Thursday, March 24, 2005

Thinking Alone

Curiously, one can imagine someone today remarking along these lines,
"Christianity I can get, but Derrida and Levinas are blowing my mind."
Conversely, I read the following statement in a recent letter from a friend:
"Derrida and Levinas I can get, and on and on, but this election bit blows my mind."
I will remember this statement, because as complex as Levinas and Derrida may be, genuine Christianity (most especially the doctrine of election) will always be infinitely more difficult to grasp, and the fact that my friend feels his mind being stretched beyond capacity in regard to the doctrine of election is a signal that it may in fact be genuine Christianity that he is encountering. For Christianity has always been, in a way, the fellowship of those who don't understand.

For example, a person who claims to know that Christ was a merely a great teacher has Christ understood, but a Christian who claims the same man was and is God has surrendered all hope for strictly "rational" attainment, and is consigned to a lifetime, nay, an eternity of perpetual wonder at just what that assertion entails.

Likewise, if one wants to understand the Trinity one will need speak with Arius, for a Christian can't help you - the best we can do is confess and adore. Should one desire to fathom the way the human and divine natures co-relate in Jesus, Eutyches and Nestorius can provide clear cut "answers," but a Christian cannot - the best we can do is believe and worship. If one seeks to comprehend the Christian moral life - Pelagius is your man; but Augustine could never provide a satisfying "explanation," nor can a Christian - all we can do is depend and obey. Arius, Eutyches Nestorius and Pelagius are of course all heretics, by which I mean those who insisted on thinking alone, outside the Church, and so persisted after many-a-warning. It is fashionable today to "charitably reassess" these thinkers in order to remove that scarlet "H," but why? Perhaps they're proud of their distinction. After all, they figured it out, and have the distinction of being "original" - a coveted modern luxury that no Christian (at least in regard to doctrine) can afford. Wrote Lewis,
"In the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imitation... 'Originality' is quite plainly the perogative of God alone; even within the triune being of God it seems confined to the Father... If I have read the New Testament aright, it leaves no room for 'creativeness' even in a modified or metaphorical sense. Our whole destiny seems to lie in the opposite direction, in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours." (p. 191)
By suggesting that Christiantity is the "fellowship of those who don't understand," I don't mean of course that heresy is clear and Christianity confusing, but that Christianity is by definition beyond the grasp of our minds - not irrational, but transrational. It presses the pedal to the metal of our rational capacities and then just keeps pressing. This is why the Latin bumpersticker for the Christian intellectual life became Anselm's fides quaerens intellectum rather than the other way around. Therefore the shrug of the shoulders and raising of hands after a bout of rigorous theological inquiry should rightfully lead to those same hands being lifted up in prayer and praise.

Because Christian doctrine is so mysterious, it is important that our identity as Christians be as much tied our communal participation in the visible Church as it is to our individual decision of faith, called as we are to be members of the very definable community of those unable to define God. If heresy is thinking alone, it only follows that orthodoxy is thinking together. And speaking as one who regretfully learned to play guitar solo but never in a band, the possibilities of the latter sound much more interesting:
"This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. The Church... swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist [or a postmodernist]; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom -- that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect." (Orthodoxy Chp. VI)
Brackets affectionately added by me.