What Hath Socrates to do with Melchizedek?

James Schall is a smart man but reading him makes me wonder if an important difference between Protestants and Roman Catholics is the lens through which each side views Jesus. Is Jesus part of the narrative of the West that begins with the Greeks? Or is Jesus the culmination of the law and the prophets?

Schall seems to adopt the former:

The trial of Socrates is replicated in the trial of Christ. In both cases, we have noble and good men before the courts of the best cities of their time. The governor/judge at Christ’s trial even wanted to know what “truth” was, or at least he asked about it. In the reflections of Plato on the trial of Socrates, we have the human mind at its best knowing the issues that must be confronted by a mind. In the case of Christ, the history and explanation of who He was, who He claimed to be, lies in what we now call “revelation.” This revelation stretched through long periods of Hebrew history.

This history even had an account of “the beginning.” The heavens and the earth were said to have been created by God “in the beginning.” It is strange, but when the Gospel of John began its explanation of who Christ was, it also used these words “in the beginning.” But this beginning is one step back from the beginning in Genesis. The world begins in the Godhead, in the activity of the Father who sends the Word, His Son, into the world.

The account of revelation itself contains intelligibility. It can be understood in its outlines. The curious thing about this revelation is how it addresses reason. Indeed, Christian revelation first presented itself not to other religions but to the Greeks, to Athens, to philosophy. It could not properly begin unless it met human reasoning at its best. Revelation is mind addressed to mind as mind—insofar as it knows what it can know, and what it cannot.

Thus, when revelation read Plato, it encountered something familiar. It knew of the death of Christ, the just man rejected and killed by the state. The experience of Christ followed that of Socrates and, as I argue, completed it. Plato was right. Ultimate justice is not found complete in any actual city. But it exists nonetheless. When the young Plato asked if the world was created in injustice, he sought to save justice. Here, political philosophy and revelation meet on their own terms, but terms intelligible to each other. The logic of reason and the logic of revelation meet and supplement each other. In the end, the world is not created in injustice.

The completion of Plato lies in the resurrection, in the reality that sees not just the immortality of the soul but the acting person as the source of all reason. Revelation completes the logic of reason because it answers a question that reason by itself is unable to answer.

That is not how the New Testament writers conceived of Jesus’ relation to what went before. Consider Hebrews:

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.

This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him,

“You are a priest forever,
after the order of Melchizedek.”

For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, fa better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.

And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, 21 but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him:

“The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
‘You are a priest forever.’”

This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. (Hebrews 7:11-22)

Seeing Jesus in relation to Socrates or Melchizedek could explain why Roman Catholics stress philosophy more than Protestants emphasize the Bible, or why Roman Catholics regard virtue and human nature more like Plato and Aristotle than Protestants who follow the prophets and Paul on sin and sanctification.

But why Roman Catholics don’t take the Old Testament more seriously, since their observance of communion stresses sacrifice and long OT lines, is a mystery.

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

John Fea is back (it’s been a while) with an explanation of why he energetically criticizes the David Bartons and Robert Jeffresses of the evangelical world:

My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian. Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books. But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.

So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.” Maybe I am obsessed. Somebody has to be. We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.

My problem with this at one level is that John does not seem to acknowledge the optics or signaling. If he criticizes these evangelicals, then his readers will know that he is not that kind of evangelical — though I think his readers are way smarter than that and that no one confuses Messiah College with David Barton U. (or even Liberty U.).

But the bigger objection is that John only goes after evangelicals when they do this and not the entire enchilada of American Protestantism. To read John’s blog, you might receive the impression that only the Religious Right has engaged in a crass Christian nationalism (as if a refined Christian nationalism exists). But what about when mainline Protestants engage in the kind of civil religion that evangelicals advance?

Consider President Obama’s remarks while welcoming Pope Francis:

You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to put the “least of these” at the center of our concern. You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and as societies, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity – because we are all made in the image of God.

You remind us that “the Lord’s most powerful message” is mercy. That means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart – from the refugee who flees war torn lands, to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life. It means showing compassion and love for the marginalized and the outcast, those who have suffered, and those who seek redemption. . . .

Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example. And in these gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another, you are shaking us out of complacency. All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true and right. But I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better. You shake our conscience from slumber; you call on us to rejoice in Good News, and give us confidence that we can come together, in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just, and more free. Here at home and around the world, may our generation heed your call to “never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!”

Maybe you agree with President Obama’s policies and Pope Francis’ teaching. But what is this “we” and “our” of which POTUS speaks? How is that anything but a mixing of Rome’s religion with America’s political norms?

