Running a white flag up the pole?

James K.A. Smith published a challenge to the recent use of “orthodox Christian” in polemics. He did so in a blog he describes as “my space for ‘thinking out loud,’ an arena for practice at writing quickly and off-the-cuff.” Comments are not an option, and I had no immediate response to his challenge anyway.

But I’m now ready to respond to this sort of thing:

Historically, the measure of “orthodox” Christianity has been conciliar; that is, orthodoxy was rooted in, and measured by, the ecumenical councils and creeds of the church (Nicea, Chalcedon) which were understood to have distilled the grammar of “right belief” (ortho, doxa) in the Scriptures.  As such, orthodoxy centers around the nature of God (Triune), the Incarnation, the means of our salvation, the church, and the life to come.  The markers of orthodoxy are tied to the affirmations of, say, the Nicene Creed: the creatorhood of God; the divine/human nature of the Incarnate Son; the virgin birth; the historicity of Jesus’ life and death; the affirmation of his bodily resurrection and ascension; the hope of the second coming; the triune affirmation of Father, Son, and Spirit; the affirmation of “one holy catholic and apostolic church”; one baptism; and the hope of our own bodily resurrection.

Contrast this with most invocations of “orthodox Christianity” today. In some contexts, the use of the word “orthodox” seems to have nothing to do with these historic markers of Christian faith.  Indeed, in many cases “orthodox Christianity” means only one thing: a particular view of sexuality and marriage ….

You probably can imagine where the off-the-cuff comments go from there. Smith allows that the “particular view of sexuality and marriage” is “traditional,” but not orthodox, properly speaking.

My own response is two-fold:

First, the use of “orthodox” that Smith complains of is not inappropriate.

Smith’s conception of orthodoxy is unduly narrow. On this, he “had me going for a minute” because of my love of the creed and its importance.

But the Creed is not a comprehensive expression of orthodoxy, and was never meant to be. It (as tweaked at Chalcedon) was first and foremost a repudiation of fourth-century Christological heresies. It is silent on things that were not at serious issue.

But the view of sexuality and marriage in question is “orthodox” because it is within the scope of the Vincentian Canon, that “all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywherealways, by all.” (I cringe when I hear someone say things like sexual morality is “at the heart of the faith,” but that’s a different matter.)

I do thank Smith, however, for giving me at least this one opportunity to feel smarter than him about something, to-wit: the purpose of the Creed, and indeed of the Councils in general.

Second, the people who thus use “orthodox Christianity” are onto something important even if the questioned use of “orthodoxy” were inappropriate or inadvisable. That something is far more important that Smith’s derision allows:

So when people are said to suffer for their “orthodox” beliefs, or when we are told that “orthodox” Christians will be hounded from public life and persecuted in their professions, a closer reading shows that it is not their beliefs in the Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, or Resurrection that occasion these problems, but rather their beliefs about morality, and sexual morality in particular.  There don’t seem to be any bakers refusing to bake cakes for atheists,* and I’ve yet to hear of Silicon Valley CEOs being fired because they affirm the Incarnation of the Son or the resurrection of the dead.

The important thing they’re onto, that Smith misses or pretends to miss, is related to why Donald Trump is President today.

Smith’s derision suggests that so long as “orthodox Christians” can worship and believe as they wish within their four walls, everything is copacetic. I’m sniffing at least the beginning of a sequel to “keep your rosaries off my ovaries,” and more than a whiff of the cribbed locution “freedom of worship” rather than “free exercise of religion.”

Evangelical voters (and some other religious) knew that the Democrats, at the top levels including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, have taken the unhistoric and subversive “freedom of worship” tack, and opposition to that was a significant factor in electing the non-Democrat narcissist adolescent currently holding forth at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

So even if “orthodox Christian” is inappropriate, something along the lines of “robustly and actively Christian” is surely appropriate — robust and active Christians not being willing to confine their faith to one hour per week and the four walls of a church building.

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So why do I think it’s worth responding to Smith?

Last September, “Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford University, author of many highly influential books, and among the most eminent of contemporary Christian thinkers,” gave a mild keynote address defending traditional “Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family and Life,” to a midwest meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. That stirred up ugly and even scatalogical controversy because Christian philosophers are wavering before the Zeitgeist.

Philosopher James K.A. Smith’s employer, Calvin College, highly values its reputation for a very strong philosophy department — a reputation recognized not just in Evangelical/Calvinist subculture, but throughout academic philosophy.

