Friday, August 04, 2017

On "orthodox Christianity": some observations, and a couple of questions

What do people mean when they wring their hands about the fate of "orthodox Christianity" (small-o) today, or when they vent about the treatment of "orthodox Christians" in an increasingly secularized society?

A few observations and a couple of questions:

Historically, the measure of "orthodox" Christianity has been conciliar; that is, orthodoxy was rooted in, and measured by, the ecumenical councils and creeds of the church (Nicea, Chalcedon) which were understood to have distilled the grammar of "right belief" (ortho, doxa) in the Scriptures.  As such, orthodoxy centers around the nature of God (Triune), the Incarnation, the means of our salvation, the church, and the life to come.  The markers of orthodoxy are tied to the affirmations of, say, the Nicene Creed: the creatorhood of God; the divine/human nature of the Incarnate Son; the virgin birth; the historicity of Jesus' life and death; the affirmation of his bodily resurrection and ascension; the hope of the second coming; the triune affirmation of Father, Son, and Spirit; the affirmation of "one holy catholic and apostolic church"; one baptism; and the hope of our own bodily resurrection.

Interestingly, and perhaps a little ironically, even low church, anti-creedal Protestants end up measuring orthodoxy by these same measures.  Even more interestingly, early 20th century "fundamentalism" and the conservative renewal in historic streams like Presbyterianism, also revolved around these orthodox markers. The famous Fundamentals of 1910-1915 focused on these historic markers (with added Protestant polemics about Scripture and Roman Catholicism). And Machen's Christianity and Liberalism was pegged to these same markers: Doctrine, God and Man, the Bible, Christ, Salvation, and the Church. (You won't find the words "sex" or "marriage" in Christianity and Liberalism.)

Contrast this with most invocations of "orthodox Christianity" today. In some contexts, the use of the word "orthodox" seems to have nothing to do with these historic markers of Christian faith.  Indeed, in many cases "orthodox Christianity" means only one thing: a particular view of sexuality and marriage. Indeed, in some books of late, the adjective "orthodox" is only invoked when talking about morality, and sexual morality in particular.  In fact, in some of those books the historic markers of orthodox Christianity as summarized in the creeds make no appearance and almost seem irrelevant to the analysis.  So when people are said to suffer for their "orthodox" beliefs, or when we are told that "orthodox" Christians will be hounded from public life and persecuted in their professions, a closer reading shows that it is not their beliefs in the Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, or Resurrection that occasion these problems, but rather their beliefs about morality, and sexual morality in particular.  There don't seem to be any bakers refusing to bake cakes for atheists, and I've yet to hear of Silicon Valley CEOs being fired because they affirm the Incarnation of the Son or the resurrection of the dead.

I note this only to observe that this deployment of the term "orthodox" is recent, innovative, and narrow.  Ironically, it reflects a trait of modernity that those who use it would abhor: a tendency to reduce Christianity to a morality (see: Kant).  One could forgive Martian anthropologists who, parachuting into contemporary debates, concluded that "orthodox Christianity" just is a sexual ethic.

Now, no one for a second can deny that such views of sexual morality and marriage have been the historic teaching of the church. The weight of Scripture, tradition, and perhaps even "natural law" have sustained these views and beliefs for millennia. And one could argue that the silence on such matters in, say, Machen or The Fundamentals only reflects what was taken for granted, not what was unimportant.  Certainly.  And just because they are not matters of creedal definition doesn't mean they are matters of indifference. The creeds don't say anything about Christian nonviolence, for example, but that hardly means Christians are therefore free to adopt any posture or position they want if they follow the Prince of Peace.

But it is surely also worth pointing out that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate such standards. If the adjective "orthodox" is untethered from such ecumenical standards, it quickly becomes a cheap epithet we idiosyncratically attach to views and positions in order to write off those we disagree with as "heretics" and unbelievers.  If "orthodox" becomes an adjective that is unhooked from these conciliar canons, then it becomes a word we use to make sacrosanct the things that matter to "us" in order to exclude "them."  And then you can start folding all kinds of things into "orthodoxy" like mode of baptism or pre-tribulation rapture or opposition to the ordination of women--which then entails writing off swaths of Christians who affirm conciliar orthodoxy.

So perhaps we should be more careful with how we use the adjective orthodox.  It can't be a word we flippantly use to describe what is important to us.  The word is reserved to define and delineate those affirmations that are at the very heart of Christian faith--and God knows they are scandalous enough in a secular age.

