A Great Idea for Catholic-Orthodox Evangelization

Inside the Vatican magazine has an excellent interview with Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion of Austria. He proposes a joint European council between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches on addressing societal issues. He proposes

"This alliance may enable European Catholics and Orthodox to fight together against secularism, liberalism and relativism prevailing in modern Europe, may help them to speak with one voice in addressing secular society, may provide for them an ample space where they will discuss modern issues and come to common positions."

I think that in many ways this should precede any further theological talks. I think that in many ways such talks just inflame things, whereas this would help us see each other as equals and brothers in arms. Then perhaps we can talk about issues without defensiveness. The Churches need to know how to "play together nicely", not just from on high in the hierarchy, but at the level of individual Christians within society.

Perhaps this may be extended to America?

(Tip of the hat to Pontifications for this article)

Comments 22

  1. theomorph wrote:

    we (and the whole Universe) are ‘screwed up’

    But that’s not my perception. My perception is merely that there’s a difference between what I want, what is acceptable within the society of other humans, and what is possible within the limits of the universe. Another way of putting it is the Buddhist way, “Life is suffering.” That doesn’t mean the same thing as “screwed up,” as I see it. The “screwed up” thing is what Christianity introduces, I think. And, unfortunately, it plunges (baptizes, if you will) the whole of existence into value and emotion, because there is an active and negative connotation to “screwed up,” by which I mean it’s not just that life is suffering, but that it’s suffering because there was some kind of mistake (the primal “screw up”?) and it was a mistake that was actively made by some one or some thing. That, I think, is why early Christianity drifted so easily into gnosticism, in which the universe really is the result of a “screw up” (the demiurge).

    My own perspective (which I think aligns much better with the Buddhist one than the Christian one) is simply that human life is at a disadvantage in a fundamentally hostile universe. That is simply the way things are. It’s part of the burden of being conscious (or of being, as Heidegger suggested, that being which seeks to understand its being, or Da-sein, I guess, in the German). Nor do I think there is any apocalypse of universal meaning in the offing.

    So what does it mean to you to be “screwed up”? I’m curious. Since that phrase isn’t actually in the Bible, and probably isn’t in any official theological documents (just a wild guess 😉 ), you’re clearly using it to summarize your position, which is fine—I’m just curious about what you’re meaning when it comes to specifics. I don’t see how that should implode or irretrievably reduce anything. If your faith is faith despite what may be known or revealed, if like Kierkegaard you always believe by an act of will, not because but despite, then engaging in a little reflection and reduction shouldn’t destroy or implode your faith.

    Reason, when taken out of the Protective Nursery of Faith simply implodes on itself.

    Huh? Could you give an example? That’s a nice phrase, but what exactly do you mean?

    It gets at ‘things’, certainly, but no things worth believing in.

    Or is that what you mean? But, see, you’re assuming that we’re all looking for things worth believing in, that it’s a necessarily positive quest. Maybe you are, and so capital-R Reason (is it different from small-r reason?) doesn’t work for you. But I’m not looking for things worth believing in. I’m looking to see if the things I believe in are worth continued belief. If they aren’t, I’m not going to worry about it. I would rather not believe in things that aren’t worth believing in, and if that means I don’t believe in anything, I’m not worried about that. I feel no implosion or other negative effects. I would rather live by suspension of belief than by suspension of disbelief—that’s what movies are for. 🙂

    Posted 30 Apr 2005 at 3:52 am
  2. theomorph wrote:

    Most of Christianity’s enemies are it’s own bastard children (the argument could even be made that Islam is just such a child). Why is this hard to see?

    I don’t think the problem is what’s “hard to see” but that Christianity tries to take credit for everything, including its enemies, as you’re trying to do right here. As well, I don’t think that argument for Islam as a “bastard child” of Christianity comes so easily as you imply.

    However, let’s imagine, for instance, that secularism is a product of Christianity. What does that say about Christianity? Perhaps it means that Christianity was fatally faulty to begin with, leaving every age to spin off its own doubters, disbelievers, critics, and outright attackers. Had Christianity been the Ultra Big Super Happy Jumbo Sensible Ah-Now-I-Get-It Worldview™ it claims to be, why did it leave such a long line of disenchanted, disillusioned, disenfranchised disbelievers in its wake?

    Your idea that Christianity has created its own enemies reminds me of the view proposed by an atheist friend of mine. He thinks atheists and secularists should just shut up and let religious zealots roll right over them, because any time we stand up for secularism we’re only bolstering religion indirectly. (How exactly this process works is a pretty murky to me, but he’s convinced, which is all he needs.)

    If person A proclaims perspective X and that incites person B to counter with critical argument Y, does that mean that the perspective behind argument Y would not have existed without the proclamation of X? Does it mean that A and B would not be arguing if A had not spouted off about perspective X? Should A lament the existence of critical argument Y and simultaneously chide himself for foolishly giving birth to argument Y by expressing perspective X, thereby giving himself the comfort of believing that argument Y is simply one of his own mistakes instead of a viable perspective in its own right? Or does the whole situation simply come down to the banal conclusion that if A and B never said anything, they would never argue?

