Can There Be a Christian Culture? Pt 2

So begins my Spring Semester, and it promises to be a doozy. My first class was Historical IV: Modern Church, and we began with a discussion of the background of the Modern Church (i.e., end of the Reformation, beginning of the Englightenment, etc…), which is probably a good place to start. During the discussion, I was able to ask a similar question to the one I had prompted a couple posts ago, and to which my brother-in-law was ever so kind to give some good push-back. Namely, how can an inward and intense devotion to God be institutionalized. Based on his reply, I think I can make some distinctions and re-address the problem.

It would be prudent to recognize the errors in the extreme positions and search for a more virtuous solution. The error of the Pietists (and their Evangelical heirs) is to institute a love of God. While it is definitely a major theme in Scripture, and it is the goal to which all Christians should strive, it is impossible to maintain and easily leads to schism.

The other error is the opposite, it is to be satisfied with Christians “just showing up.”  Again, the evidence for this is seen in the constant refrain throughout Scripture of the primacy of sincerely loving God. God doesn’t want your sacrifices, he wants a sacrificed heart.

What then, would be the virtuous mean? I’m really not sure, but my guess (which is good as any at this point) is a focus on Christian maturity. That is, one must view the Christian life in a more dynamic way. Evangelical’s know this as most models of Sanctification are progressive (minus Keswick and Wesley), but the tend to focus so much on the “event’ of justification that this progressiveness is lost (note: this is a very brief and inadequate summary, but bear with me).

What does this look like? Well, for one it calls for wisdom. Spur those who are lackadaisical on to maturity, and comfort those who are anxious. Create a Christian culture within which Christians, messed up as we all are, can grow. Don’t cut off the withered branch too soon (besides, that’s Jesus’ job, not yours), but nurse it and care for it. I suppose the problem with a Christian culture in the past was not so much the culture, as much as the immaturity of the leaders who became impatient with the weak and obstinate.


13 thoughts on “Can There Be a Christian Culture? Pt 2

  1. If Romans and Orthodox don’t get their act together soon in this country then we will truly see an end to christian culture. For, the Reformation will eventually win here. What, after all, is the reformation culturally? It is watering down; we have christianity-light. The triumph of the Reformation will not be in the actual reforming of the Church but in the eventual slow death of a once living organic body through mediocrity, complacency, lack of reverential compass, and lack of teleological vision. Today we have an environment where, even if we wanted to cut off the withered branch, it would be easier to let the branch cut off itself (as it is doing). Why prune when the rot is from the inside? What are Christians to mature INTO? What mold, what form, what vision? Where are their saints? Where are their guides? (I’m sorry, I just read a saddening article on the subject and thought that I would rant on your blog). 🙂

    • I would be interested in the article you were reading on the subject. I would also be interested in better understanding why you think the Reformation, which was not at first an attempt to upend the institution of the church, lacks any telos. Certainly it may be true of pietistic strands of Protestantism, but this even is not always the case. To be truthful, Anabaptists are one shining counterexample to what you are saying. They have created a Christian culture in which Christians are formed toward a certain vision, but in a Protestant mold. Puritans did this, as well (or tried). Now, I do not think that you would use a utilitarian argument against the Puritans (that they failed because their Protestantism could not ever work to establish a Christian culture) unless you would want the same argument applied to the (as you admitted) diminishing influence of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

      Also, if the church, pre episcopacy, and pre hagiography, was able to sustain itself by the telos of the advancement of Jesus Christ in the Roman world (and the continuance of that tradition), why shouldn’t a currently de-institutionalized evangelicalism be able to do so, as well? My point: it is not inherent in Protestantism to, of necessity, fall apart.

      • Let me be clear on another point: given my last statement, I do not believe that what evangelicalism and Protestantism is, is all good. No, I think they could benefit from a better ecclesiology. What I don’t think is that they are less than the church, or that they will inevitably fall apart. Instead, I have hope that what it can become is better than what it currently is. I’m just a bit more optimistic, I think.

