Thursday, July 16, 2009

Modernity as a Heresy Revisited: A Clarification of Terms

A few weeks ago I posted a brief article on Michael Allen Gillespie's excellent book, The Theological Origins of Modernity, entitled: "Descartes' Understanding of Man." This post generated two posts of condemnation by Halden Doerge, the second of which generated 78 comments including some very interesting ones from Doug Harink and D. Stephen Long. The posts are entitled: "Why Modernity is not the Problem" and "Why Modernity is not a Christian Heresy" and can be found here.

One of the comments near the end tried to summarize what Halden's problem is with my post and said the following.

"Clearly Halden is concerned, at least on some key level, with the politics effected (or perhaps at the heart of) a certain discursive strategy: whereby an opposition to modernity functions to present Christendom (as what is prior to modernity) and modernity as the only two games in town.”

Halden then quoted this statement and said: "Thanks, Dan. This is quite well put."

So we have a starting point for discussion here. Halden's problem is that he thinks that by calling Modernity a Christian heresy, I am setting up a choice between Chrisendom and Modernity: Choose One! This is so far off from what I was intending to say that it means that clearly there has been a breakdown in communication. Halden and I are not using words to meant the same things. We may well disagree dramatically about Jesus and the Gospel, (or maybe agree), but it would take a lot of terminological clarification to be sure one way or the other.

Christendom - Halden uses this word pejoratively exclusively. He apparently thinks there should never have been a Christendom. The fact that Christendom arose at all is proof positive that the Church had fallen into compromise and true discipleship had been overshadowed by worldliness. I would now use "Christendom" in a more neutral way that I did in my book, Rethinking Christ and Culture, to mean the geographical location where most people are Christian. Christendom need not necessarily imply Constantinianism. (Se below.)

Constantinianism - Halden does not use this word. He does not need to because it for him appears to be synonomous with Christendom. I disagree. I understand "Constantinianism" to be an eschatological heresy first identified by Yoder. (See my: The Politics of the Cross, ch. 6.) Constantinianism is the false doctrine that Christ's future kingdom can be brought into existence here and now by human effort and does not need to await the Second Coming. This heresy allows the Church to over-identify itself with a particular human government or ideology and sanctify it. This leads to utopianism, totalitarianism and ecclesial compromise with violence. I would not say that Christendom necessarily needs to be Constantinian, although it is a constant temptation.

Orthodoxy - I never mentioned either Constantinianism or Christendom in my post, but Halden seems to hear "Christendom" when I say "Orthodoxy." This is deeply concerning to me. Tolstoy took this approach to the limit when he says that one must choose between the Nicene Creed and the Sermon on the Mount: one have one or the other but not both. Is that true? Or is it exactly the opposite of the truth? I contend that one can never have the Sermon on the Mount without the Nicene Creed. One can have a bland form of liberal tolerance, yes, but not the radical discipleship of the Sermon on the Mount without orthodoxy. (If Jesus was just a man and he said what Matt. 5-7 says he said - then he was insane.)

I would not deny that the concept of orthodoxy was misused in Christendom as a tool of oppression. The Church should have stuck to excommunication and not become complicit in killing heretics. There should have been religious freedom. But the abuse does not negate the proper use (Aquinas). Orthodox doctrine is still essential to the Church, its abuse in Christiandom notwithstanding. Christians too are sinners and will abuse everything holy: sacraments, church office, canon law, tithes, music - you name it! We cannot drop everything that has been abused or there would be no Christianity left.

Heresy - I used the term "heresy" in its precise, technical, theological sense. A heresy is a twisting of a true doctrine either by over-emphasizing one aspect of the truth at the expense of other aspects or by over rationalizing the mystery. Contrary to Halden's concerns, "heresy" can never be completely "the other." On the other hand, he goes too far in implying (without actually saying so) that true doctrine "generates" heresy. No: sinners generate heresy, not by faithfully handing on true doctrine (orthodoxy), but by twisting and distorting it.

So Orthodoxy can be used under the guidence of the Holy Spirit to discern truth from error, to correct false teaching and to guard the purity of the Gospel the Church is charged to preach. Orthodoxy can be radical! It can take us back to the roots of our faith. Orthodoxy can condemn deviations from tradition that distort the biblical narrative centering on Jesus Christ.

Of course nominalism arose out of the Medieval Church and of course many orthodox ideas were in the mix of concepts used by Occam and others. It didn't drop out of the sky. It wasn't imported from India. But heresy is always a twisting of truth. Strictly speaking, that which is completely "other" (such as Hinduism or pre-Christian paganism) can never be heretical. Only a Christian doctrine twisted or over-rationalized can be heresy. And that is what the nominalist view of God turned out to be. As one commentator noted, nominalism is not itself a heresy (which is not to say it could not be wrong) but applied to certain doctrines (God and man in this case) it can lead to heresy. And it did.

Halden is too quick to reduce everthing to politics when he says that Orthodoxy conjurs up images of coercive, violent Christendom for him. This is as reductionistic as what he opposes.

One last point: Halden tries to play off "Jesus" against "Orthodoxy" in his post and is rightly criticized for it by Harink and Long. I don't mean to pile on, but there is perhaps one more point to be mentioned here. The question that is begged in using "Jesus" to critique Christendom or Orthodoxy or whatever is "Which Jesus?" There are many concepts of Jesus floating around out there. Which Jesus is the basis for critique? I'm reading Harnak's History of Dogma right now. If Halden does not mean Harnack's Jesus, then what terminology (other than the terminology of the creeds, i.e. orthodoxy) can Halden turn to in order to clarify what he means by "Jesus?" Surely Harink is correct to say that my call "Back to Orthodoxy" in the end is the same as Halden's call "Back to Jesus." But if so, then why cannot Halden admit that Orthodoxy may function as a way of critiquing Christian unfaithfulness today?

I did not have the pure pagan or total non-Christian in my sights, but rather liberal Christianity as in The Episcopal Church. Now they are heretics and also as Constantinian as they come. They are so intertwined with the dominant culture of Modernity that they cannot even conceive of the Church standing against the destruction of marriage and the abandonment of the virtue of chastity. I would go further and say that their heresy even arises out of their Constantinianism because it is their desperate lust for "relevance" that drives their abandoment of communion with orthodox Christians.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Welcome back!

I don't know if you knew about this, but Peter Leithart responded to your criticism of his treatment of Yoder ( a little while ago on his blog:

I guess this is probably only tangentially relevant... but oh well...

It would be nice to have lunch again sometime, if you have any time available (hope the book is finished/coming along...!)