    Posted 25 Apr 2005 at 11:04 pm
  3. theomorph wrote:

    Rationalism, the innate dignity and equality of man, freedom, &c., hallmarks of the enlightenment liberalism (i.e., classical liberalism) are all things that Christianity has, by and large, (and I know you’ll chuckle here) valued and promoted on earth.

    Those are all things that some branches of Christianity have promoted at various times. Ultimately, however, none of them can be derived directly and consistently from the core, canonical scriptures that all branches of Christianity accept. That is, some parts of the Bible seem to say one thing, other parts seem to say another; determining which interpretation is correct has led to plenty of conflicts ensuring that none of these good things can flower. Only when rationalism, human dignity, freedom, etc., have been divorced from their allegedly divine origins (e.g., with phrases like, say, “We the people” and not “I am the Lord your God who has brought you out of Egypt”), have they been able to spread with he kind of wildfire spread that characterizes this age we call modern.

    Posted 25 Apr 2005 at 5:12 pm
  4. theomorph wrote:

    What ‘Human Problems’ does Christianity purport to solve? . . . mere immortality plays little part in the hearts of the devout. Being and ever-increasingly becoming ‘like Christ’, come what may, is surely the main focus . . .

    Let’s make a whirlwind pass at kata Ioannes…

    “And just as Moses Lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
    . . .
    “Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.'”
    . . .
    “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.”
    . . .
    “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”
    . . .
    “When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.'”
    . . .
    “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
    . . .
    “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true blood and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
    . . .
    “Again he said to the Jews, ‘I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.’ . . . He said to them, ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.'”
    . . .
    “Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.”
    . . .
    “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
    . . .
    “Jesus said to Martha, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.'”
    . . .
    “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

    And so on and so forth. Sounds pretty simple. Believe in the Son as sent by the Father, receive eternal life; reject the Son and prepare to wither, be tossed aside, and burned, i.e., have eternal life denied. That doesn’t sound like salvation by works, either.

    Posted 28 Apr 2005 at 8:42 pm
  5. Tom Smith wrote:

    +Bishop Hilarion seems to be an interesting fellow — as Bishop of Vienna, he’s worked closely with his Catholic counterpart Archbishop, the well-known Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn, who was one of the primary editors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    It’s interesting that this relatively liberal motion is coming from a Russian Orthodox bishop. The Moscow Patriarchate has always been the most anti-ecumenical Orthodox episcopal see. I doubt that +Patriarch Alexei has a particularly high opinion of this guy.

    Regarding the extension of this movement to the United States, I don’t think it’s particularly necessary for interchurch ecumenism here. OCA, the Antiochian Archdiocese, and the Greek Archdiocese all enjoy good relations with the US Catholic bishops. I swear, half of the pictures of +Metropolitan Herman on the OCA website are of him hamming it up with Cardinals McCarrick and Keeler. Also, American Catholic and Orthodox laity don’t seem to have much of a problem with one another; in my personal (anecdotal) experience, Catholics and Orthodox seem to be curious about one another, and enjoy a generally positive relationship.

    That’s not to say, however, that this movement wouldn’t be useful in another arena. It would be nice if Catholic bishops could teach their Orthodox counterparts how to actually speak out on social issues. But then again, having just finished a paper on Orthodox ecclesiology, I maintain that the Orthodox hierarchy today is hamstrung by the Church’s belief that bishops are empowered, through the Mystery of Ordination, only to teach by defending and interpreting Holy Tradition, whereas Catholic bishops are empowered with the charism of Magisterium. Basically, the Orthodox theology of episcopal authority is built to defend against heresy by appealing to Holy Tradition, which obviously doesn’t provide a clear ground to cover things like bioethics, whereas Catholic bishops are empowered against heresy by virtue of Magisterium, which, so long as it is not opposed to it, is not limited by Tradition. But it would be nice if the Orthodox bishops would stand up for the social teachings of their Church anyway.

    Regarding the division caused by ecumenical theological conferences, Jerry, I don’t think that they inflame too many on each side. Look at the people who are angry at the Balamand Agreement, Jerry: in the West, people like the Society of St. Pius X and the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary; in the East, folks like the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, the Bulgarian True Orthodox Church, and the Milan-Synod Old-Calendarists. In both East and West, the people who aren’t happy are the ones accusing their respective mainstream hierarchies of heresy.

    I kinda think the only place in which the two Churches aren’t “play(ing) together nicely” is in Russia — the Russians accuse the Pope of poaching in traditionally Orthodox territories, then turn around and send missionaries to Poland, Italy, and Ireland. The only agitation on the Catholic side has come from just one person of any import — Marian Cardinal Jaworski, Roman-rite Archbishop of Lviv — whereas the entire Russian hierarchy continues to denigrate the Catholic moves toward ecumenism.

    For hundreds of years, the Orthodox have been shouting about how Rome won’t sit down and talk about reunion. Well, for the last forty years, Rome has been pushing for it in a big way. Not to pick on the Orthodox too much, but the ball is in the Oriental court, and they look to be in danger of dropping it.

    Posted 27 Apr 2005 at 5:43 am
  6. Steve N wrote:

    Calling Christianity a failure because it fails to solve “The Human Problem” is like calling water a failure for not being flammable. What “Human Problems” does Christianity purport to solve? The ones solved so spectacularly by rationalism? The ones that communism attempted (but failed) to solve? The only human problem solved by Christianity is the problem that we and the universe are screwed up, not as they should be, and the only way to even begin to hope that this will ever change is to follow Christ and trust in the grace of God. Period. Christianity will almost surely be smashing failure at doing anything else. And I begin to fear only when it fails to be smashing failure in the attempt.