    • Wow, Nate’s reply is better than mine. I was just going to say that something watered down isn’t always bad. With wine and beer, definitely, but not everything. For example, I am reminded of an argument Augustine uses against the Manicheans who say that there is such a thing as an evil nature for support of which they produce the example of a scorpion. Augustine clarifies and says that a scorpion is only harmful if it is out of it’s proper context. Besides, scorpion venom can be used in small doses (this is the whole watered down part), it can be used medicinally. Such is also the case with many drugs in modern medicine.

      Hmm. Yeah, I still like Nate’s response.

  2. Hmm. Well, I followed a link by a friend to the short article (on a Roman website) and now have no idea where it is.

    The article was specifically addressed to the negative side-effects that Protestantism in the States has had on Roman practice, culture, and the raising of youth in general. Having been friends with and in the company of many Roman Catholics for the last several years, and attending Mass for nearly two years in various Roman parishes, I can say that I do see the point (of the priest that wrote the article). Today, post Vatican II, there are several forms of the Mass celebrated regularly and it is a rare thing indeed to see a “traditional” Roman Mass. That is, if one compares (for example) Holy Spirit parish on Lake Michigan drive with Sacred Heart near the John Ball Zoo one would almost wonder if one was attending the services of two different faiths. That is, Sacred Heart has preserved the Roman culture as best it can and Holy Spirit is almost reminiscent of your (pick your favorite) run of the mill West-Michigan protestant service. Most of my Roman friends mourn the loss and are in anguish over the trend that is occurring in many Roman parishes these days. I’m not surprised though, and the young in those parishes would almost fit right into the teachings and practices of most Protestant confessions today. This, I see, as a clear and detrimental loss of what had previously been a high, noble, clear, and worthy culture, practice, doctrine, and vision. This is what I mean by the decay from within and why Romans and Orthodox need to get their act together here, and elsewhere, soon. Because soon even us Orthodox (that is, I am Orthodox) will be fighting just to hold onto our simplest fasting practices. Indeed, I already am seeing a loss in the Orthodox culture in the youth here (while, ironically, convert adults are trying their hardest to acquire it). Maturity, alas, comes too late for the youthful often enough (side comment: I find the youthful more and more deserving of despair the older I become. Sometimes I fear there that they will be the death of everything good and holy).

    As to the telos business, that is only one of the issues listed but an important one. In extension of the comments I just made above, I would point to the practice and focus of the worship at Sacred Heart as opposed to Holy Spirit (or St. Patricks in Grand Haven) as an example of the teleological nature of the worship, and the direction of the culture being built there. For, at Sacred Heart it is undeniably certain, even to the children, why they are there and what is going on. God is in their midst and they are there to receive God. At Holy Spirit that understanding is being lost (they even, shock shock, have a worship group up front with a piano, drums, and guitars??); the only more Protestant things can get for them is to say that there is no need to receive the Eucharist every Sunday and stop going to confessions. (Side note: confession going is at a sharp decline as well, a clear sign of the loss of the Roman and Orthodox culture). After all, the Christian life must have a purpose, embodied and embedded in the practice and rationality of a particular Christian culture and where is that culture to be founded, nourished, and encouraged if not in the Sanctuary? If not in the worship of the people in the parish? If one is concerned about the episcopacy in the early days of the Church, and wonders where it came from and how it became an integral part of Christian culture, then bear this point in mind. Christian culture grows from the practices before the alter; if an episcopacy grows out of that then it is not a foreign concept to Christianity but rather a necessary and organic outgrowth of what is already understood to be authentic Christianity. To put it in Aristotelian terms, it is an actualisation of a latent potentiality, which is always accomplished with the telos in sight (that is, with the FORM in one’s “vision”).

