Friday, July 3, 2009

Fathers of the Church

Napoleon, history's most famous opportunist, discovered that the Catholic Church was much more useful to him as an ally (however unwilling) than as an enemy. The Revolutionary Regime harshly persecuted the Church, especially under Robespierre and the Jacobins. Napoleon realized how useful the Church could be for keeping the homefront quiet during his wars of conquest. He said that nothing pacifies the poor like the threat of eternal damnation.

Pat Buchanan did not invent the term "culture war." That term (kulturkampf) was first coined by Otto Von Bismarck in his struggle to bring German Catholicism under the heel of the emerging imperial German state. In his effort to forge a united Germany under Prussian domination, the churches were to play a vital role in creating a new national identity out of a tangle of local and regional identities. The Church, he believed, was the most effective instrument of the state for enforcing social peace.

These, I would argue, are the real fathers of the modern Church.

I have an old friend, who is now a Lutheran pastor somewhere in Illinois, who said that the last 200 years have been the most creative and productive in Christian theology since the 4th and 5th centuries. He may well be right. But it seems to me that all of those creative theological thinkers from Schleirmacher to Harnack to Kirkegaard to Barth to Tillich to deChardin to Bonhoeffer to Kung were all on the outs with their religious establishments. They were all outsiders looking in (like most great modern thinkers and artists). It appears to me that the most common ecclesiastical reaction to the challenges of modernity was to circle the wagons, or to pull up the drawbridge and close the gate. That's been true at least since the French Revolution. All of those thinkers tried with varying degrees of unsuccess to move their institutions toward some kind of more productive and creative engagement with modernity rather than just shutting it out.

It appears to me that, ironically, it was the antimodern establishments of the churches that were most prone to exploitation by modern power politics and state agendas. The church establishments played their roles willingly in very modern political movements such as nationalism, militarism, imperialism, and even racism (indeed, opposition to slavery and segregation was lead from the pulpits; but, for every pulpit that condemned slavery, there were at least 2 which defended it passionately from Scripture). They played their role in market capitalism enforcing the social norms and organization necessary for production and consumption (the Methodist preachers agitating for labor rights in the coal mines of northern England were among the exceptions; they were not the rule; most church establishments did their part to quell labor unrest). Despite the creative ferment and prophetic witness of so many in the churches over the last 2 centuries, the primary role of churches in modern society is as enforcers. Napoleon and Bismarck assigned the churches the role of enforcers of social peace, national identity, and established standards of normality. For the most part, Roman, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical churches did their duty enthusiastically down to the present day. Priests, pastors, and preachers quite willingly blessed flags, bombs, and battleships on all sides in all the wars of the 20th century. It was the duty of the churches to put a stamp of transcendent legitimacy on the actions of the state. It was the duty of the priest, as much as the cop, to keep order and enforce the law.

I have long argued that modern religious fundamentalism is ultimately not religious, but political in nature. As my friend David Kaplan points out, there is little real conversation about religious matters in fundamentalist movements. Fundamentalism (Christian and otherwise) is about identity. It is about drawing a hard bright line between Us and Them, between what We Believe and what They Believe. It is a ferocious reaction against the cosmopolitanism of modernity and of Western liberalism. It is a radical rejection of the Enlightenment principles of universal enfranchisement and equality that form the heart of most modern constitutions. It is also a visceral reaction against the global domination of market capitalism with its nihilism and its leveling of all distinctions into one global struggle of all against all. Fundamentalism is not a religious phenomenon, but a part of identity politics. Small wonder then that American evangelical fundamentalism should be so tightly bound up with an increasingly embattled American nationalism and imperial pride. Small wonder too that the historical grievances of the Muslim world should find so large and powerful an expression in Islamic fundamentalism. Small wonder that The Powers That Be in the USA and in much of the Muslim world should find those movements so useful. They are the popular revenge of religious establishments on modernity and liberalism.

Small wonder too that all of these movements are so obsessed with policing sex. Sex for most of the rest of humanity is a fact of life and nature, neither good nor bad. Like a hammer that can be used as a construction tool or a murder weapon, sex becomes good or evil depending on whether it is used to do good or to do harm. As the ancient Classical poets from Theocritus to Ovid always pointed out, love is the great monkey wrench thrown into the orderly workings of the cosmos, a madness from which not even the gods are immune. Love and sex are more than just biological functions, they are the disruptive anarchy sewn into the very fabric of the world. Just as the madness of our desires keeps us out of Heaven, so also does it keep us out of Utopia. Political ideologues are just as obsessed with policing sex as religious fanatics.
Nothing threatens religious fundamentalism more than modern transformations in sexuality. I've always argued that feminism is a major force in modern history, and is vastly under-rated. It is there at the heart of so many national and sectarian global conflicts. Feminism and movements related to it (like the LGBT movements) create expectations where none existed before. Sectarian and nationalist movements find this a deeply threatening disruption of the "natural" order; that is, the order that they've always known and where they always ruled. If expectation is truly the spark of revolution, then feminism could well be the most revolutionary of social and political movements.

Most people outside the churches see them as a police force, or as some variety of paternal authority.  Perhaps a better and more productive future for Christian institutions would be in the realm of sewing seeds of transformative, even revolutionary, expectation.  Maybe the parable of the mustard seed could take on a whole new meaning.  Maybe its best future is outside the walls of the citadel, on the edges, in the forest, on the road, in the minority.  Our best recent past was certainly there:  with political activists, labor organizers, with the exploited, the misfits, the outcasts, the despised pariahs; in union halls, on back-roads, in ghettos, shelters, hospitals, and in jail; before ecclesiastical, civil, and academic tribunals, and sometimes swinging at the ends of ropes.  It seems to me that's where the Object of our worship always found Himself.  Where ever Imago Dei is spoiled and exploited, that's where Christians should be.

I will end this long rant by a cranky pew-sitter with this breath-taking quote from an interview between Julia Duin and retired former Episcopal Bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire, Wisconsin:

I asked him if he wanted the ACNA to eventually outlaw ordaining women entirely.

“Of course. That’s our mission,” he said. “Christ is the bridegroom and the church is the bride. The priest at the altar is an icon of Christ. What image is that if the person at the altar is a woman? It’s a lesbian relationship.”


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

As always dear Counterlight, I agree entirely!

Anonymous said...

OUtstanding essay, counterlight!


Wormwood's Doxy said...

Truly great piece, Counterlight. Thanks for sharing it.