What is Religion?
In the next few chapters, I am inevitably going to have to use some much debated terms, such as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism. To the left hemisphere these look like categories that should be definable; to the right hemisphere they are the products of experience of loose constellations of phenomena, which have a family resemblance.
Iain McGillchrist, The Master and His Emissary, Chapter 9 (The Renaissance and the Reformation).
I remember a cartoon in a youth-oriented Christian magazine 50 years or so ago, wherein an “educated” person was claiming that “All religions are fundamentally alike under their superficial differences. I’ll show you: just name any two religions.” The response was “Micronesian frog worship and Christian Science.”
I have been, and remain, a bit skeptical of the term “religion,” but I suppose major religions might fall into the category of “loose constellations of phenomena, which have a family resemblance.”
There are even mutually exclusive Christianities
There is a Christianity that tells us God plans to save us from our sins: To heal our passions, conform our character to His, and make us capable of union with Him. And there is a Christianity that tells us God wants you to be happy in this life. These two Christianities are mutually exclusive.
There are certainly times of happiness for the disciple of Christ – and at least seeds of joy which can be brought to bloom through the practice of gratefulness, humility, and love. But in 21st-century America, perhaps Christianity’s most counter-cultural message is that God isn’t really interested in making you happy; the Gospel is about the Kingdom of God, not about you, and Christ unconditionally promises His people, “In this world you will have tribulation.” (Jn 16:33)
Fr Silouan Thompson, Your Best Life?. (H/T John Brady)
In our post-Christian Christendom, though, ghosts live on, not merely between salvation Christianity and happiness Christianity, but in how people prattle about Christianity.
A pet peeve example is people mis-identifying important peripheral matters as the core of Christianity. Phillip Rieff captures what’s wrong, and what’s almost right, about a major example:
Rightly ordered sexuality is not at the core of Christianity, but as Rieff saw, it’s so near to the center that to lose the Bible’s clear teaching on this matter is to risk losing the fundamental integrity of the faith.
Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option
It drives me batty when people prattle that sexuality (or variants thereof) are “the very core of Christianity” (or variants thereof). It tells me that the prattler is merely a culturally Christian conservative, or that he has a very tenuous connection between brain and the various organs of expression (mouth, fingertips, etc.).
But I had forgotten this quoted sentence, which I think is a much more accurate formulation, and gives the prattler’s at least a little bit of cover.
Cremation and Christianity
I went to a funeral home visitation of a friend recently, and what quickly struck me was that there was no casket, only an urn, presumably with the “cremains” of my friend.
Cremation hits me like a gut punch, and that reaction is getting worse. It wasn’t always so, even though I never, even in my giddiest infatuation was all things modern in my youth, thought I’d like cremation.
And it’s not just that Orthodox Christianity is dead-set against cremation. I know full well that not all Christians are Orthodox. But I’d like them actually to be Christian, and to have a Christian anthropology.
Part of my reaction to this most recent visitation, I’m pretty sure, was that everything about my friend’s obituary and visitation bespoke that she and her spouse had ceased observing any form of the Christian faith they professed when I first got to know them. They became nice, comfortable, and secular.
But earlier this year, I went to a visitation for another friend whose body likewise wasn’t present in his big-box, bare-black-wall warehouse church. So why did that bother me?
I mentioned my visceral reaction to my Protestant wife, whose parents also chose cremation. She repeated a fairly standard defense of cremation, though neither of us will be cremated: that God is capable of resurrecting a cremated body (fair enough; of course God can do that), and that cremation today is not an effort to defy God and avoid resurrected condemnation (probably true, but only because a lot of Christians believe in the resurrection of something than yucky old bodies).
Cremation says “Our bodies don’t matter, and maybe even are evil. (Insert prooftext, like maybe Romans 7:18.) We’re really spirits.” You can see that same attitude in the way moderns and postmoderns almost all speak about death as being a liberation from the body.
I do not believe that. Death indeed separates soul and body, but we’re not meant to be disembodied, and the resurrection restores the body-soul unity that God intends. The separation of soul and body is not a liberation, but a violent insult, wanting redress. When the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ ascended to His Father, he ascended in the body and His glorified, incarnate body is seated at His Father’s right hand. That should bring us up short if we discount our bodies.
For that reason, the dead body should be treated with respect, treated as part of the person who has died, not as an apartment they’ve vacated, and laid to rest intact — not because God cannot resurrect a body from ashes, but because cremation symbolically reinforces a sub-Christian doctrine of man, one that is rampant in our culture and even in many of our Churches. It’s as much for the living as from respect for the dead that we treat bodies with due respect, not as trash.
