Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Reflections: Déjà Vu, All Over Again

I have started reading yet another of the books on the list that I posted last time, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, by Alister E. McGrath. It is a scholarly text, some of it soaring well above my pay grade, with its untranslated Latin terms, but it is instructive in placing the career of Luther within its historical, academic, and ecclesiastical context.

These sentences particularly struck me as I was reading this morning:

“How can a sinner enter into fellowship with a holy and righteous God? How can the troubled conscience find peace by discovering a gracious God? Luther was not the only one to ask such questions, and was not the only one to find himself confused by the variety of answers given. In practice, it may be noted that the questions which were to torment the young Luther and others so appear to have been asked but rarely in the later medieval period, the predominance of external (and, it seems, largely superficial) forms of the religious life tending to rob such questions of their force.

“Possessed of a tired spirituality, morally bankrupt, doctrinally confused, each succeeding study of the later medieval period confirms this depressing evaluation of the then prevailing state of the Christian church in Europe.”
(p.12)

I find myself similarly confused by the variety of answers being given to this perennial question today. Although there is supposedly great ferment taking place in the Protestant world, it seems that a large part of the excitement is over the involvement of evangelical, and other fundamentalist congregations, in right-wing politics. This often leaves their members supporting leaders such as George W. Bush, and following such men, like so many bleating merinos, into clearly un-Christ-like acts. How can it be that American Christians are even debating, for instance, the morality of torture?

Charity and brother-love among Christians in general, particularly with reference to the Other, be that Other of a different religion, different race and/or nationality, different religious denomination, non-heterosexual gender orientation, etc., seems to be at a premium today. Love of money, not for use in helping the afflicted, but for personal use in the pursuit of frivolous distractions from the quest of a troubled conscience to find peace, seems to be the cultural norm. For the most part, Catholics seem indistinguishable from Protestants in their, perhaps largely unconscious, idolization of this fundamentally nihilistic Zeitgeist; Catholics the victims of “cheap sacraments,” where Protestants are the victims of “cheap grace.”

Jesus said: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me."

I wonder: What did He mean by “my”? And what did He mean by “least”?

13 comments:

Madscribe said...

Okay, ol' chum, you know I have to bring it up: what does McGrath have to say about Luther's writings on Christian love reconciled with his rabid anti-Semitism?

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Reduced to speculation as I have cannot read the language in which Jesus spoke of the least of his brothers, nevertheless I suspect that "least" could denote least as in those who are least human, least themselves, least in grace: those enslaved to sin. If the least of his brothers includes the worst of sinners, we should take great care in how we treat the worst our enemies. Torture would be out of the question.

Rodak said...

MS--
I haven't gotten to that yet. Nor to Luther's role in the peasant's uprising. Luther was, after all, a good Catholic, trying to reform a corrupt Church--until they forced him out. The Church was officially anti-Semitic until the 20th century, no?

Rodak said...

Kyle--
Yes, I think you've nailed it. I usually hear "least" taken to mean the most politically downtrodden, and/or the "poorest" in material terms. But I think that "those enslaved to sin" includes what He meant by "least," if that is not specifically what He meant.
Therefore, if you waterboard the al-Qaeda operative, you waterboard the Lord.

Madscribe said...

True dat, Rodak. Actually, considering the age he lived in, his anti-Semitism might look "progressive" compared to others.

Actually, I'm more interested to when you get around to Wycliffe and the effect of a common language Bible available to the masses (even though many of them still weren't able to read it). I consider Wycliffe's contribution to be of more historic heft than Luther's, whereas Luther's was more of philosophical importance.

Just the opinion of one atheist (who finds himself slowing slouching towards deism) ...

Rodak said...

MS--
No doubt. The important of Wycliffe can't be overestimated. As a guy who would have to cop to being *sola scriptura*, if I weren't so eclectic in my religious quest, my cap is doffed to Wycliffe with deepest gratitude.

Madscribe said...

Well, Rodak, I'm with you part-way. I'm more interested in a spiritual quest rather than a religious one, however; religion and spirituality being two different things altogether to me.
James 2:14-26

Rodak said...

MS--
I find myself in the situation of Simone Weil: kneeling on the steps of the cathedral, unable to enter.
That said, I take your point about spirituality vs. religion. But I feel a lack, not being involved in religion. St. James in verses 2:14-26 opposed faith alone to faith + deeds. Faith alone, I would equate with sprirituality (alone). Faith + deeds, I would equate with spirituality + religion.
It is some obstinate pride that I can't kick that prevents me from finding and belonging to a congregation. Not good.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Faith is a response to a God who reveals, and this response is first and last the response of love. To my mind, the love of God is meant to unite us with God and with each other. Faith, hope, and love are not private affairs; they move us towards and build us up in community. From this standpoint, religion is the communal response of a people to the revelation of God's love. Of course, that's not as simple of definition of religion as it sounds.

Rodak said...

Kyle--
What is most troubling, from a Protestant perspective, is that organized religion seems to separate, rather than unite, those souls on a spiritual quest. I personally have problems with collectivities. In the end, we stand alone before the Throne of Judgement and without our membership cards, for we are naked and left our wallets behind in a place that we already have trouble remembering.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Who was it that said, "I don't believe in organized religion, I'm Catholic"?

Anyhow, I certainly concede that communal religious institutions can be and too often are used to divide, to alienate, to sit in pompous judgment over others, and even to reap enemies away to weep and gnash their teeth. When this happens, religious institutions cease to be communities united in love and become collectivities divided by hatred for others and self-worship. Organized religion, which, lets face it, is not that organized, is meant to be the means by which we, children of God and brothers and sisters of each other, are united in love, are made one body, one family in Christ, by encountering and responding to God as a people.

I believe the meaning of life is to live fully as created lovers of God, which necessitates that we are lovers of one another and ever desire and seek to bring strangers to the love of God. Love is communal: it is a total gift of self, a desiring and choosing of the good for another. Love necessitates community. If religion is ultimately about love, then religion is meant to be communal. That’s how I see it, in any case.

On this topic, you may find John D. Caputo’s short book On Religion a fascinating read. Caputo is an American professor of philosophy who has been very instrumental in bringing out the religious dimension in the thought of Jacques Derrida and showing why the founder of deconstruction was not an enemy of truth and goodness.

Rodak said...

Kyle--
Thanks for the book recommendation. I'll see if I can find it.
My bottom line, to which I hold in the face of all Catholic objection, is that Christians must find a way to establish an open communion.

Rodak said...

I have presented the problem as I see it, and made my case, ine Church (and why there is not one Church today), among other places, here.