    Though you’ve cleverly prepared in advance for my “outright” denial, surely, Theo, you were a serious Christian long enough (and deep enough) to realize that mere immortality plays little part in the hearts of the devout. Being and ever-increasingly becoming “like Christ”, come what may, is surely the main focus, and something that wouldn’t be traded even if technology granted me immortality AND superman powers AND 42 nubile virgins AND $1 billion. Schopenhauer’s comment stems from utter ignorance of what really is in the hearts of people who so dogmatically espouse immortality… and I’m shocked that you don’t realize this.

    Your comparison of (what often passes as) Christianity and the CW reenactors club is spot on. I wholeheartedly second these observations and note that such observations are quite common among serious Christians. But what has this to do with the alleged failure of Christianity? The obvious fact that the Christian faith has been found difficult and not tried by most who profess it doesn’t cast any doubt on the Faith or in its efficacy.

    if a Christian, a Jew, and an Atheist come upon a person needing medical attention, and each of them pitches in to help, it is not Christianity, nor Judaism, nor Atheism that does the work, but the Christian, the Jew, and the Atheist, whose differing motivations are all equal responses to the same situation; they are all human.

    Thus you and I agree… salvation is by works after all!

    All I have time for…


    Posted 28 Apr 2005 at 7:53 pm
  7. Steve N wrote:

    forever unsettled, that is, on this side of glory. Whew!

    Posted 29 Apr 2005 at 10:36 pm
  8. Jerry wrote:

    Good questions (as usual), Theo. I’ll try to cook up a response myself tonight . I think I should do the sort of work that I get paid for (and graded) on right now. In the meantime, I’ll be curious to see how other people answer.

    Posted 25 Apr 2005 at 2:59 pm
  9. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    I apologize in the delay in getting back to this, but I sensed the discussion had worked its way into something quite substantive, viz., comparison of religions/philosophies and their approach to “the human problem”–does it exist? If so, what is it, and how might it be solved? These are big, fat, juicy questions that deserve a thoughtful answer. Hopefully there’s someone still paying attention other than me…

    What I denote by saying that we (and the whole Universe) are “screwed up”, I think does capture your perception of mere distance between what one desires and what is acceptable or possible. “Life is suffering” is, I think, really just a synonym for “life is screwed up.” What is the Buddhist answer? Quench desire. We suffer because we desire. Fix that and the universe is fixed (i.e., no longer screwed up). So Buddhism too has a negative view of suffering and proposes a cure: Kill desire. But why should desire be killed? To desire is to be human. With Buddhism the problem is not with society, telling us what is acceptable, nor with the universe, mandating what is possible, but the problem is with us. I think this fixes the “human problem” by getting rid of what is truly human.

    Christianity posits that we (and the Universe) were originally not screwed up, not destined for suffering. And in this past or even hypothetical state, human desire is/was alive and well. Zillions of pleasures are/were there for our taking… and all of them (save one) was perfectly good, and perfectly pleasing to the Creator. Unfortunately all humans, in addition to some other rational creatures, have managed to hit “that one” (eating from the Tree of the Knowlege of Good and Evil). Thus we live in the world that is as we perceive it, but is also not as it should (and can) be. We in all our desires were created to be perfectly good, but now we are deformed. Christianity provides the way back: to be fully human again, to experience desires more varied and more intense than we’d even dare imagine, and, what’s more, enjoy their satisfaction.

    Yes, belief is an act of the will. If it is not, then what we believe is purely a product of genetics, environment, and previous choices. While I don’t deny that these three play a huge (if not sometimes exhaustive) role in determining what folks believe, I cannot accept (i.e., believe, ha!) that they completely determine belief, because it would mean that people are simply fated to believe their beliefs. If belief is not, at its most foundational level, an act of the will, then there would be no merit in believing what is “correct,” and no fault in doing otherwise.

    But let us move beyond the notion of belief as mere intellectual assent, for this this is not the type of belief that Christianity proposes, but rather more of that kind of which James notes: “even the demons believe, and shudder.” The kind of belief I’m talking about is one that governs personal practice. Long ago, Theo, you argued that the atheist does not necessarily (positively) believe God does not exist, but rather that the atheist behaves as though he does not. Well it is this behaving as though that I’m really talking about, and yes, that (obviously) is an act of the will. There is no objective way to confirm that we love our mother’s, but we can measure tears at her death. There’s no objective way to confirm that we love our children, but it will be measured when we throw ourselves into the way of dangerous or deadly situation. This behaving as though is actually the true “belief” (and yes I know we need another word besides “belief” as it is commonly used), and intellectual assertions count for rather very little.

    The bit about reason imploding on itself is stuff that we’ve dug through before at length. No statement (meaningful one that I can think of at any rate) about reason can be made without a preexisting assumption about its existence. Thus a radical rational reduction of virtually any topic will lead quickly and easily down to absurdity. Reason is only “useful” when there are supports underneath it, and these supports are inherently (as in by their very nature) axiomatic, beyond the reach of reason, and well inside the frontier of faith, aesthetics, and will. Sure, reason can be brought to bear against the supports, but it destroys itself in the resulting collapse.

