An echo from "A Conversation on Christendom"

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I wrote the following post back in June of 2010 when I was contributing to a blog started by my friend Matthew entitled A Conversation on Christendom (does one italicize the titles of blogs, or is that pretentious? Oh well. “The moving finger writes,” etc., etc.). No one has posted there since December of last year, and I’m not sure if it’s a shame or not. I liked the conversation while it went on, but I’ll be the first to admit that some of us got kind of pissy and disputatious. I think I probably fomented most of that, actually. Anyway, I’ve recently been revisiting the blog, as the whole topic of the Two Kingdoms has recently been rolling around in my head again. Indeed, it’s never not rolling around in there, but lately it’s just been making more noise…

OK, I’m going to stop mixing my metaphors now, make like a tree, and get…on with my point, which is as sharp as a dagger.

Yes, I’ve been thinking about the Two Kingdoms again, about the City of God and the City of Man, about the sacred, the profane, and the mundane, about this world and how we are to live in it. Pursuant to this, I’ve been tracking down things I’ve written on the topic in the past, because I’m lazy, and I don’t like wasting my time rephrasing things that I’ve already phrased passably well before. I realize that this begs the question: did I, in fact, phrase them passably well in the first place, and do they merit reiteration?

Well, who knows? I suppose you must decide for yourself, dear reader. I’ve certainly had the experience of rereading with a commixture of horror and embarrassment any number of different things I’ve written not that long ago — for example, papers I wrote as a freshman in college. (With that said, a good friend of mine — I shall call her Monica, since her name is Monica — wisely cautioned against judging one’s “past self” with derision and disbelief, for to do so foolishly sets up one’s “present self” as the paragon of truth and right; we ought rather to humbly realize that we all learn and grow, quite often in ways that are only realized in retrospect.) I wasn’t quite as horrified, however, upon rereading the thoughts from A Conversation on Christendom which I am reposting below as I have been in other instances. This is, I think, not a bad thing.

The original title of the post was “Too much history.” It’s still up, riddled with typos which I do not care to correct, here.

Below is an only-slightly revised and streamlined version.

What do you think about Christendom, etc.?

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What is the unique office of the Church of Christ? What makes Christianity unique? Nothing less and nothing more (not that there needs to be or could be more) than the scandal presented by the Cross of Christ, Christ the incarnate Lord, crucified, risen and ascended, “foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews.” Atonement. The great cosmic paradox. This is the Gospel.

This, then – the Gospel – is the unique purview of the Church, of Christianity. It is the Gospel which makes Christianity distinct from every other religion, every other philosophy under the sun, which makes it about so much more than simply “living in harmony with the Divine Order.” The truth is that we are, each one of us, born in disharmony with that Divine Order, out of tune with the Music of the Spheres. We can’t follow the Law. We need the Gospel, or we will all perish. Without the God who justifies sinners in His flesh, we are lost.

What of the Law, then?

The Law tells us how we ought to live while simultaneously showing us how we are not living. The Law condemns and kills the old Adam in us. And there are myriad ways in which the Law comes to us, not just Holy Writ: all of Nature testifies to this Law. The wise men and scholars of every age – Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Cynic, Cartesian, Newtonian, etc. etc. – have born witness to it. C.S. Lewis called it “the Tao,” attesting its culturally transcendent nature. It is written on man’s heart. As Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, there is not really any such thing as a “Christian” morality: there is morality, and there is immorality; the Law which is written on the hearts of even the most recalcitrant and unregenerate man has gone out to all the earth from before the foundations of the world so that men are without excuse. One need not be a Christian to know the difference between right and wrong; that is why it is just that the heathen are damned.

With that said, we Christians do not go to Church simply to hear the Law. We go for the Gospel, which is Christ Jesus, the power of God for salvation to all who believe. This is a power that the Law does not possess, “for by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified in His sight.” No, we go to the assembly of believers on the Lord’s Day to receive the gracious and life-giving Word of God, in the preaching of the forgiveness of sins by pastors and in the distribution of this same Word in the Eucharist. This is the unique office of the Church of Christ. This is her charge until Christ, her Bridegroom and her Lord, comes again. And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against her, for she is Christ’s Body, and His Body has already endured the flames once and for all, and risen triumphant. She awaits the consummation of this victory, which is hers by faith – already, but not yet. Kingdoms rise and fall; empires wax and wane. The grass withers and the flowers fall, sed verbum Domini manet in aeturnum.

The state, however, does not exist for such a blessed vocation, for such a blessed end. Still, this is not to say that its vocation is profane. It is, however, secular. It is mundane. I no more care that the leaders of state who pilot the bodies politic of the world are Christian than I do that my plumber is a Christian. If a man is a Christian and a statesman, then thanks be to God. He may for this reason (emphasis on may) have a more sedate perspective on the limited nature of his office and be more circumspect on that account; that would be a blessing, indeed. But that would in no way change the nature of his office, which Holy Writ speaks of in the following fashion:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 13.1-7).