    As to watering things down: just keep doing it and see what happens. Water down scorpion venom enough and you have polluted water. I rue the day that we have seen Christianity watered down enough that one can point and say “there is polluted secularism, what fools.” Already the atheists are clamoring for a “secular religion” to replace Christianity! And, to tell you the truth, for the most part they have a very good point. Is the answer to try to make Southern Baptists out of outer Mongolians? (that leads to another important aspect of Christian culture: the Catholicity of its nature. If one cannot see Catholicity, as well as the other three marks of the Church, then what on earth are we spending our time on?). It makes no sense to send Southern Baptists, or Puritans, to outer Mongolia to evangelise as they have no marks of Catholicity (well, perhaps the Southern Baptists have more than, say, the Evangelical Free church, but that is only because there are more of them).

    A last, and further, point is on the nature of who is in the Church and what happens when they are not. As an Orthodox I am committed, I have no choice, to saying that all who are not Orthodox are not in the Church. Orthodoxy makes an unequivocal claim to being the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. As such, all other ecclessial bodies are not the Church. Now, to be clear, we do not claim to be the only Christians; we make absolutely no judgment about who are Christians and who are not (except for, say, the Muslims). That means that there are Christians outside the Church. Another way of saying it, similarly anyways, is that we know where the Church is but not where it is not. We clearly see the parameters, but not beyond that; so we stay within. Now, if a church is outside the Church, then it is cut off from the LIFE of the Church. As we see quite clearly with many, many ecclesial bodies they are slowly dying. Yet, as they slowly die they shoot out roots and tendrils and cling to any surface available and, so doing, survive in one form or another by a process of division (similar to an amoeba). I would recommend reading some Aleksey Khomyakov on the connection between the Protestants and Romans, and how they are heading in the same direction. (I know, I know, he was co-founder of the Slavophile movement; so sue me, he’s still correct).

    • Okay, I didn’t read your whole post, but I’ll respond to your comment which was in response to my comment which was a response to your original comment. My point about watering down was only to show that there are some circumstances in which watering down can be beneficial. This was to contradict what seemed to be your use of the phrase in a universally negative way.

      I’ll get to the rest—someday. As for now, I must go read.

  3. Further, why on earth should we assume that there is any correlation or resemblance at all between pre-episcopacy early Christianity and modern evangelicalism? Simply because evangelicals have no episcopacy? I would think that such begs the question. Surely Polycarp is a clear example.

    • To clarify, the issue isn’t an episcopacy per se, but the monepiscopacy. For example, in Paul’s letters to the Philippians, the introduction speaks of multiple “episkopos” (actually, it would be episkopoi, nominative masculine plural). Also, the New Testament also shows that there wasn’t as clear a distinction between the presbyters and bishops. I don’t know of many who would absolutely deny that the rise of the monepiscopacy was a development from the NT. The question just becomes whether or not it was good or bad. Did I ever send you my paper on Ignatius?

      Also, are you using “begs the question” right? I take your meaning to be that it “raises the question,” but isn’t that different than begging the question (which is circular reasoning, right?)? I always have trouble with my fallacies.

      • No I don’t think I saw your Ignatius paper; please forward that to me sometime. I’m not sure what you mean by monoepiscopacy; do you mean the papacy at Rome? In which case, I agree with you (I’m not Roman Catholic after all). There are, and are supposed to be, multiple and many presbyters and bishops all working together (with the bishops having equal authority in their jurisdictions, for the most part).

        No, I’m using “begging the question” correctly there. And, it is circular. Good point that though that “begging the question” could and is often used to mean “It’s just begging to have someone ask the question”.