    Okay, I hope that covers it.


    Posted 02 May 2005 at 1:44 pm
  10. theomorph wrote:

    I wouldn’t call that “prooftexting.” The author of John had a clear and unifying theme with “eternal life” (whatever that may be–and I don’t think your version is necessarily the clearest or rightest one, either). Besides, how do you know I’m not going for irony points? The fact that just about anything can be proven from the Bible calls the whole enterprise into question, especially when you’re trying to make concrete claims about the central meaning of Christianity. (If I’m reading you right, you’re saying it’s the imitation of Christ.) But when you have something like the Gospel of John which hammers and hammers and hammers at eternal life, whatever that may be, and anyone else has the ability to tease–er, I mean “prooftext”–whatever other meaning out of the text (which could be “virtually anything”), how is your particular adherence to what you see in the text any different from any other adherence to what may be seen in the text? In other words, it seems a little disingenuous to say that “virtually anything” can be read from the Bible, but that there is only one correct way. It’s like the mythical Relativist going around claiming that only his perspective is correct.

    Anyway, as for the motivations of believers, I still think you’re ducking the real question. Let’s say people are in it for the imitation of Christ. Sure, okay. That’s reasonable, noble even, to reach for an ideal (and at this point we are talking about Jesus as an Ideal–he is “the Christ” and not just a Galilean rabbi named Jesus). But still you’ve only moved back the problem. You’ve basically said, “People are Christians because they want to be Christian.” Okay, yes, that’s true and unquestionable. But why do people want to be Christian? Why do they want to imitate Christ? What does imitating Christ give them that not imitating Christ would not? I think that the author of John is quite clear with the “eternal life” thing, whatever that may be. So what is that eternal life and why do people want it so badly? What does it mean for them on the ground, where the rubber meets the road, in their day-to-day lives? What about human existence gives people the sense that they need to find this “eternal life”?

    You can throw out more abstract nouns like “sin,” but then what does that mean? You can talk about separation from God, some existential condition, whatever, but what does that ultimately mean? Personally, I think all of those ideas are metaphors for a very real part of human existence, and I won’t deny that there is something about human existence that makes us posit “sin” and “God” and “separation from God” and “eternal life” and all that, but what is it?

    Second, once you’ve figured that out (if it can be figured out at all, and I’m doubtful about that), what makes the Christian metaphor worthwhile?

    Third, are there other metaphors or ways of confronting the basic problems of human existence, and is it not possible that some of us prefer to confront those problems without the use of sacred text, ritual, narrative, or metaphor, but on our own, individual terms?

    But then, once you’ve gotten into that territory, you’re where my atheist discussion group hangs out, where we ask whether society is possible if people are confronting the basic problems of human existence on their own, individual terms, or if it all just falls apart for lack of a cohesive system that is common to everyone. We have one guy who thinks religion is necessary, simply because it keeps people on the same page, even if that page is sometimes the wrong one. Most of the rest of us think he’s wrong, in one way or another.

    Personally, I think it’s very instructive to look outside of the West and outside of Christianity for how other peoples and cultures have dealt with this problem, not just so we can blindly imitate them (because that would be foolish, too), but so we can get a better perspective on what it means to be human in an inhuman world.

    Anyway, getting back (sort of) on topic, while I think it is pretty easy to define what is a Christian (someone whose religious beliefs center on the person of Jesus as the Christ–whatever that means), it is much more difficult to nail down the practice of Christianity. The way you practice it (“the imitation of Christ”–please forgive me [and correct me] if I’m repeating that over and over and being wrong!) is certainly not the way plenty of other Christians practice, and I suspect your motivations are not identical, either. Just as you have decided that some forms of Christianity are not worth it, so have I, and I further question, as I said above, the form you have recently chosen.

    Posted 29 Apr 2005 at 6:15 pm
  11. Steve N wrote:

    Most of Christianity’s enemies are it’s own bastard children (the argument could even be made that Islam is just such a child). Why is this hard to see?

    Rationalism, the innate dignity and equality of man, freedom, &c., hallmarks of the enlightenment liberalism (i.e., classical liberalism) are all things that Christianity has, by and large, (and I know you’ll chuckle here) valued and promoted on earth. But taken out of their proper context (i.e., faithfulness and obedience to God’s revealed will), such ideas can (and almost always do) become deformed. Rationalism deforms to materialism, freedom deforms to libertinism/libertarianism and capitalism, equality deforms to socialism and secularism.

    So, while I wouldn’t use the term “invented”, I would agree that Christianity was at least the incubator of much that is modern/western/liberal. Some of this is great, but much of it certainly works against the essential core of Christianity. In short, Christianity created a Frankenstein… as it always does, I suppose. You, Theo, are a walking billboard for this effect! 😉

    **GREAT** pun, btw: co-evil-coeval. Ha!!


    Posted 25 Apr 2005 at 4:38 pm
  12. theomorph wrote:

    Okay, after a day of exhausted hiatus, I’m back, though now I’m writing with a headache that greeted me when I woke this morning, so I hope I don’t make a complete fool of myself! Danged weak flesh…

    Steve writes:
    But the fact that Christianity provides fertile ground for all these ‘bad’ things . . . gains not an inch of ground against the true Christian faith, for it is a faith that must lived out in lives and communities. It represents an impossible balance of pure virtues, the slightest maladjustment of which degenerates rapidly into any of a plethora of ‘heresies.’ Humanly, it is impossible.