The state can, through negative prohibition and positive injunction, move men to moral action, perhaps even at times creating a penumbra of moral culture. But this cultivated thing is not the Church, for an amalgam of moral men is not the Church. Two or three gathered together in God’s name (Father, Son and + Holy Ghost) are more the Church (indeed, truly are the Church) than an alliance of Christian states, an alliance of do-gooders.

What is to be gained from such an alliance? Perhaps this is the wrong question. What more needs to be gained? Certainly no sacred thing can be gained. Whatever can be gained by an alliance of Christian states is the same secular good that can be gained by an alliance of any states, period. To call such an alliance “Christendom,” however, would be a sad misnomer. Moreover, I deny the very possibility of a Christian state. I do not think that the adjective “Christian” can properly be attached to anything, really, be it corporate or singular, that is not the Church of Christ. (The Christian per se is not singular, not individual, but is a member of the Church, i.e., a person. For a fuller explication of this concept, see “Personhood and Being,” by John Zizioulas, which is Chapter 1 of his larger work, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church.) A state cannot be incorporated into the Church, however, for the state is concerned with earthly order and peace, not salvation. The state wields the Law in order to compel, to punish, to order aright. The moral dimension of the Law, that which concerns men’s outward behavior, is very much its business. It is the custodian of a lesser good, a mundane good. While obedience to the Law merits nothing in the way of salvation, it does conduce to peace and good order here on earth.

All this talk of Christendom has me thinking of the account of the Transfiguration in the Gospels of St. Matthew (ch. 17) and St. Luke (ch. 9). Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to the top of the mountain and are granted a foretaste of the beatific vision in a theophany. Moses and Elijah join them, and talk with Christ (What about? No one knows!) Peter, overcome as any would be in his situation, desperately tries to make the moment last forever; his words are apposite to our discussion: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter wants to make a more permanent dwelling there on the mountain. He wants the “mountaintop experience” to continue. So he proposes to build tabernacles, wherein Christ and the patriarchs might dwell. But poor Peter—great among the apostles if only on account of his great folly, the penitence he models, and the great forgiveness he receives—did not yet know that “the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands” (cf. Acts of the Apostles 7.48); he seeks to build a kind of Christendom there on the mountain, through his own efforts. But before he is even done with his proposal, the very voice of God the Father knocks them flat: “While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!'”

This reads almost as a rebuke to Peter: the Incarnate Word and the words which He preaches are sufficient for you! Do not desire anything more!

Yes, the ecstatic experience atop the mountain is a free and spontaneous blessing — who, like Ransom on Perelandra, would not want to taste the fruit again? — but life is not lived on the mountaintop. It is lived in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which we traverse as pilgrims. We have no Abiding City in this Valley, yet traverse it we must. That is why the disciples go back down. It has not been granted to them to stay. They must live by faith, not by sight. On top of the mountain, they did indeed say “it is good to dwell here.” But such was not within their power.

“[There is a preliminary taste of this fulfillment that occurs within history,” Mr. Taylor wrote in the first post, “when Christians of good faith and character live together in peace and justice. You might have felt yourself close to heaven in the home of a beautiful family, or in communal worship during a Sunday service.”

Yes, I think we all have. But it was an unexpected blessing, and the blessing was not the feeling, but rather the reality. The objective truth of God’s grace may not always evoke the same feeling. We may not always feel like we’re on the set of The Fellowship of the Ring, replete with a soundtrack and lembas-bread. But it is Truth, for God’s Word is Truth. And the blessing is not because we good Christians are living together in peace and justice in our meager tabernacles. The blessing is that Christ, out of His great love and mercy, deigns to be among us when we gather together in the Name of God (Father, Son and + Holy Ghost) to hear His Word and receive His Sacraments.

The Church is Christendom enough for me. In it God’s Kingdom comes every moment, at right angles to this earthly plane, farther up, farther in. It’s always now, already, but not yet. We don’t need a five point plan to make it happen. No political schema will make it more what it already is. The Church lacks nothing, for she is bedecked in the robes of Christ’s righteousness. Even though she has been an unfaithful bride, Christ the Bridegroom is ever faithful, daily and richly forgiving her of her many sins, her covetousness, even her murders and adulteries, which have been many. All of these He has assumed as His own:

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it (St. Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians 2.11-15).

Isn’t that enough? What do we think we are going to achieve or accomplish with “Christendom”? Another tower of Babel, and a worse one that at, for it will be self-righteous one.

 

+ VDMA

3 Comments

  1. Great post, Trent! (I really liked Monica's insight on your past self, btw) I actually have a good friend I am going to send this to. 🙂

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