justice Stevens, just as it is “unknown to almost all.”
This does nothing to relieve my concerns about his false metanarrative making its way into Supreme Court precedents. I can only hope that it’s seen as the obiter dicta that it is.
* * * * *
I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).