    Unfortunately, this looks like one of those times when I have to say, “Yes! That’s exactly my point!” but discover that we are still talking past each other.

    Your description of Christianity as an extremely volatile ideal is superb, I think. But where you are looking to the ideal and finding inspiration, I am looking at the volatility and seeing failure: that Christianity so easily falls into its own opposition is evidence that Christianity simply does not work to solve The Human Problem. What are “capitalism (formerly mercantilism), socialism, communism, rationalism, anticlericalism, [and] scientific materialism” but attempts to solve our problems? Some of those attempts have failed (e.g., communism, most notably), but others of them have seen spectacular (though not unalloyed) success (e.g., rationalism, most notably). Why would I want a religion that cannot and will not, due to my humanly imperfection, improve my life? It is this dissatisfaction with Christianity as a solution that has led people of every age in the C.E. to abandon that ship and seek solutions and solace elsewhere–usually with success.

    In fact, if it were not for the failure of Christianity to fulfill the needs of its practitioners, I doubt the West would be the scientific and technological powerhouse that it is today. Prayer could not heal the sick, so medical technology was advanced. God and the Bible could not sate human curiosity, so scientific knowledge was advanced. Church authority structures could not maintain social justice, so political theory was advanced (and rolled back, and advanced, and otherwise experimented with). Women could not find equality that matched the value they saw in themselves, so they advanced their cause on their own. If people were satisfied with what Christian belief did for their lives, why have they constantly set out in other directions? Despite the dynamism of the Christian narrative (and it is a cool story, I’ll give you that), the success of a religion depends on how it affects people on the ground in their day-to-day lives, and I think Christianity has consistently failed that test for a big chunk of the population. People vote with their feet.

    Arthur Schopenhauer made an interesting comment about religious people:

    “For if we could guarantee them their dogma of immortality in some other way, the lively ardor for their gods would at once cool; and . . . if continued existence after death could be proved to be incompatible with the existence of gods . . . they would soon sacrifice these gods to their own immortality, and be hot for atheism.”

    Of course, once out in the open, it’s a simple matter for religious people to deny this accusation outright, and that sort of thing has led to plenty of developments in theology (giving that field its twisty, convoluted nature), but it is hard to imagine Christianity surviving after its goals have been achieved by other means. Already there are instances of this happening piecemeal. For how many Christians in the Western world, even the devout ones, has their practice of the faith become less a way of engaging existence and reality (e.g., “God”) to live better and more a way of satisfying their own desire to be a part of something “bigger”? Christians in the West do not rely on God, but on engineers, doctors, politicians, and a spate of professionals who keep our lives running. Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, where modern science and technology are decades, even centuries behind, and where Christianity is growing the fastest, people still believe in and rely on God to improve their lives, not just to make them feel better about some existential malaise. Hence the vast difference between the character of the church in the West and the church in the South. (Lest you think I’m dreaming up this bit about living better, consider Deuteronomy 4:40.)

    Christianity is no longer an integral part even of the lives of its most zealous practitioners, unless they’re employees of the church. Rather, Christianity is more like a hobby or a social club. Oddly enough, I see in my Civil War reenacting club many of the same things I see in church groups. The majority are there for fun and fellowship, the hardcores (the pious and devoted) are there to dig into history (theology), and a few are there to play in the authoritarian hierarchy and have a degree of power over others (pastors, priests, deacons, elders, etc.). The CW groups spin off cliques and protest groups into new clubs, they have disputes about authority and canon, and they have plenty of people who just want to avoid these things and have a good time. Why do so many churches look exactly the same, with different trappings? Maybe my CW group puts on 140 year old wool uniforms, but Christians have costumes, too–even the seeker-sensitive protestant evangelicals, who seem to have a de facto dress code of polos and khakis.

    People aren’t in Christianity for serious reasons anymore, because for serious problems they go elsewhere. They go to therapists and doctors and lawyers and law enforcement. Meanwhile, ministers are trained to be more like therapists than theologians, because people don’t care about theology. They just want their problems solved. The people who do care about theology aren’t in it because caring about theology solves their problems. They’re in it because theology is fun. It’s a game, a mental exercise. I know because I’m one of those people who totally digs that kind of thing. Some of us just have a proclivity for thinking about harder questions. Does it really make our lives better to consider these things? Or are we just playing a game that satisfies some weird need?

    Also, Jerry asked about Gibbon. I couldn’t tell you much more than what I said. I have a copy of Decline and Fall right here next to me, but I’m not prepared to give an outline. (It’s a danged big book!) Like I said, this is just what I wuz learnt as an undergrad. Could be wrong. But the big-picture shape of Western history gives me pause. Greece and Rome experimented with ideas that would later become liberalism; Christianity came on the scene and that stuff basically disappeared; a thousand years later, those ideas were rediscovered, liberalism started spreading, and suddenly Christianity was in retreat. What’s going on there?

    Posted 27 Apr 2005 at 7:03 pm
  13. Jerry Nora wrote:

    Per Augustine, Theo, I’d disagree with you and Gibbon regarding the fall of the Roman Empire and Christianity’s role.

