Ecumenism is Radical (and that’s not good)

If conservatives value variety, why do conservative Roman Catholics insist on church unity? Russell Kirk said that true conservatives actually appreciate difference and pluriformity:

[C]onservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.

Maybe that makes John Turner a conservative who is not going along with the Reformation as tragedy because it divided the church:

First and foremost, there was no good reason for the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the first place. Jesus bestowed the keys of the kingdom on Peter, but it seems clear from the Book of Acts and the Pauline epistles that Peter hardly exercised anything like papal authority in the early church. The historical evidence for Peter becoming the first bishop of Rome (or even being in the city) is unconvincing to one not already convinced. While Protestants obviously sundered the institutional unity of the Western church, it was a sort of unity unauthorized by scripture and unwarranted by the circumstances of the early church. (It also seems snarky but necessary to mention that Rome bore considerable responsibility for the Great Schism between East and West that preceded the Reformation by a half-millennium).

Second, it is not at all clear to me that Jesus’s prayer for Christian unity means that Jesus wanted his church to have an institutional, hierarchical unity along the lines of either the late-medieval or contemporary Catholic Church. The Book of Acts suggests that the apostles in Jerusalem exercised a measured primacy among early Christians, but for the most part Christianity spread around the Mediterranean world and to the East in a way that fostered local autonomy and diversity. This diversity of theologies and even collections of scripture alarmed many Christians, some of whom identified many strands of Christianity as heresy. By the fourth century, newly tolerated and then established Christianity sought to impose theological order on this chaos. The result was the institutionally useful but not terribly New Testament idea that all Christians had to have essentially the same understanding of Jesus Christ and of the relationship among the members of the Trinity. Getting at least most Christians to assent to the fourth- and fifth-century creeds took a considerable amount of viciousness and sometimes violence.

So it’s the church unitedists who also likely go for the United Nations and the European Union (even while in some parts of the world arguing for a “two-state” solution).

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How Others Hear Us

So if Christians, Roman Catholic and Protestant, want a Christian society or commonwealth or polity, what does that mean for non-Christians? That seems to me the question that most critics of 2k fail to answer. It is also a question to which 2k supplies an answer that 2k critics reject.

But consider this contribution to the Commentary magazine forum of the First Things symposium on “The End of Democracy”:

Years ago (how many, I do not remember) I was on a panel with the late Russell Kirk, the doyen of the paleoconservatives, and sitting behind him when, at the podium, he outlined his plan for a Christian commonwealth. Rather rudely, I must admit, I interrupted him by asking, in a voice audible throughout the room, “What are you going to do with us Jews?” The question obviously took him aback, first because he knew I was not Jewish, but most of all, I suspect, because it had never occurred to him to ask it, or to have to answer it. After a short pause, he mumbled something to the effect that, of course, he did not mean to exclude Jews or anyone else.

Having raised the question, I felt obliged to point out that the Constitution provides a better answer: by separating church and state, I said, the Founders intended to provide (in the words of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer) a haven “for all sorts and conditions of men,” and the foundation of this haven—safe for the Jews and safe for the rest of us—was not Christianity, and certainly not the church of that prayerbook, but liberty of conscience, a liberal principle whose provenance was John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.

Sure, a secular society has limitations. But so do Christian societies.

So why can’t we all get along and be thankful for the United States of America?

Christ and Whatever

This video has been making the rounds and it reminded me of how inexact the current evangelical understanding of culture is. Many assume that culture is everything that the church or religion is not and so Christianity and culture need to be brought into a coherent relationship. The problem is that this understanding of culture is about as precise as the adolescent quip “whatever.”

For instance, here is an on-line dictionary definition of culture:

1. the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.
2. that which is excellent in the arts, manners, etc.
3. a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture.

In other words, culture used to refer generally to the arts, education of a liberal variety, morals, manners, and languages. This definition arose chiefly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when European nations were caught up with their superiority over barbarian continents and peoples. That’s not meant to be a swipe against the notions of higher, lower, and middle-brow cultures. It is to suggest that we are using the word today when talking about “the transformation of culture” in a different way than it was originally employed. Since language is essential to culture, the idea of transforming English or Dutch or Swahili according to — what, Christian rules of language? — makes about as much sense as transforming culture.

What is not used nearly as much — in fact, seldom — by evangelicals is the phrase “civil society” and this is much closer to what people mean when they talk about transforming culture. Civil society refers to all of those spheres of life outside control by or regulation from the state. It is comprised of clubs, community organizations, schools, and voluntary associations of all kinds including churches, for starters. And what characterizes civil society, as opposed to culture, is pluriformity and diversity. A healthy civil society is one in which people form distinct associations to address separate parts of human existence. A Kuyperian might be tempted to speak of sphere sovereignty when thinking about civil society but in a healthy society voluntary associations far outnumber the spheres.

But what is particularly frustrating about contemporary appeals to culture and its need for transformation is that the Bible fails to yield a definition of culture or describe a Christian one for that matter. The notion of culture is much later than Hebrew or Christian times and the concept is simply absent in Scripture. That sure is an oddity if Christians are more then ever agitated to Christianize the culture.

Of course, the remedy, as usual, is to read the likes of a Russell Kirk, T. S. Eliot, or Joseph Epstein on culture and what makes for a wholesome one, and let the Bible speak for itself about matters of faith and practice. Authors who do not go to the Bible for the details of a healthy culture do go to another divinely revealed book whether they know it or not — general revelation. If evangelicals spent more time reading secular authors on culture, and less time trying to find cultural patterns or norms in holy writ, they might deflate the scope of culture and find less reason to transform it. And that in turn might elevate the importance of word, sacraments, and prayer.