Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Church Has Many Problems And how do we solve them? I'd like to continue to suggest that the answer lies less with our conventional schemes of self and ecclesial improvement, which, insightful and brilliant though they may be, still leave us subject to the "slavery of the fear of death" (Heb 2:15), and the distortions of fear, envy, and anger that come from that fear. The late Orthodox theologian Fr John Meyendorff wrote, "The model here is Darwinian: fear of death generates struggle for survival, and survival is attainable only at the expense of others - a survival of the fittest, winning over the weak." Armed only with the right schemes and books, it is easy to find yourself ironically witnessing to Christ less with the fruits of the Spirit, and more with the defensiveness, animosity, and anxiety that inevitably come with any "struggle for survival." The answer to our problems, then, must lie more in our willingness to, as the elder put it, "stand where Christ was crucified," trusting that Christ has already trampled death by his death and freed us from its slavery. But how does this work? The Lutheran theologian Lois Malcolm, to whom I am indebted for much of what follows, reminds us that St Paul faced an staggering list of problems in Corinth - sexual immorality (including "a man living with his father's wife"), legal disputes, conflicts over celebration of the Eucharist, disputes over the meaning of Resurrection - as well as unsettled issues involving marriage, the consumption of meat that had been offered to idols, and the role of spiritual gifts in communal life. Perhaps this list compares to our own. How would you have responded? One might have expected Paul to respond with a very long and detailed scheme of ecclesial improvement (in several volumes). Instead, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul seeks to enact nothing less than a perceptual shift in his readers. His vocabulary is full of perceptual words such as apokalypsis (unveil), eidon (see), and ginosko (perceive) - there are 26 perceptual verbs in all. Paul does such a thing by claiming that the "message of the Cross" is apocalyptic, dividing humanity into those who find the Cross to be "foolishness" and are perishing, and those who are "being saved" as they find “foolishness” to be the "power of God" (1 Cor 1:18). This strange new framework will remind us of Paul's use of an early baptismal formula in the Letter to the Galatians, where he writes that "putting on" Jesus Christ creates a new contrast between spirit and flesh that simply shatters our old antinomies between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Paul also uses Stoic rhetorical strategies that mean to shift the audience's perspective away from the standpoint of its own prudential concerns to a new and more objective standpoint. Dr Malcolm says that this "involves the activity of learning to actually see and perhaps even to feel things from the standpoint of the common good - for example, to see things from another's perspective or to see how one's natural regard for one's kind might be extended to all people." Paul, through his new standpoint, speaks of a new distinction: "those who live by the mind [psychikos]," disobedient like the Adam who tried to grasp at being godlike, and "those who are spiritual [pneumatikos]," like the Christ who "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (Phil 2:7). How does the Cross effect this unlikely shift in perception? In sharing the "message of the Cross," Paul first reminds the unruly Corinthians of an unmet expectation, that "the world did not know God through wisdom," despite its hunger for signs and wisdom. Then we meet an unexpected reversal, that "God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe," the proclamation being that of the crucified Christ. We are faced with two different responses: we either trip over the stumbling block or we accept God's "foolishness." If we accept the foolishness of the Cross, we experience the power of God, and discover that God's weakness is paradoxically "stronger than human strength." Paul returns to this pattern to describe how God did not choose the wise, powerful, or those of noble birth. Instead, "God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are" (1 Cor 1:27). If we are moved to join this low and despised people, Christ will become our source for righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Even Paul himself did not come as expected. He spoke not with the usual "lofty words and wisdom" but "in weakness and in fear and in much trembling." Those who could still be attentive to his plain words would receive a faith that rested upon the "power of God." There is a great reversal in all of this, foretold in the Magnificat, present at the heart of Jesus' ministry, and manifested on Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out on "all flesh" - men and women, young and old, and even slaves. Our old categories will not suffice. This shift in perception is described as "having the mind of the Lord" (1 Cor 2:16, see also Phil 2:5). We no longer need to cling to status in fear of a final shame and humiliation, because we have discovered wisdom and power in foolishness and marginality - in a crucifixion, no less. The shadow of death is replaced by the consciousness of the sheer and unimaginable abundance of God’s love. Dr Malcolm speaks of the ability "to see things from the standpoint of the largesse Christ shares with God, a largesse that gives him the freedom not to grasp at or exploit what he has but to empty himself for the sake of another." Merely a moral example, a few good principles, or even threats would hardly be enough to overcome the specter of death. Very practically, this shift to a new mode of perception comes with the refusal to engage in jealousy and quarreling or to form factions. Living from the "mind of Christ" - the experience of a life that is no longer haunted by death - frees one from the desperation of envy, fear, and anger to embrace the common good. This common good is not merely intellectual or abstract, but embraces who we are in a more comprehensive way. We will be drawn to the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We will turn away from the works of the flesh: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy. This is so clear when the Church assembles for a baptism, which entails a dying and rising with Christ, and acknowledges that the new Christian has an identity which renders all the usual egoistic or factional pretensions meaningless. It simply no longer matters if one is weak, foolish, or can assert his race, gender, or class – or even his own virtue. An over-reliance on what we might call institutional hygiene can unintentionally cause us to forget the roots of our problems. It is not a lack of plans or enforcement. It really has to do with that old patristic dictum: "Christ became like us in order that we might become like him." Can we really move aside our egoistic and partial viewpoints to embrace the self-emptying of Christ? Can we really shift our perceptions to have "the mind of the Lord"? If we say yes, by the grace of God, we will have the wisdom to solve our problems. Wisdom might not lead to the ability to write a manifesto, but it is "intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle" (Wis 7:22-23). Unfortunately, those sometimes don’t appear to be the most desirable qualities during a "struggle for survival," when we are fearful for so many things - our churches, our families, our society – and so anxious to protect ourselves. Comments are more than welcome. These are all thoughts-in-progress (perhaps that’s too generous …).

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