    The Roman Empire became something of a banana republic well before Constantine, with the Praetorian Cohort selling the position of the Empire to the highest bidder. The Praetorians were not the only branch of the military to decay, and soon emporers were using Gothic mercenaries as guards (Commodus, the villain of Gladiator, was the first to do that, and this was well before Christians became a prominent force in the Empire). Eventually the Romans started using mercenaries in lieu of their own soldiers, since their own discipline had gone by the board.

    The impression that I got from Gibbon, ironically enough, is that the rot of decadence had taken over the Empire quite early in its history. (Some Romans of the early Empire or even the Late Republic hypothesized that destroying Carthage was a mistake, and the lack of a competitor would turn Rome greedy.) Christians were taught by St. Paul to respect earthly authority as something that has its place in the world, and in fact has justification from God Himself, so I’m not sure how Christians were to blame.

    How do you and Gibbon attribute the fall of the Empire to Christianity? It’s been a while since I read the Decline and Fall and the City of God.

    (BTW: regarding liberal democracy, I don’t think Christianity “caused” it in the way that anthrax may cause an infection or that a lit match may ignite gasoline, but merely set up an environment that would support such an innovation.)

    Posted 26 Apr 2005 at 1:21 pm
  14. theomorph wrote:

    Quickie, as I’ve been wasting too much time online today:

    elements of liberalism in the classical world

    democracy; higher estimation of women; search for rational explanations for natural phenomena; the Greeks had the first society in the ancient world to call slavery into question; citizen soldiers (also, Bruce Thornton has a good book on this called Greek Ways)

    Your points about people going to Christianity for unserious reasons is both ad hominem and empirically false.

    Not in my experience. If your self-description is accurate and honest, you are a very rare exception to what I’ve known and seen.

    Christians and medicine – I find your individual points useful and your broad conclusion false. (It was a nice phrase–I’m just borrowing it, not throwing it back in your face. 🙂 ) The humanitarian instinct of Christians who cared for the sick is certainly undeniable, but the vast and amazing steps forward, which have really only come in the last hundred years or so, are all the result of scientific investigation into a material world and would not have been possible without the great advances in science that only happened after Christianity receded.

    Again, I point to the big picture with Christianity: Why did none of the great benefits of modern society appear until after the power of the Church was severely undercut? The Church has been around for two millennia, but all the great things that make our lives so safe and easy have only been around for a couple hundred years. If Christianity is going to take credit for that stuff, then it needs to take credit for not making any giant leaps forward under its hegemonic tenure between 500 and 1500, which is pretty suspicious, if you ask me.

    Can scientists be Christians? Sure. Can Christians do good things? Sure. Can intelligent people choose Christianity? Sure.

    But Christians can also be severely anti-science, they can do horrid things, and they can be complete idiots, too. So if they can go both ways, why should their religion get credit for only one or the other? Or maybe Christianity as a set of beliefs has far less to do with how people behave than Christianity as a political authority, and maybe the power of Christianity as a political authority came from its hierarchy and hegemony than from the set of beliefs from which it was named. I.e., maybe Christianity is just a narrative and a set of rituals for individuals, and not a source of social good or social evil, because it is individuals who act, not ideas. But individuals are more inclined to act according to the influences of power, economics, and politics than according to ideas and religious beliefs. Rather, people act as they wish and then use religion to defend or rationalize their actions, be they good or bad. For example:

    One person kills an abortion provider and claims justification in Christianity; another person denounces the killer and justifies the denunciation with Christianity.

    One person condemns homosexuals and claims justification in Christianity; another person accepts homosexuals and claims justification in Christianity.

    One person launches a war and claims justification in Christianity; another person decries war and claims justification in Christianity.

    On and on it goes. People do what they want to do, whether they’re Christians or not. So I don’t think Christians can claim any kind of righteousness or superiority or anything at all on the basis of their Christianity, except to identify themselves as Christians. That is, if evils committed by Christians do not reflect on Christianity, then neither do goods. I.e., Christians are perfectly free to participate in the rest of the world, but as far as the rest of the world is concerned, they act as individuals, not as “Christians.” Christians, of course, can think of themselves as emissaries of Christ or whatever they like, but since the rest of us cannot experience their Christ except directly, and not through any human mediators (e.g., the Christians), nothing they do can interpreted as Christ himself. Christians can only claim to be carrying out the will of their Christ, but for those of us who do not believe, that means nothing. That is, when Christians act, their inner motivation may be Christianity or Faith, but their acts themselves are not Christianity or Faith, nor are they the products of Christianity or Faith, any more than the acts of an atheist are Atheism, the acts of a Buddhist Buddhism, or the acts of a Jew Judaism. That is (and this sounds like a joke, I know), if a Christian, a Jew, and an Atheist come upon a person needing medical attention, and each of them pitches in to help, it is not Christianity, nor Judaism, nor Atheism that does the work, but the Christian, the Jew, and the Atheist, whose differing motivations are all equal responses to the same situation; they are all human.