Perhaps we need to introduce another adjective--"traditional"--to describe these historic views and positions on matters of morality.  Why?  Because otherwise these other markers will end up trumping the conciliar marks of the Gospel.  That is, the things we append as "orthodox" start to overwhelm and supersede what the church has defined as orthodox.

Here's where my questions arise:

1. Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?  So that someone can affirm the core, scandalous, supernatural tenets of the Gospel, and affirm the radicality of grace, and yet fall outside the parameters of your small-o "orthodox Christianity?"

2. Those who stretch the markers of orthodoxy seem oddly selective. (Were condemnations of usury "orthodox?" They were certainly historic and traditional.)  Let's look at a concrete example: the historic creeds affirm "one baptism."  Consider, then, this scenario: You are a conservative Anglican who has raised your children in the faith since they were baptized as babies. Your daughter falls in love with a nice Southern Baptist boy. They are engaged to be married, and want to make their home at the local Baptist church and be married there. For your daughter to become a member, she will have to re-baptized. Aren't these Baptists--who share your sexual morality--rejecting the (creedal) orthodox marker of "one baptism?"  Who's "orthodox" now?

Making this distinction doesn't settle anything. But it does change how we have the conversations. And it's worth remembering that people are watching and listening in. While we debate matters of importance, let's hope that those who overhear us still hear the scandalous, marvelous, miraculous affirmations of creedal orthodoxy ringing loud and clear: that "He descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead." And he forgives us.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Mortality and My Library

It is the first day of summer, at least according to my own personal academic calendar. The college’s commencement was this past Saturday. My official duties have been discharged for the year. Too many writing obligations loom for the summer; so, of course, I’m procrastinating. The piles and piles of books on the floor beside our bed somehow became stacks in our youngest son’s bedroom. But he has now returned from college. So those piles were dumped in my office while I was out of town, barring the way to my desk. This is a welcome distraction.  I “have” to look for shelf space for all these books in order to get down to work. 

The piles have a kind of archaeological quality: they are like the strata of my attention and fancies over the past year, the fits and starts of my curiosity. All the dust on a volume of Shelby Foote’s Civil War history indicate that it has been the bedrock of the stack. Tiny volumes like Patti Smith’s Auguries of Innocence got lost in the layers of larger tomes. It now sits on the stairs to be returned to my bedside, along with A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. After all, these are the sorts of books that summers are for. 

Some of these volumes look at me with stern judgment, signals of failure: my bookmark indicates I only made it halfway through Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, though the dog-ears and pencil notations indicate some vested interest. Issue of Paris Review and n+1 are half-read, displaced by the next issue. 

i recall fondly my second readings of George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Adam Haslett’s collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, as I prepped for their novels, which were both excellent.  

The nonfiction layers are curious to me now: Catching Fire, an evolutionary history of cooking sits not far from Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy—which brings to mind a delightful visit to Powell’s in Portland. Indeed, handling each book comes with a whiff of its provenance—in Pasadena and Asheville, a gift from a friend, a book review assignment. 

And as I try to find room for all of these on shelves already burgeoning and lined two rows deep, I’m returning books alongside others unread. Despite all the Julian Barnes I read this year, there are still books on the shelf I’ve not made it to yet. There’s volume 3 of Foote’s civil war Narrative glaring at me unread. I put Colson Whitehead on the shelf and am reminded that Richard Wright is still waiting for me. As are volumes of Updike and Edith Wharton. I find a place for Hitchens’ Arguably only to be reminded that I have all these treasures from Alfred Kazin waiting to be read. 

A young man builds his library in hope. Each paperback treasure is acquired as an act of aspiration. A library is an image of the man he hopes to be: the canon he constructs is a standard of what he thinks he ought to know. It grows quickly, in unexpected ways, exceeding his attention. But there will always be more time to read, right? 

A middle-aged man tends his library with a more sombre aspect. Reshelving a book unfinished is one more failure, a door one closes perhaps never to return. When I put The Noise of Time back on the shelf, I recall all the places Barnes has accompanied me on this adventure. But I see some of his novels still unread and wonder if I’ll ever get back to this corner of the library. In fact, it was Barnes who gave me a word for this: le réveil mortel—the wake-up call of mortality. Who knew tidying your library could be such an existential risk?


At some point you realize: I will die with books unread on my shelf. So be it. The grass withers, the flowers fade, the pages become mildewed and musty. So too will I.   Even those unread books are a sign of aspiration, ambition, hope. I’ll die reading. I trust there are libraries in the kingdom.