Maybe I’ll fret my way to a clearer articulation of a feeling that’s pre-verbal, but that can do for now.
Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
One reason for epistemic humility is that we are all, to some extent, creatures of our age, and our age will one day (here or hereafter) be recognized as full of errors.
The words of Judas
I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core).
Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Erotic Language of Prayer
Barbarians capture Wheaton, but a few escape
The real problem at Wheaton College runs deeper than culture-war effervescence: Few students care about or even understand the mission of Christian intellectual formation. At Wheaton, when students pick up a book for a course, they usually ask only two questions: “Will this help me get a prestigious job?” and “Will this further my personal relationship with my savior?” Wheaton students tend to focus on practical career training and individual spirituality, giving little thought to how liberal learning can enhance one’s spiritual life or the importance of intellectual formation in the Christian tradition.
[E]ven humanities students get caught up in the careerist mindset, talking about their education as if it was merely one consumer preference among many. Though these students enjoy their studies, they do not see intrinsic value in learning and passing down Christian culture across the ages. The humanities can be an edifying hobby, but non-professional intellectual formation has no claim to any special, protected, or elevated status for many humanities students at Wheaton.
Wheaton’s culture of ahistoricism is even more pronounced than its careerism. On the surface, there seems to be little appetite for experiencing one’s faith as an inheritance transmitted through thousands of years of Christian civilization. But the fact that many evangelical students who enter Wheaton denominationally indifferent end up leaving as converts to Anglicanism, Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy suggests that such an appetite is not whetted through the college. Its administration and trustees would do well to remember that the body of Christ isn’t merely alive in the present but transcends time and space. Full participation in the body of Christ requires knowledge of one’s place in that living chain.
James Diddams, The Real Problem at Wheaton College.
Of the many Wheaton students who leave as Anglicans, Catholics or Orthodox, I’d draw the opposite conclusion that Wheaton does, however inadvertently, however inadvertently, whet the appetite for what Richard John Neuhaus called “ecclesial Christianity,” defined as that Christianity in which faith in Christ and faith in Christ’s Church is one act of faith, not two.
The ephemeral pleasure of the in crowd
By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic. Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can be really enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.”
C.S. Lewis, The Inner Ring, an essay in The Weight of Glory
Myth and epiphany
To the considerable extent that questions of value, of right and wrong, of justice and of beauty cannot be experimentally or rationally resolved, myth allows many individuals to share an epiphany, a vision of truth granting them a basis for accepting certain normative standards for which there are no clear or convincing proof … [M]yth assures mankind that certain values transcend reason to give human existence meaning within an unchanging frame of reference, while ensuring unity among the members of the community concerning these values. This unity of values is the hallmark of culture. Without this unity regarding the imponderables, civilized actions become impossible, and man is cast upon the shabby mythology of his own random dream-world and is at the mercy of state and natural religions.
David V. Hicks, Norms and Nobility
Conversion from paganism was a really big deal
When a gentile convert stood in the baptistery on Easter’s eve and, before descending naked into the waters, turned to the West to renounce the devil and the devil’s ministers, he was rejecting, and in fact reviling, the gods in bondage to whom he had languished all his life; and when he turned to the East to confess Christ, he was entrusting himself to the invincible hero who had plundered hell of its captives, overthrown death, subdued the powers of the air, and been raised the Lord of history. Life, for the early Church, was spiritual warfare; and no baptized Christian could doubt how great a transformation—of the self and the world—it was to consent to serve no other god than Him whom Christ revealed.
Dreher, touring Southeast Turkey, including ancient Ephesus, continues:
I had … prickly discussion with one of the members of our group, an American Christian who said he didn’t understand wars of religion, and religious conflict. He described religious difference as an unimportant matter of personal preference — and did this in a way that is very familiar in 21st century American life. He seemed to think that the pagans of Ephesus had no reason to fear the Christians, and were mean to them for no reason. I politely challenged him, but after a few barbed exchanges, we dropped the subject. For the early church in Ephesus, this wasn’t a potayto-potahto issue.
That other American could use a bit of epistemic humility, no?
[S]ubordinating truth to politics is a game which tyrants and bullies always win.
Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge
To believe that wealth is the only significant measure of the worth of an individual, a family, or a community is to reject the teaching of nearly every religion and wisdom tradition that ever was.
Mark Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry
The Orthodox "phronema" [roughly, mind-set] cannot be programmitized or reduced to shibboleths.
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