    Anyway, to try and get back to my main point, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Christianity as a religion for people who want to be Christians. But Christianity as a power structure in the driver’s seat of society is a dangerous thing, just as any belief system or ideology in the driver’s seat of a society is a dangerous thing. Had Christians not assumed for themselves the hierarchy of Rome and decided to use that power structure to advance their own ideas about how things oughta work for everybody else, they would not have built such a bad reputation for themselves, and might be better off today. Who knows? Mostly, though, I’m just concerned with keeping Christians from trying to get back in that driver’s seat, because I want to be free to think and speak as I please, and I want others (including Christians) to have that same freedom.

    Anyway, so much for this being a quickie. I really should do something useful today.

    Posted 28 Apr 2005 at 12:16 am
  15. theomorph wrote:

    Speaking of playing together nicely, when are Christians going to stop lumping secularism in with other things? Why does secularism have to be packaged with relativism? Incidentally, if secularists really were relativists, and they all “denied that any standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others” (see link for where I got that criterion), then secularists wouldn’t think the Christian standpoint is invalid, would they?

    Also, if secularism can be packaged with liberalism as common enemies of Christianity, then why am I always hearing from Christians that their religion invented liberal society with its equality and democracy? Which is it? Is liberalism a co-evil with secularism or coeval with Christianity?

    (Sorry, it’s late at night; I had to slip that in. 😉

    Posted 25 Apr 2005 at 7:03 am
  16. Jerry wrote:

    That is a pont, Theo, and we do need to keep civil functions distinct from religious ones, to protect each one from the other.

    Posted 25 Apr 2005 at 6:49 pm
  17. Steve N wrote:

    Theo, anybody can come up with an idea (seed), but for the ideas to take root and grow, you need fertile ground. Capitalism (formerly mercantilism), socialism, communism, rationalism, anticlericalism, scientific materialism, and a zillion other -isms took root and prospered where? In the “Christian” West. You think I want to take credit for these? No, I’d just as soon not. Nope, these were planted, watered, and harvested by our enemies… and you would bowl me over for trying to get away with it. It is a regrettable admission, not more glory-seeking for the Unassailable Christian Church.

    But the fact that Christianity provides fertile ground for all these “bad” things, its “enemies” (bearing in mind that virtually all of them have redeeming qualities) gains not an inch of ground against the true Christian faith, for it is a faith that must lived out in lives and communities. It represents an impossible balance of pure virtues, the slightest maladjustment of which degenerates rapidly into any of a plethora of “heresies.” Humanly, it is impossible. And even the most saintly of us, empowered by and cooperating with God’s grace, typically end their lives saying “We are worthless servants, having only done what was required of us.”

    Now this Christianity as a supposed “Ultra Big Super Happy Jumbo Sensible Ah-Now-I-Get-It Worldview?” is simply a stone you tripped over, a little pill that modern folks invent to help themselves feel less self-conscious about their Christianity in these oh-so-modern times. And if the spiritual apothecaries are particularly good at it, they might even get to peddle the stuff for a handsome profit. I’ll not defend such quackery, and certainly not as having anything to do with my faith. The pill didn’t work for you (though I think it did for a while). It used to work for me, but it doesn’t anymore. And as much as it is a shame that you lost your faith in detox, you’re probably better off having not had the pill work, for in this there is at least still hope… an honest pagan is surely better off than a self-deluded believer.

    The Christian faith, as it was handed down by the Apostles and Church Fathers, had virtually nothing to do with making sense and everything to do with accepting by faith that which, by definition, could not possibly make sense: finding in the body and blood of the Lord “real food” and “real drink”, accepting the yoke of slavery to find freedom, accepting suffering to find comfort, looking forward to death to find life, going on believing in spite of never seeing the object of belief. Yeah, I know… mumbo jumbo… but you must admit, it is at least very brave, if nothing else, if even perhaps foolishly so.

    Christianity’s “fatal flaw” is that its almost every command flies directly against natural human reason and free will. It’s really rather a miracle that anyone believes at all… (and I’ll grant most who say they do, don’t really… at least not very well). But I suppose this where the grace of God kicks in.

    My $0.02

    Posted 26 Apr 2005 at 6:51 am
  18. Jerry wrote:

    Theo, Christianity has always supported medicine, and Dr. Stark at Princeton pointed out that Christians were the only people in the Greo-Roman world who would help the sick during a plague, while everyone else headed for the hills. The Good Samaritan did not pray over the fallen Jew, but rather washed his wounds and bound them, and likewise Paul advised Timothy for some remedies for his digestive issues, and also referred to “our dear physician”, St. Luke.

    Medicine was a part of the Christian calling. We could get into a post on miracles later on (perhaps a section from C.S. Lewis’ work?), but it was not a mere response to the failure of Christianity to heal everything. Likewise, Heilbron’s “The Sun in the Church” details how astronomy was advanced by the need to precisely determine Easter well in advance.

    Your points about people going to Christianity for unserious reasons is both ad hominem and empirically false. It is the underpinning of how I see the world, and why I am going into medicine (ah yes, that adjunct to failed prayers again! 😉 ). So far from being a crutch or alternative. Sure, other people use lawyers, psychotherapists, and MDs as replacements for priests, but your sweeping statement there is just as problematic as if I would make a sweeping dismissal of atheists (for which you’d eat me alive, and rightfully so).

