Wednesday, February 15, 2006

this morning's rant: existence, faith, reason, the holy ghost, et alia

For background, see my previous rant about the spirit of Nietzsche. These go together.

To be perfectly honest, one thing that annoys me to no end is puerile insistence one hears too often in Episcopal circles that we prize reason. We congratulate ourselves all the time for being reasonable or rational than.... someone. Who? I suppose we are thinking of The Fundamentalists, whom we typically take to be anyone who is more theologically conservative than we are.

How many ECUSA priests are there who do not believe in the Virgin Birth? How many who don't believe in the Resurrection? Spong and Righter are probably the most famous examples of this kind of self-consciously "rational" Episcopalian. The notion is that the real messiahs were Pascal and Galileo. They delivered us from our bondage to superstition.

Now thinking this sort of thing is all fine and good. But not as Christians. The problem with this kind of nonsense, in the Church, is that it creates a false dichotomy between "reason" and "faith." It embraces the former and sweepingly dismisses the latter, labelling it "superstition." It will embrace elements of "faith," but only those it deems "rational" -- like commands to love your neighbor as yourself. (Though again, this "love" is purged of "irrational" elements, mostly having to do with purity.)

The problems with this scheme of "rationality" are many. Here is one: by identifying ourselves as "Christians" we announce that we share things in common with other people called "Christians." This is simply an aspect of the linguistic activity of predication. If you say "That thing is green," then you are announcing a particular commonality between that thing and other things identifiable as "green." That thing, in other words, shares a set of characteristics shared by other things called "green." So when we say things like "I am a Christian" we are announcing our affinity with other things called "Christian." Looking at the preponderance of things (people) in the universe called "Christian" we find that they are characterized chiefly by beliefs about things that are at odds with the scheme of "rationality" I have outlined above.

Christianity is an overarching belief in the veracity of a narrative: in broad terms, that God created the heavens and the earth, that he gave man dominion over the earth, that man sinned, that he made a covenant with a particular nation, that within that nation, his Son was born and died on the cross to deliver us from our sin and sinfulness, that he ascended back into heaven from whence he came, and that at some point in time he will return to judge us.

Its a story. If you believe that story, historically, you were called a "Christian." But the thing about Christianity, is that it is a kind of General Unifying Theory of Everything. The ECUSA "Rationalists" treat rationality as though it were some potential in the human mind only recently discovered, and since its discovery, it has been found so useful as to trump everything else. But the problem with this notion is that Christianity has accounted for human rationality from the outset. There was never an account of human rationality lacking in the cosmic narrative related by Christianity and believed by Christians. The problem is in thinking that a hermaneutic of "rationality" is somehow progressive. Because I have been reading Origen (and becuase Origen is one of the earliest Christian systematic theologians), I will cut this rant short with Origen's account of rationality (again, from De Principiis):

For all knowledge of the Father, when the Son reveals him, is made known to us through the Holy Spirit....

God the Father bestows on all the gift of existence; and a participation in Christ, in virtue of his being the Word or Reason, makes them rational. From this it follows that they are worthy of praise or blame, because they are capable alike of virtue and of wickedness. Accordingly there is also available the grace of the Holy Spirit, that those beings who are not holy in essence may be made holy by participating in this grace.
Does it not seem that the ideological trajectory of the powers of ECUSA is backward in this scheme? That it erases the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful by denying the distinction between "virtue and... wickedness"? And doing so, partly, under the rubric of rationality -- a grace, like existence itself in Origen's scheme, available to all humanity, and not just to Christians. But this accounts, too, for the pluralism so close to the hearts of ECUSA's dominant paradigm. No one religion or belief system is better than another (and ours is better than no other). Becuase the Holy Spirit operates in ours no more than it does in any other -- which is to say that it does not operate in ours. We do not distinguish between virtue and wickedness.

Origen is clear:

...the working of the power of God the Father and God the Son is spread indiscriminately over all created beings, but a share in the Hoyl Spirit is possessed, we find, by the saints alone. Accordingly it is said, "No man can say that Jesus is the Lord except in the Holy Spirit."

The judgment of God on his people is seen in his taking his Holy Spirit from them. Thus we beg him in our penetential rites: "Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me" from Psalm 51. Because an ontological marker of God's people is the gift of the Holy Spirit. But then, the notion of "ontology" isn't very popular among the pundits of the New Religion. It, and talk of "essences," is seen as oppressive. So you see? When Origen says "those who are not holy in essence may be made holy by participating in this grace," the existence of essences is (incoherently) denied. So there is no such thing, in the New Scheme, as "holiness in essence." And there is therefore no need for the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit. (And thus no need to call Jesus "Lord.")

In short: the New Religionists rage against the possibility of renewal by the Holy Spirit. Their rage is thereby likewise rage against callign Jesus "Lord." Calling him Lord, distinguishing between virtue and wickedness... these things just aren't done by people "enlightened" by the spirit of "reason."

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.


Kevin D. said...

Pascal would not be a good example of removing the bonds of superstition. He was a devout Catholic and wrote numerous profound thoughts in his Pensees on Christian revelation. I'd highly recommend Peter Kreeft's edition of the Pensees: CHRISTIANITY FOR MODERN PAGANS (available at and elsewhere). It has become my favorite book.

father wb said...

KD -

Good point. I just searched the old mental rolodex for "enlightenment thinkers." Perhaps John Locke or Isaac Newton would have been better examples.

J-Tron said...

When you refer to "New Religionists," who are you talking about?

father wb said...

JT -

Primarily clerics who are not credally orthodox. Those who deny (when asked) things like the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the divinity of Christ, etc. They are legion.

texanglican said...

Excellent post, sir.

Becca said...

well said!

DDX said...

Kudos! 'Tis a great post indeed! (Here comes DDX out of the Milky Way:)

It is prudent and wise for us all to remember that the enemy is not ECUSA and their many ilk, but the spirit person behind the whole phenomenon of "unbelief" with regard to Jesus. "We war not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers..." lest we lose our battles fighting the wrong "enemy" who is in fact merely another in a long line of victims of the REAL enemy who knows the truth very well, hates and fears it, and spends virtually ALL of his time diverting others from it by many various means. Such "reason" as you reference is one of his innumberable forms of cloaked rebellion against God via The Son whom the Father has made primary and principal in the experience of all redeemed people.

We must seriously and wisely deal with the unwitting (and witting) tools of Satanic rebellion (in our case ECUSA). But to "win" we have to deal with them in love as "lost souls" more than "enemies." It's easy to forget this in the heat of battle.

Another great article father my son.

BTW (re: Origen) did I give you my Origen book?