      • Begging the question is assuming your conclusion to prove your conclusion. Sort of circular reasoning, only I don’t think you have to use the conclusion as a premise as you would in circular reasoning. See below, especially, “Now begging the question…”

        Prior Analytics II, part 16:
        “To beg and assume the original question is a species of failure to
        demonstrate the problem proposed; but this happens in many ways. A
        man may not reason syllogistically at all, or he may argue from premises which are less known or equally unknown, or he may establish the antecedent by means of its consequents; for demonstration proceeds from what is more certain and is prior. Now begging the question is none of these: but since we get to know some things naturally through themselves, and other things by means of something else (the first principles through themselves, what is subordinate to them through something else), whenever a man tries to prove what is not self-evident by means of itself, then he begs the original question. This may be done by assuming what is in question at once; it is also possible to make a transition to other things which would naturally be proved through the thesis proposed, and demonstrate it through them…”

    • We shouldn’t assume any correlation between pre-episcopacy early Christianity and evangelicalism. Good point. Many evangelicals have access to years of church history and tradition but choose to disregard them in the name of a purer, biblical faith. I do have a hard time with that position because it seems to disregard the concept of the catholicity and apostolic nature of the church.

      I guess my concern with your understanding of the latency of some church practices is that this does not provide a strong basis for the critique of aberrant church policy. I assume that at certain points (like now) the church will need/has needed to reform (from within). However, if one group is criticizing another on the basis on discontinuity with the apostolic faith (say for allowing guitars, drums, etc. or Protestant language to be introduced) could not the defendant respond and say that cultural adaptivity is latent? Don’t misunderstand me, I appreciate Aristotle from what I know of him, and I appreciate your understanding of the episcopacy, I think it is very helpful. However, I just want to know how you would handle this objection.

      Also, I would like to know the specific symptoms of a dying church. I’m sure one of the most basic is having defected from the Apostolic faith as represented in Orthodoxy, but what are the symptoms of a dying gathering?

      • By monepiscopacy, I believe Ryan is referring to the strong, single bishop over one church in an area. Prior to this there were groups of episkopoi, but there was not a single, dominant office. We do not hear about this higher-up office until Ignatius, which is why he wants you to see his paper.

  4. First, let me say that, after re-reading my comments, I am noticing a slightly negative and combative tone in my writing. I do not intend that at all, please forgive that. The Orthodox already have a reputation for being testy and I don’t want to encourage that 🙂

    To address your points (excellent points too) I should probably say something like the following:
    If one is Orthodox then we never say that the Church is in need of reform, either centuries ago or today. People within the Church, certainly; but not the Church. The Church is pure, holy, and sine immacula. Your point of cultural adaptivity is true, however. I guess the best explanation I can give on that issue would be to offer the example of the Orthodox. We are, and always have been (contrary to many), adaptive to culture. That is, we never force anyone to be Russian or Greek or Syrian; they are allowed, over time, to express their culture in their worship. Now, what is not allowed is a change in the liturgy, but there are myriads of customs, songs, styles of chant, prayers, festivities, etc. that are particular and peculiar to every Orthodox culture (and all of them are built around the liturgy). So, while there is a latency to change in regards to culture notice that not everything changes or is even remotely considered a possibility for change. Granted, yes, we have two liturgies; but, we all use those two liturgies and have been using them for around 1500 years.

    I have no tight, good answer as to what are the symptoms of a dying church (defecting from the Apostolic faith is a good start). I would mention also the felt desire and/or perceived need to reform the church. We have a saying in Orthodoxy: I’m not here to fix the Church, the Church is here to fix me. I would also add that, when we observe the attitude of the parishioners as being restless for something new or different from Sunday to Sunday or thinking they need to go church shopping, then we have evidence that the parishes are dying out. We don’t church shop in Orthodoxy; and we have another, telling, phrase: you don’t get the priest you like, you get the priest you deserve. 🙂 We have to remember what the church is: it’s a hospital for sinners (not a museum for saints); it’s not boring either (in the words of Peter Kreeft, it’s espionage and war games, it’s like playing with fire). One last symptom: a loss of understanding of the place and practice of baptism. Many, many churches and Christians today have no idea what baptism is. There is even a rather large church up the street from me which is a strange amalgamation of Presbyterian theology and Baptist theology; consequence: they do not baptize. What?! As time progresses more and more ecclesial bodies are falling away from baptism and a proper understanding of that sacrament. I think that this is telling.

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