    So once again, I find individual points of yours useful (e.g., on the tension between miracles and so forth and empirical evidence of the world), but the broad conclusions false. I’m not sure if I can give a broad statement that’d work, but that puts us in the same boat, philosophically.

    Theo: what elements of liberalism were there in the classical world? Could you please be more specific?

    Posted 27 Apr 2005 at 9:47 pm
  19. Jerry Nora wrote:

    Theo, perhaps the emergence of liberal democracy could be traced in part to the separation between the individual believer and the state(“give to Caesar what is Caesar, and what is God’s to God.”–Contrast this to the very close connection of Judaism with the Jewish national identity, and the fact that the cult of the Emporer and the gods was part of being a good Greco-Roman citizen.)

    Posted 26 Apr 2005 at 2:11 am
  20. Steve N wrote:


    Time does not permit a thorough response. Not sure it’s necessary as we agree on so many points, but I reiterate that the problem (whether human or not) that Christianity purports to solve is the one where we (and the whole Universe) are “screwed up”–not as we (it) should be. I believe this is common to virtually all human experience, certainly to all human religion, and the exceptions would only serve to prove the rule. All the scriptural promises (eternal life, comfort, justice, peace, &c.) do, admittedly exist in scripture, but are too far off to be grasped in this life. We are left (in this life) holding only that which is given Hebrews 11: something to the effect that all these faithful ones died without having seen the thing promised, the thing hoped for…

    I think the attempt at a rationalistic reduction of faith is an inherently flawed approach. If carried to its rational end, it can only lead to the conclusions you’ve come to, Theo. This is precisely the path taken by Luther, and is why I consider you to be a “good Protestant.” Reason, when taken out of the Protective Nursery of Faith simply implodes on itself. It gets at “things”, certainly, but no things worth believing in. But what of course remains unsettled (and forever unsettled) is whether there exist things worth believing in.


    Posted 29 Apr 2005 at 8:58 pm
  21. theomorph wrote:

    Yes, I think that’s about the size of it. That also explains why liberal democracy hasn’t caught on with Islam yet, either.

    But Christianity removing itself from the civic sphere does not (1) explain where liberalism came from nor (2) demonstrate a cause-effect relationship between Christianity and liberalism. Rather, that fact, along with subsequent observations about Judaism and Islam, suggests that liberalism could only have arisen once Christianity had vacated the political sphere. This also lines up nicely with Gibbon, who argued that the decline of Rome in the first five centuries of the C.E. was a direct consequence of Christianity invading politics, and with the standard understanding of the rise of modern liberalism, which only took place after Christianity then receded from politics during the 14th-18th centuries. Those thousand years when Christianity was on top as Christendom™ did not see much liberalism, did they? But then, that’s just what I wuz learnt in my Western Civ classes down at the good ol’ Christian university…

    Ultimately, I think everybody is better off when our basic social matrix is neutral (what Christians, Jews, and Muslims would probably call “secular”), our governments are lean and pragmatic, and all people are free to think and affiliate as they so choose, so long as the governments and the basic social matrix remain neutral/secular. Once the government becomes the voice (or the hand) of an ideology (be it Christianity, Marxism, Islam, whatever), rather than a mediator between citizens (maintaining their basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as Jefferson so well put it), or the basic social matrix is mapped onto a particular ideological perspective (e.g., as Dante so well imagined historical westerners according to Christian cosmology), people lose that freedom to think and affiliate as they please.

    Unfortunately for Christians who want to take credit for that scheme, however, about all they can come up with is the poetic but vague (and endlessly reinterpreted) render unto Caesar thing. On the other hand, understanding why liberalism arose, why it arose when and where it did, and why it has not appeared elsewhere or elsewhen is probably the biggest, most difficult problem of history. The answer is certainly not so simple as “Christianity did it.”

    Posted 26 Apr 2005 at 6:47 am
  22. Steve N wrote:

    You know what they say: Once a fundamentalist… 😉

    Theo, you know dern well that one can prove virtually anything by proof-texting (Scriptural… or otherwise, cf. Dembski). As recovering fundamentalist myself, I am now usually able to scrape together the fortitude to resist the compulsion toward blind credulity in the face overwhelming Bible-quoting prowess.

    That is to say, none of this actually refutes my contention that immortality plays a rather minor role in Christian piety. Sure, it’s in the creed: a single phrase in the (“Oh and just so we don’t foget”) final list. Sure, it’s the believer’s blessed hope. But you’ve got to be kidding if you think that, in the minds of the faithful, “everlasting life” is merely living forever, as Schopenhauer muses might somehow be provided by medical science–this supposed Final Coup for Atheism.

    John’s gospel is full of dense imagery–almost proto-Gnostic in flavor. The “life” being spoken of by John is precisely the “life” that I spoke of above: “being and ever-increasingly becoming ‘like Christ’, come what may”… Yes it is “life” in the sense that it is a human word that comes closest to suggesting the actual meaning, but it is “life” like no life before… like no mortal can even imagine, much less experience. Mortal life (in the ancient Jewish sense of the word) is to John’s “new life” as death is to mortal life. Living forever in this yet-to-be-redeemed world, however healthy, wealthy, and wise, is far more akin to hell than heaven.

    Atheists often say intelligent, often very convincing things. But Schopenhauer’s assertion just isn’t one of them.


    Posted 29 Apr 2005 at 5:17 am

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