In the comments of the last post, someone brought up the question of whether or not a good way to describe modernity is as a “Christian heresy.” I don’t think this is a good way to describe modernity. The notion of modernity as heresy is just too easy. It places “Christianity” safely insulated from the horrors of modernity under critique, even as it give a nod to modernity’s roots in Christianity. By rendering modernity as a Christian heresy we acknowledge the (undeniable) historical link between Christianity and modernity while simultaneously saying that true, orthodox Christianity (i.e. those who think and act like us) really had nothing to do with it. Like saying, “Well yes, the Crusades sure were awful, but after all none of those participating in it were real Christians.”
The problem is not that modernity is a Christian heresy, it is rather that it is precisely the outworking of Christian orthodoxy. This is an important point. Modernity does not stem from an aberration within orthodox Christianity, but from the triumph of Christian orthodoxy itself (i.e. Christendom).
The problem with labeling a modernity a heresy is that it renders Christianity entirely innocent by defining Christianity in an ahistorical and ideological way. “True Christian orthodoxy” is just never to blame for anything and anything that is bad in the world has to be some deviation from this pristine (Platonic?) Christian ideal. If we take the history of Christianity seriously, however, we have to say that modernity does not arise from the denial or mutilation of Christianity, but rather from orthodox Christianity itself. This is why the more fruitful way to critique the ideologies of modernity is not to strive to go back to some premodern past when things were allegedly still orthodox wonderful. Rather it is to look back to the very particular reality of Jesus of Nazareth, whose life, death, and resurrection stands in perpetual judgment of all ideologies. And all orthodoxies.
I’m completely and utterly tired of massive Christian critiques of “modernity.” Its not that I don’t think there something useful to learn from many of these, its just that they tend to go way off the rails. We often hear statements like “modernity is a dead end and the only way forward is the recovery of classical, Christian orthodoxy.”
I don’t really think I even understand what this is really supposed to mean. What on earth do we mean by “way forward”? What does it mean to say that “orthodoxy” is going to move us beyond modernity to wherever we’re supposed to be? I assume that “we” are the world system as it once was at some point and we really, really want it to be that way again. This seems to me to be a boiled-down statement of John Milbank’s nostalgia for a sort of neo-fascist premodernity.
Now, I’m all for decrying “individualism” and all the other woes that stem from the Enlightenment. But come on. First of all, the idea that Christianity and modernity are two arch-rivals locked in a titanic battle for the future of the world is just nonsense. Modernity is completely unintelligible apart from its rootage in Christianity and Christendom. This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t or can’t be theological critiques of the modern world, only that attempting to get critical leverage on modernity by positing Christianity—as this “other” force that used to order the world for wonderfullness and could again if we just got rid of modernity—is just historically naive.
And secondly, modernity is just not all that bad. This is, in some ways a personal point for me. I was born with a congenital heart problem that was corrected by surgery, and a very new form of surgery at the time. It’s healthy as a horse now and I’ll probably live as long as anyone with a normal heart. If I were born in the premodern paradise of blessed Christendom I’d already be dead, if I even survived childbirth. So would my best friend Steve, the diabetic.
Of course, most of the yearners for the glorious premodern will insist that it was actually Christianity, not modernity that invented everything good and helpful in the world. This however just proves the point I made above. Christianity and modernity cannot be disentangled as though one could be used to give critical leverage against the other.
Sure, there are a hell of a lot of things wrong with modernity and the world we live in—and, umm with Christianity. No one denies that. But the way to address this theologically is not to start freaking out and trying to figure out how to recreate some sort of pan-Christian social fascism. What we need is to not look back to premodern Christendom or the social Constantinianism of nineteenth and twentieth century America. This is precisely the wrong approach. What we need to do is return again to the very particular history of Jesus of Nazareth who alone frees us from the rule of powers and ideologies. This, of course is a far more risky endevor as we don’t have the sort of security provided by the mere reassertion of a given social order from the past. Rather we are thrown back upon the interruptive and destabilizing reality of Jesus and his call to discipleship.
But if you live in Portland, you should head down to 5th and Oak downtown and get yourself one of these awesome schnitzelwiches:
There is way more chicken (or pork) than this picture shows though. Amazing, amazing sandwiches.
Again from Kaye’s superb book on conflict in the church:
We observe in early Christianity that existing social connections and priorities are in a state of flux and are being changed. The absolute claims of Jesus’s lordship cut across existing patterns for social and personal order. The immediate result is to introduce new patterns of diversity and difference within the newly constituted community of the churches. The early Christian reality was that the gospel, universal in its scope and address and yet demanding a personal and living response, laid the foundations of a rich profusion of local diversity and cosmic belonging. (p. 24)
Or, to put it in different terms, what we see in the unfolding of the church recounted in the New Testament is the irruptive happening of catholicity itself in diverse and particular contexts. The event of catholicity is, thus, an event that is at once subversive of existing social conventions and generative of new possibilities for human life and community.
Ran across a quote I found interesting in a book I’m proofreading the other day on Paul’s correspondence in 1 Corinthians about church order:
Paul does not settle a question of disorder or division with a form of order or an organizational structure. Rather he underlines the diversity of contribution by naming it as a gift from the risen Christ. He leaves open the full effect of that variety according to the core principle of love. Love is more abiding than faith and hope, it is certainly more fundamental than arrangements of order. This is extraordinarily high risk in group dynamic terms. In theological terms, it is a stunning assertion of confidence in the creative ordering of divine presence.
