Friday, November 23, 2007

Variations on "Situation Hopeless, But Not Serious"

Technically, my son is still a member-in-good-standing of the evangelical church in which he was raised, though he is far down the road towards Orthodoxy. I am fine with this, for the advice I often received was that it was "all in God's own time." He attends, on occasion, a large, downtown congregation, primarily to maintain contact with his peers, and more importantly, to go out to eat afterwards with a herd of young 20-somethings. Invariably, he will return, incredulous at what he had heard that night. For example, the preacher recently related a story about his mentor, who had it seems, restored the church to Thessaloniki, Greece. The minister smugly proclaimed that by his friend's efforts, Christians were once more meeting in that city! (By Christians, he meant adherents of the early 19th-century American frontier primitivist Restoration fellowship who have leaped back across history and restored the church of 1st-century purity--and not, of course, the Holy Orthodox Church, founded in Thessaloniki by the Apostles themselves,and having been in continuous existence for nearly 2,000 years, suffering through, I might add, 500 years of Muslim occupation. This group is very careful to avoid using the word "Christian" in connection with anyone other than themselves.) My son was tempted to walk out in disgust, but decided to sit for the rest of the show.

While the Thessaloniki anecdote is fascinating (in the sense that a train-wreck is fascinating) and fraught with possibilities, it is not where I am going with this story. My son also reports that most sermons and prayers are overtly patriotic in nature, variations on the theme of "getting this country back on track." For as the preacher reminded the audience, "did you know that it is now illegal to read your bible on the school bus?" (This is just abject silliness, obviously taken from "A Thousand and One Preacher's Anecdotes to Scare the Bejeebers out of the Ill-Informed." (Honestly, what kid wants to read their Bible on the school bus, anyway? I do recall, however, sometimes praying that the tough kids at the back of the bus wouldn't beat me up.)

But the persistent refrain, again and again, seems to be "getting this country back on track." What is usually implied by the phrase is not some sort of call for sackcloth-and-ashes repentence and humility, but rather, political action of some sort--to overturn Roe v. Wade, to crack down on illegal immigrants, to legislate against gay marriage, to get tough with the Iranians, to put prayer back in school, etc. This is nothing new, I've heard it all my life. Usually it came from some old fogey (though with another birthday approaching, I'm beginning to warm up to old fogeydom), and usually it referenced the time before the Vietnam War, when society seemed to fit a particularly air-brushed interpretation of American history. Well, over at the excellent Second Terrace, in a post here, the writer (whose name I do not know) gets to the real heart of the matter. In commenting on Harold Bloom and Jacques Barzun, he takes issue with the premise of Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind." ST finds that the American mind has not closed, but rather, it has never been opened, and this for want of knowledge of the Trinity, as we teeter on the lip of the Abyss.

Bloom was dead wrong. The closing of the American mind happened long before his precious Europeans came over and made our universities respectable. It happened even before there was an America.

The true closing of the mind is what initiated the course of decline that now obtains in American/Western society: it is called decadence, and it is the inevitable product of the denial of the Trinity, the deity of the Son, and the possibility of the deification of man.

I tell you that it is the Doctrine of the Trinity, the witness of the Church, that keeps the mind of the West together….I am a Trinitarian because that doctrine is the secret life-giving stream not just for the Church, but for the epistemology of the West. Without this truth, and its meditation, there is no West, for without the Trinity there is no Peaceful thought, and all consciousness is fractured.

So the Second Terrace writer concludes that America has never really been "on track," our present predicament merely the logical result of centuries of digression from Trinitarianism. I find much truth in this. These thoughts were still with me when I read the December issue of Chronicles (whose articles are sadly not online, though their blog is linked.) Aaron D. Wolf, in his "Dobson's Choice: Politics in the Spirit of Martyrdom," makes a number of good points. A few selections follow:

...we have frittered away the Christian convictions that created our civilization, trading our birthright for a pot of politics. We have placed our hopes not in the transforming power of the Gospel but in the edicts of Caesar. In the process, our faith itself has lost all of its sharp edges, becoming so benign that it draws little attention to us. Instead, what garners attention is our insistence that the non believing majority of our fellow citizens submit to our beliefs on abortion and "gay marriage." these two issues have become the faith that we confess before men.

...legislation cannot save, in the ultimate sense, a hellbent people or its offspring.

Thus, if we wish to restore the civilization that has been lost, we have to pay more attention to our Faith and less attention to Republican politics. We have to baptize our children instead of trying to baptize our elections. We have to stay married instead of trying to define marriage.

The myth of Christian America, perpetuated by distorted accounts of American history which insist that any deist President who mention "God" in a speech, from Jefferson to Lincoln, must have been "one of us," has created a false confidence that we are just one election away from returning to our Christian Founding....Such confidence, and the political maneuvering that often accompanies it, undermines the Christian desire to make a bold and clear confession of faith.

In contrast with the faith of the early martyrs, Wolf writes:

Of course, things are different for us: We live in a democracy, and, as citizens of a democracy, we have never been asked to burn incense to the emperor; we just asked ourselves to preserve our Christian civilization by voting for the most pro-life President in U.S. history, even after he burned incense to Allah by declaring that Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike pray to him, then wished us all a happy Ramadan.

So, the Second Terrace interpretation actually offers some solace for all the hand-wringers. There will be no "getting the country back on track," as both train and rails were flawed from the beginning and are not fixable. I think deep down, in their heart of hearts, even the preachers realize this.In other words, the situation is indeed hopeless--but not serious, for there is another way.


s-p said...

Amen. Amen. Amen. I was musing on this same theme a few days ago... that the West was derailed centuries ago before there was an America and we are an expression of the ontological civilization of Western philosophy. Nice post. Thanks... I may plagarize some of it for my own blog. :)

John said...

Thanks, s-p. Plage-away! The Chronicles article is really good. I can scan/email or fax you a copy if interested.

Anonymous said...

Western European Civilization went off the rails when the Karling Franks (the ascendant Germanic tribe in the ruins of the Old West Roman Empire) decided to the canonize Latin-Only Theology and anathematize the consensus patrum for political purposes -- some sort of basis to call the surviving East Roman Empire heretical. From this point on, the Germanic tribes that eventually formed the Western European nation states followed the Karling Frank lead in religion and hence culture -- which inexorably lead to the Renaissance, "Enlightenment," and the nominally Christian secularization of Far-Western Civilization.

In short, if we want to get back on the rails, we need to behind the symptoms of decline to that cause -- get back behind the Great Schism, which happens to be the expressly stated purpose
(not yet fulfilled) of the Elizabethan Settlement. America must realize that, as a Christian (if only nominally), English-Speaking Nation-State, we need to complete the process of throwing off our Norman Chains by engaging the task set by Elizabeth I -- a return to the Faith of the Undivided Christian Church.

The Scylding said...

I agree with the post - as an outsider, of course. I see an enourmous overlap with the Apartheid South Africa I grew up in: The aims of the state, and the aims of the church (in this case, most Dutch Reformed, but also pentecostal and others) were virtually the same. During my school years, the curriculum was Christian-National Education and as the joke went, much more national than Christian.

If you were Christian, you were expected to vote for the National Party, otherwise you were a liberal sell-out, of doubtful faith, and probably a closet Communist.

The parallel are there, albeit in different degrees. The church is to be a prohet to Ceasar, whether it suits Ceasar or not.