And what about FDR’s “speech” that informed citizens of America’s involvement in the D-Day operations (June 6, 1944) — get this — in the form of a prayer?

My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.

And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom. . . .

Wow!

No matter how big Jeffress’ congregation is and no matter how many Americans Barton may reach with his materials, neither can hold a candle to the kind of resources POTUS brings to bear on the nation and the world. Can Barton or Jeffress make war? I don’t think so.

So why not go after the nationalism that informs American officials who actually use force legitimately and send American soldiers to battle?

Why not also cease treating President Trump as if he is unworthy of presiding over a righteous nation? If Trump’s critics actually had a different moral standard rather than an expectation that POTUS should conform to Christian morality, they might become less indignant. Plenty of reasons to oppose Trump without Christian ones.

Pope Angelo

First, he condemned Joe Paterno to hell.

Now, Angelo Cataldi opens the pearly gates for Darren Daulton, the Phillies catcher who succumbed to brain cancer yesterday. On this morning’s show, Angelo told one caller whose mom, now deceased, had a crush on the sexiest MLB player of the 1990s, that she now had the chance to meet Dutch since both the mom and the catcher were in heaven.

I initially thought that Angelo was going beyond the creed of Therapeutic Moralistic Deism. Maybe this was a holdover from his pre-Vatican II upbringing in the archdiocese of Providence, Rhodes Island. Surely the idea of heaven and hell — eternal rewards and punishments — was harshing out his listener’s buzz of learning about car insurance discounts and dancers at “gentlemen”‘s clubs. But sure enough, heaven is part of Therapeutic Moralistic Deism’s creed:

God is a cosmic therapist and divine butler, ready to help out when needed. He exists but really isn’t a part of our lives. We are supposed to be “good people,” but each person must find what’s right for him or her. Good people will go to heaven, and we shouldn’t be stifled by organized religion where somebody tells us what we should do or what we should believe.

Mind you, Angelo should not speculate on Daulton’s eternal fate. It’s not what sports-talk-radio-hosts should do. But if Angelo is going to create a moral spread sheet on every sports figure in Philadelphia, can he himself really stand in that great day?

How Did that Work Out for You?

From the history of Cleveland Presbyterianism (1896):

OF Cleveland Presbyterianism it may be said that it was from the beginning New Englandized, and then recruited from New York rather than from Pennsylvania. In type of theological belief, then, it has always been liberal, but at the same time evangelical and fairly aggressive, as seen in its missionary spirit. The network of churches now numbers seventeen, counting the East Cleveland, Windermere, and Glenville Churches, which are out of the city only by a narrow bound. The aggregate membership of these churches is about 6,500. All the congregations are housed in admirable buildings, and the value of the property is fully $1,000,000. These churches furnish sittings for about 10,000 worshipers, while in the Sunday-schools there are 6,500 scholars.

The 1801 Plan of Union was a killer. It placed Presbyterians on the front lines of United States religious nationalism. They made America great and Presbyterians have not been able to give up their seat at the table ever since.

Tribalism Comes Naturally

Damon Linker explains why Marx and Plato were wrong:

Politics in all times and places involves a bounded community defining itself, and its citizens ruling themselves, in contradistinction to other bounded communities. The community can be a village, tribe, or city-state; a nation-state; or an empire. Certain forms of government are better suited to certain sizes than others. (A small community can work as a pure democracy, for example, but a vast empire never could.) But regardless of the community’s size, it always has limits (a border), and it always draws a distinction between those who are permitted to join the community and those who are not; between who is and who is not a citizen; and between who does and who does not get to enjoy the privileges that come with citizenship, including a say in making such determinations in the future. This may in fact be the most elemental political act of all, the basis of everything else the political community does. To declare that this act is prima facie illegitimate is to declare a foundational political act to be illegitimate. It is to treat politics itself as in some sense morally compromised. . . .

But then again, neither is it possible to justify in universal-rational terms the right to private property or, really, any form of inherited (unearned) wealth or privilege. The more you think about it, politics (very much including liberal politics) is an activity shot through with norms, practices, and beliefs that can be rather easily exposed as “fictions” once subjected to universal-rational scrutiny.

That’s why philosophers as otherwise so profoundly different as Plato and Karl Marx have concluded that the rule of reason and justice demands communism (the abolition of private property). Indeed, Plato went even further than Marx, to suggest that in a perfectly rational and just political system, property communism would need to be combined with communism of families, with children taken from their parents at birth and raised by the community as a whole. After all, isn’t deference to a mother’s love for her own child based on the fiction that she is always automatically best suited by nature to raise him or her?