But standing up for robustly and actively Christian sexual morality, the morality held ubique, semper et ab omnibus, is becoming worse than unfashionable. It may leave all the cool philosophers saying you’re ugly and your mom dresses you funny, or even stealing your accreditations out of your lunch box as you gape helplessly:

The expansion of the scope of Title IX legislation by the Obama administration makes colleges that hold to traditional Christian moral positions on homosexuality and transgenderism vulnerable to loss of government funding and to damaging legal actions. We might add the related matter of accreditation: Failure to conform to Title IX will be punished with notations and probable loss of accreditation. Perhaps even more deadly than these threats is the role of the NCAA, as schools that are not “friendly” to LGBTQI students will find that they are unable to compete in sporting events. Sadly, while the choice between sport and one’s faith should not merit a second thought, I expect that this will be the point at which many colleges crack.

How Christian colleges respond to all this will be critical. The desire expressed by some to dialogue with their opponents on this matter is not a good sign. At worst, it represents the cynical prelude to capitulation: “We listened, we heard, we changed.” …

I do not trust Calvin College, which I respect, to stand firm. I do not trust Wheaton College, which I have loved, to stand firm. I do not trust any Evangelical college to stand firm, including Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University (on the fundamentalist end of the Evangelical spectrum) inasmuch as Jerry Falwell Jr. has shown himself a man of poor judgment and flexible moral standards in his Bromance with Donald Trump.

And I do not trust James K.A. Smith to stand firm.

I think he knows the context and purpose of the creeds better than he’s letting on. I think he knows that the sexual standards he’s backing away from are “orthodox” in a non-trivial and unequivocal sense.

If not, I hope he reads this. The Comments are moderated, but on.

I can only hope that this really was an off-the-cuff quickie, but I fear it’s a white flag running up the pole, looking for folks to salute it.

I can only pray that many Roman Catholic educational institutions and our few Orthodox institutions will stand firm, even at the cost of accreditation.

UPDATE: After a good night’s sleep, I re-read Smith’s off-the-cuff challenge, word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase, and I now think I was too gentle, giving him too much benefit of the doubt.

UPDATE 2: I’m glad I’m not the only one who has registered and objected to Smith’s trial balloon. Had I been, it’s unlikely I ever would have noticed it, since I don’t follow the blog where it appeared (though I first encountered it somewhere other than a blog praising or objecting to it). Anyway

* * * * *

* “There don’t seem to be any bakers refusing to bake cakes for atheists” is inapposite to the facts of actual cases where Christian bakers have refused not to serve “homosexuals” but to use their creative skills to help celebrate “same-sex weddings.”

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Fiat justitia ruat caelum

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Less bark, more wag

Blessed Feast of Transfiguration to you.

I’m aware that not all Christians commemorate Christ’s transfiguration on Mount Tabor. That’s regrettable — another sign of the Reformation or its progeny throwing out baby, not just bathwater.

Christ’s transfiguration was shortly before his crucifixion. Some of the Orthodox Apostica verses at Vespers for the Feast:

He, Who of old, spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: “I am He Who is,”
was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the Disciples.
In His own person He showed them the nature of mankind
arrayed in the original beauty of the Image.
Calling Moses and Elijah to be witnesses of this surpassing grace,
He made them partakers of the gladness,
foretelling His death on the Cross and His saving Resurrection.

David, the ancestor of God,
foresaw in the Spirit the sojourn with mankind of the only-begotten Son in
the flesh,
and from afar, called the creation together to rejoice with him,
prophetically lifting up his voice to cry:
“Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in Your name!”
For You went up to this mountain with Your Disciples and were
transfigured, O Christ,
making the image that had grown dark in Adam to shine once again like
and transforming it into the glory and splendor of Your own Divinity.
Therefore we cry aloud to You:
“O Lord and Creator of all things, glory to You!”

When the chosen Apostles beheld upon the mountain of the
the overwhelming flood of Your light, O unoriginate Christ,
and Your unapproachable Divinity,
they were caught up in a divine trance.
The cloud of light shone around them on every side.
They heard the voice of the Father
confirming the mystery of Your incarnation,
that even after taking flesh, You remain the only-begotten Son
and the Savior of the world!

Today on Mount Tabor, O Lord,
You have shown the glory of Your divine form
to Your chosen Disciples, Peter, James and John.
For they looked upon Your garments that gleamed like the light
and at Your face that shone more than the sun.
Unable to endure the vision of Your brightness that none can bear,
they fell to the earth, powerless to gaze at the sight,
for they heard a voice that bore witness from above:
“This is My beloved Son
Who has come into the world to save mankind!”