The quote is taken from Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith by Bruce Kaye, p. 16-17 (forthcoming from Cascade Books).
I think it is a pretty important point on the issue of the meaning and function of church order, at least insofar as we seek to have the apostolic witness of the New Testament inform such issues in our own context. Here Paul sounds remarkably Johannine, lacking even a hint of what would later come to be called Petrine in his recommendations for dealing with conflict in the church.
“The Bible does not speak into the civil order without being read by a believing community. It is not only a story about a community . . . it is read in a community which owns it as their shared story.
“That story is about a people, a civil reordering in their very existence, not only potentially or by implication. No ‘bridge’ or ‘translation’ is needed to make the Bible a book about politics. The new order, the new humanity, does not replace or destroy the old, but that does not make the new order apolitical. Its very existence is subversive at the points the old order is repressive, and creative where the old is without vision. The transcendence of the new consists not in its escaping the realm where the old order rules, but in its subverting and transforming that realm.”
~ John Howard Yoder, For the Nations, 84.
For those who are interested, I’ve just had my review of Bruce Benson and Peter Heltzel’s new book, Evangelicals and Empire published in The Other Journal. The book is a fascinating engagement with the empire theory of Hardt and Negri from the standpoint of evangelicalism. The book looks both at how Hardt and Negri’s theory might be brought to bear on evangelicalism and how evangelical theology might offer challenges to Hardt and Negri. Definitely worth a read.
John Howard Yoder continues to become more and more of an influence on me, both materially and methodologically in regard to both theology and ethics. Of course, many, many folks have never read or even heard of Yoder. This is to be expected, given his Mennonite context. If you’re not a Mennonite or lack much connection with that tradition there’s a pretty good chance that you wouldn’t run across Yoder’s work too readily.
So, for those who are looking for some kind of vector of entry into Yoder’s thought and “style,” my recommendation (as far as introductory secondary literature goes) would actually be Lee Camp’s Mere Discipleship. This is one of the most accessible books I’ve ever read. It succeeds at distilling most of Yoder’s thought without reductionism or mere parroting. Part of the reason for this, I think is that Camp’s book is not simply trying to be an analysis of Yoder’s work. Rather he is trying to say what Christianity is in the way that Yoder understood it. And he accomplishes this task admirably. Certainly there’s stuff to criticize in the book, and it sets out to present, not defend the ideas articulated therein. But, regardless this is definitely the layman’s introduction to Christianity according to Yoder.
“The way Scripture works to order and to re-order is not that Scripture lays from scratch a foundation on which we then build with integrity. It is not that—according to either the Puritan vision or the Catholic one—the Bible provides a changeless charter. It is rather the case that Scriptures are appealed to as a critical instance in the controversies about reformation and change. The church is not built upon a canon. Scripture comes into being with status as “canon” in midstream, as a believing community needs to illuminate and adjudicate choices among alternative futures in order to be true to the common past. It is then that Scriptures are called upon; only when they are thus called upon does a second order ruling become necessary (“canon” in the narrower sense) as to which witnesses we agree we can all appeal to. The creation of ‘Scripture’ is thus a critical event and not a conservative phenomenon.”
~ John Howard Yoder, To Hear the Word (Forthcoming edition)
“That lordship is servanthood, that he who empties himself unto death is elevated to the right hand of the Father, is not a gnostic redemption cult historicized, it is the career of JHWH’s Servant doxologized. It constitutes within real human history a concrete (civil!) alternative both to the world-dominating claims of Cyrus (or Caesar) and to the righteous zeal of the Maccabees. This is not political language being used metaphorically to describe spiritual transcendence or quietism. It is a concretely alternative way to be God’s Servant, in both corporate and individual personhood.”
~ John Howard Yoder, To Hear the Word (Forecoming Edition)
Real posts return tomorrow with a flurry of reflections on stuff I’m reading in Barth and Yoder. In the meantime, enjoy a nice smoked chicken if you have the equipment, time, and inclination.
Still taking it easy. Last night enjoyed my first-made Corpse Reviver. Definitely lives up to the name.
Real posts coming soon. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But soon. In the meantime, enjoy a Bourbon Renewal. It’ll change your life.
“The classic debate between orthodox Protestantism and Tridentine Catholicism led us astray at this point. The Protestants seemed to be claiming that the authority of the Scriptures depends upon the unique miracle of inspiration (some even said “inscripturation”) whereby they came into being, which gives them timeless status above the church. That argument was circular on two counts; it did not itself explain the criteria of canonization, and the basis for the claim to inspired authority lay within the texts themselves. Catholicism served us no better by answering that the texts only have the authority which the church gave them. This is not true either, because the church which confirmed the authority of the texts, in the course of the early centuries was not the same as the first-century church which wrote them, nor was the Roman hierarchy presenting this claim in the seventeenth century. The alternative, simply stated long ago by Oscar Cullmann, is much more apt. The development of a selection of writings, recognized as authoritative by the churches, constitutes the final proof, delivered by the church itself, that the church does not claim final authority but rather subjects herself to the witness of the apostolic age. This submission to the apostolic witness is not a statement about the event of inspiration or the uniqueness of the authorship of certain texts. It is a statement about the accountability of the Christian community as a movement within history, whose claim to be faithful to her historical origins in the midst of historical change obliges her to identify the criteria of that accountability. The affirmation of accountability is not dependent upon any theory about how the texts came to be written or selected.”
~ John Howard Yoder, To Hear the Word, 93-4. (New Edition forthcoming from Cascade Books.)