The most that might be said for our neoliberal almost-open-border advocates is that they think Plato should have gone even farther in subjecting politics to universal-rational scrutiny and advocated a completely communist state that is also boundless in extent, encompassing all people everywhere, without distinction.

In other words, Plato should have advocated the universal, homogenous state — which is precisely what many on the center-left seem to not-so-secretly believe morality demands.

That such a state is neither possible nor desirable (recall what I said about the largest political communities and their incompatibility with democracy) should be obvious. But then what do our universalist liberals hope to accomplish, not by raising perfectly reasonable objections to specific immigration restrictions, but by denying the legitimacy of having any immigration restrictions at all? There are many, many intellectually coherent answers to the two key questions of immigration policy (Who can come here? And how many of them?) — but many on the left seem to think there is only one legitimate answer to each question (Everyone. And all of them). This is ludicrous.

Linker could have added evangelicals and Roman Catholics who think that the parable of the Good Samaritan should inform how American Christians respond to outsiders:

So, as governments oversee matters of security, we will care for the hurting, calling Christians to embrace refugees through their denomination, congregation, or other nonprofits by providing for immediate and long-term needs, such as housing, food, clothing, employment, English-language classes, and schooling for children.

We distinguish that the refugees fleeing this violence are not our enemies; they are victims. We call for Christians to support ministries showing the love of Jesus to the most vulnerable, those in desperate need, and the hurting. This is what Jesus did; he came to the hurting and brought peace to those in despair.

Critical moments like these are opportunities for us to be like Jesus, showing and sharing his love to the hurting and the vulnerable in the midst of this global crisis. Thus we declare that we care, we are responding because our allegiance is to Jesus, and we seek to be more like him, emulating his compassionate care for the most vulnerable.

Granted, aid to refugees is not immigration policy. Nor is Emma Lazarus‘ poem.

But borders matter and Christians who want to assist those who have fled their homelands do so not as residents of planet earth but as citizens whose nations make laws that govern who comes and goes. Just try traveling somewhere outside the U.S. to minister the gospel or provide diaconal assistance without a passport.

Don’t Blame Calvinism

In his daily set of links to items of interest, Michael Sean Winters commits this drive by:

we as a culture used to know money was corrupting, but have forgotten that fact in recent years. There is something to the argument, to be sure, but there was a fascination with the robber barons and the Newport elite longer before “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” came along. And Calvinism, the strongest religious influence in our culture, has always had a soft spot for wealth, seeing it as evidence of divine approval, rather than as the devil laying his traps.

Notice the either-or perspective on wealth — either it’s from God or from the devil. And Winters thinks Roman Catholic conservatives are guilty of dualism.

What Winters reveals is that Rome has never caught up to Protestants on vocation and how to understand work in the world (whether you make a lot of money or not). Imagine if Rome had taught about secular work as part of the priesthood of all believers. They might have helped Protestants who tried to hold back the tide of acquisitive (or status seeking) participation in the market.

Consider the way that Rod Liddle in his review of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy describes middle-class English Protestantism of a generation or so ago:

I was of J. D.’s mum’s generation, the people who made fecklessness a lifestyle choice, and were somehow encouraged to do so. We jettisoned almost everything our parents believed in and made ourselves much worse off—just as did J. D.’s mother. I tried to make sense of this generational shift in a book—Selfish, Whining Monkeys—which attempted to explain the reasons why my generation had managed, in such a short space of time, to let down their children and their parents. Some of it accords with what Vance has to say, even if he does not spell it out. Gone, for example, was any notion of deferred gratification and work ethic—just one of the many consequences of the diminished importance of religion in our lives.

Protestantism inculcated a simple and perhaps confining moral code: work hard, invest, don’t steal, look after your community, put your family first, wait for reward—always wait for reward. Don’t sleep around, don’t lie, don’t spend more money than you have. For my parents’ generation, divorce was a stigma and vanishingly rare, at that. But recently I stood outside a Middlesbrough job center interviewing one hundred or so people who were seeking work. Every single one of that hundred came from a broken family. Every one. And of those who now had children themselves, every one was no longer with the partner with whom she’d had the child. And this state of affairs had not made them happy; it had wrecked them. They were all J. D.’s mum now.

What’s so bad about that approach to work and economic considerations? Granted, those middle-class virtues are not the sole possession of Protestant creeds and confessions. But it is hardly a recipe for “the lives of the rich and famous.”