Then the Troparion and Kontakion (i.e., more hymns, different place and function):

You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your Disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners,
through the prayers of the Theotokos!
O Giver of Light, glory to You!

On the mountain You were transfigured, O Christ God,
and Your Disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
so that when they would behold You crucified,
they would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
and would proclaim to the world
that You are truly the Radiance of the Father.

The Old Testament readings for Vespers are typological, echoing that hymnody:

  1. Exodus 24:12-18 (e.g., “The sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel.”)
  2. Exodus 33:11-23; 34:4-6 (e.g., “And the Lord descended in a cloud, and Moses stood there before Him and called out in the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed by before his face, and called out, “The Lord God, compassionate and merciful, longsuffering, greatly-merciful, and true.” And Moses, making haste, stooped down to the earth and worshipped the Lord.”)
  3. I Kings 19:3-9, 11-13, 15-16 (e.g., “and after the fire a voice of a gentle breeze, and the Lord was there. And it came to pass when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his mantle and went out and stood before the cave.”)

UPDATE: Maybe some readers don’t know the basic story of the transfiguration. Here’s the Gospel reading for Liturgy this morning.

* * * * *

I’m continuing to help plan my Evangelical boarding school’s 50th class reunion, and anticipating curiosity about my “conversion” to Orthodox Christianity.

“I write to see what I think” is quite true of this blog, which explains why I’ve not checked viewership in months. (Okay, I did just now. I think that’s up a little.) My darkest thoughts or premonitions go elsewhere, half-baked, but here I discipline myself to be grammatical and things and stuff.

So one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how to tell my conversion story truthfully, but with less “less bark, more wag.” My current iteration is that it reflects my “life verse.” My life verse(s) led me to a different place than theirs led them. This has the advantage of being true, or as true as I can get in a highly, highly distilled telling of a complex and life-changing decision made well into middle age.

If you didn’t grow up Evangelical (and maybe if you did, but not in my little Jerusalem), you may not know what a “life verse” is. We were encouraged (note the passive voice — I don’t recall whether it came from our teachers or from pious peer pressure) to pick an inspiring verse in anticipation that it would guide our whole lives. (Yes, that does sound pretty precious, but it’s still evocative; bear with me.)

One of my classmates chose the bracing verse II Timothy 1:7 (“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”) He is confident, has accomplished much in life, and still is viewed as a leader.

His is the only life verse besides my own that I can remember. My life verse was Genesis 27:11, “Behold, my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am an smooth man.”

Just kidding.

I think I had some trouble finding a life verse. I believe I settled on, and my classmates probably have inscribed by my signature in their ’65-’66 yearbooks, “Ephesians 3:17-19 (Living Bible)” — a prayer that “Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts” and “May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love.” 

But I was also fascinated with Romans 12:2, about transformation by the renewing of our “minds,” which stands in (lamely) for the substantially untranslatable Greek nous; and with Hebrews 6:1-2, which refers to “repentance from dead works … faith toward God … the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment” as “the elementary principles of Christ.”

Elementary!? Why, that was virtually all we knew! Many sermons ended in an “altar call” of repentance and faith toward God, our personal “come to Jesus moment.” Some of us even got born again and again and again.

Baptism was a piece of cake (it was a kind of liturgical dance, with water, to express your testimony). Laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment surely were upper level courses, right? Paul (or whoever wrote Hebrews) didn’t think so.

I just couldn’t imagine what more there could be beyond these “elementary” things, but I wanted it, and I wanted that transformed life by a renewed mind, which I took to mean scarfing up doctrine until it stuck in the heart, not just the head.

Ephesians 3:17-19, Romans 12:2 and Hebrews 6:1-2 stand out now as icons of my longing for the fulness of the Christian faith and for true worship (just look at those Transfiguration hymns above!), which I’ve found in the Orthodox Church, and for which I had to learn, as Tom Howard put it, that “Evangelical is not Enough.” Not nearly enough.

Had I honestly been able to say that what I wanted above all — my “life verse” desire — was to live in a “spirit of … power and of love and of a sound mind,” I might still be Evangelical today. But my desires — for love, depth, roots, nourishment, transformation, progress beyond the elementary toward perfection, for meat, not milk — endured, and probably drew me more powerfully into Orthodoxy than any doctrinal arguments or stories about Evangelicals who had gone down that route before me.

In a “whatever works for you” world, that “wags,” doesn’t it?

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.