And what did Roman Catholics offer as an alternative?

Within the early Christian community through the medieval period, a similar attitude toward work in the world as associated with the body and the lower elements of human nature prevailed. Through the influences especially of neo-Platonic thought, the emphasis was upon a life spent in contemplation, as reflected in these words of Augustine in the 5th century, “the contemplation of God is promised us as the goal of all our actions and the eternal perfection of happiness,” or Aquinas in the 13th century, “the contemplation of divine truth . . . is the goal of the whole of human life.” Work which meets the needs of the body, then, has “no lasting religious significance.” As theologian Ernst Troeltsch notes in his monumental study, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, “An ethic which starts from the point of view of an original equality, and which holds that the differences that do exist are due to sin, and which at its best regards the division of labour as a Divine arrangement adapted to the needs of fallen humanity, is inherently unable to see any value in ‘callings’ at all” (Troeltsch, Social Teaching, I, 121).

The monastery or the nunnery, places of withdrawal from worldly activities, exemplified the most valued state of life, and even while bodily work occurred in those settings, the work was a means of purification and the development of virtue, not an activity to be pursued for itself. Furthermore, in the later medieval period as liturgical practices took up more and more of the roles and time of the monks and nuns, they no longer worked to support themselves; many lived off the wealth of the aristocracy through gifts in exchange for prayer. Even the wandering mendicant friars lived off the good will of those whom they met along the way.

In the Catholic understanding, vocation was a response to God’s calling by removing oneself from the cares and concerns of this world. Sociologist Max Weber notes that in Jewish traditions, among the Greek and Roman classics, or in the medieval world of Catholicism, vocation had none of the contemporary meaning of a fulfillment of one’s duties to God by active engagement in the world. Further, in the medieval world someone who engaged in the work of business was certainly suspect; today’s business state of mind “would both in ancient times and in the Middle Ages have been proscribed as the lowest sort of avarice and as an attitude entirely lacking in self-respect.”8 “Business was only possible for those lax in ethical thinking.” According to Aquinas, there is “something shameful about it [commerce], being without any honorable or necessary defining goal” (quoted in Tam).

Instead of blaming Calvinism, Winters may want to look in the mirror. He may also want to think, as Liddle encourages readers, about economists on the left and the right who have no dog in the hunt for the church Jesus founded:

But it’s not just the retreat of religion, or more properly, our retreat from religion, that caused this shift. It was also the rise of two supposedly oppositional doctrines that grew up in the early 1960s. First, the post-Marxist Frankfurt school of sociologists (Habermas, Horkheimer, Marcuse, et al.), which posited the overthrowing of those old, discredited notions of respect for authority, of capitalism, of anything that could be considered bourgeois, in favor of rampant individualism and free expression—sexually, morally, politically—which unpicked the fabric painstakingly woven by our parents and their parents before them. And then the Chicago school of economists (Hayek, Friedman, et al.), which also posited a rapacious individualism at the expense of the larger society. A deregulated economy in which homes were not places in which one lived, but another form of collateral. An imperative to strive to make money and to spend, to consume and consume without the constraints which had previously attended.

An Argument that Bites Off More than It Can Chew

Bishop Robert Barron is traveling in Italy and recently came across the teeth of Ambrose of Milan. They were on display as relics at a basilica in Milan, and led the bishop to make this argument in defense of such sacred material:

[Cardinal Newman] had come to understand such pious gestures as a logical development of the doctrine of the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, the Word of God truly became flesh. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity took to himself a human mind and will and imagination, but also feet, hands, internal organs, muscles, veins, and bones. He lived, died, and rose in a real human body. Subsequently, in the mystical body of the Church, the Incarnation is extended through space and time, the Spirit of Jesus coming to dwell in the humanity of all the baptized and in a privileged way in the humanity of the saints. Paul acknowledged this truth when he cried exultantly, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” How wonderful, too, that this Christ-life is placed in the bodies of the faithful through the materiality of the sacraments: water, oil, imposed hands, transfigured bread and wine, etc. And this, Newman realized, is why the Church has, from the beginning, reverenced the bodies of the saints and treasured their relics. She has known that, as Paul put it, our bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit, dwelling places of Christ.

So why not save the remains of all the deceased? Ara Parseghian seemed like a pretty decent man who, even though a Presbyterian, Notre Dame fans revered. Why not preserve his bones and teeth?

The reason is that only some believers in Rome achieve the status of sainthood. Only their remains are holy. The others? The incarnation only goes so far.