Author Archives: Tim Enloe

On “Poverty”

I started thinking seriously about poverty ten years ago when I was in graduate school.  Not for the reason that I was in school, but because of many things I was reading there and the fact that I had a wife and two children to support.  I was, like probably most people in graduate school, paying for both school and living expenses with government loans.  I had a half scholarship for tuition and fees, but even so, school was very expensive.  A few times I had to work a part time job to make up the difference.

My academic program involved a great deal of reading and reflection on the works of classical antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Particularly in the former, I repeatedly ran into the theme that the accumulation of money and material goods almost necessarily led to a severe decline in personal and civic virtue and morality.  Sparta and Athens experienced it.  The Roman Republic experienced it.  The Roman Empire experienced it.  Jesus said a great deal in the Gospels about the corrupting influence of a high emphasis on material things, and the Epistles tended to be pretty hard on it as well.  Even the Church catholic in the Middle Ages experienced the same ethical downspiral as its pagan precursors the more it focused on money and material gain.

It wasn’t exactly revolutionary to read all these accounts and come to a generally negative conclusion about the relationship of money and possessions to what truly matters.

The next step in my thinking about “poverty” came when, fresh out of graduate school, I took a teaching job at a small Christian school.  We always hear of the public schools bitterly complaining, despite their access to the State’s coffers, about their severe lack of money.  The complaint is nearly ludicrous given the near destitution-level of financial struggle that small Christian schools face.  Public school teachers aren’t paid well?  Don’t make me laugh.

At any rate, there I was with a wife and two children – shortly thereafter three children – making a wage extremely far below the U.S. poverty line.  I was, in fact, so far below the poverty line that the Federal government declined to tax me at all, and instead decided I needed a fairly large amount of money (almost a third of my salary at that time!) given to me as a “refund” on my IRS return.

It was in this context that I started to wonder about the rhetoric of “poverty” in our country.  For the interesting fact was that although I and my family were classified as merely subsisting and in need of significant government assistance, I was never unable to pay my rent, my children always had plenty of food and clothes, my car was paid for, I had very little credit card debt, and I had a few standard electronic luxury items in my house (including a desktop PC and a laptop).  This was “poverty”?

Now it is true that given my extremely small salary, I was unable to make payments on my school loans, my family did not have health or dental insurance, and even with the annual tax-time infusion of Federal money, we pretty much just barely scraped by.  But we had the things the Apostle lists as leading to contenment, food and clothing, and on top of that we also had shelter and a number of items (chiefly books) that, from a mere material sufficiency standpoint, were superfluous.  Given all this, my mind kept turning over and over again the question, “This is poverty?”  Clearly not.

However…[ref]There’s always a however… or a but… or an on the other hand… in human things, which, under an absolute God, are always subject to great relativity.[/ref]

Despite the apparent simplicity my account of my own life over the last decade may give it, the question about “poverty” is pretty complicated.  A huge part of the complexity is that as Christians in America, we are a rather spoiled lot.

How many of us reflect on, say, our standards for what “good” food is – let alone what “enough” food is?[ref]How many of us eat out more than, say, once a month, and reflect on how vastly much more it costs to do that than to plan weeks of menus, shop in accord with them, and eat at home?  My children have recently begun to see this larger point about food in particular because we’ve gotten involved with volunteering for Feed My Starving Children, which exposes kids who never go to bed hungry to what real poverty looks like.[/ref]

How many of us consider that when we, living in the lap what most of the human race would have considered god-like luxury, speak of the “poverty” of others, we might just be answering the wrong question – and in fact, simply begging the question?

How many of us accept, without much thought, the popular narrative that Protestantism[ref]Whatever that is – another gigantic historical and sociological issue![/ref] has this amazing thing called a “work ethic”[ref]Do we do much reflection on what work is?  Dorothy Sayers’ Why Work? is a provocative place to start.[/ref] that is connected to the Gospel[ref]Another term on which, when it comes to economics and politics, there is surprisingly little self-critical reflection among American Christians.[/ref] and which, supposedly by the progressive[ref]Term used deliberately to provoke thought![/ref] operations of God’s providence since the Reformation[ref]History alert!  How well do we grasp the Reformation’s relationship to previous Church history, and to what extent might we, as all humans tend to do, be using a caricature of it to justify our present ideologies?[/ref] has created an amazing world of temporal and material prosperity in principle available to everyone equally if only they will make proper, rational, self-interested choices that The Market’s “invisible hand” will mesh with everyone else’s for the greater advancement of all?[ref]Do I need to even spell out the gigantic questions lying behind that whole phraseology?[/ref]

Other questions arise.  In my years as a teacher, I’ve had occasions to teach humanities courses based on curricula that explicitly-state their commitment to “the Christian worldview.”  I have noticed often than when it comes to economics (and also politics, which used to be the same subject as economics, as in the old the term “political economy”), American Christians nearly universally gravitate to using every text they study, whether the Bible or the classics, as support for our own present concept of capitalism, with all its assumptions and consequences.  Yet for all the talk of “worldview,” there is little to no reflection in such treatments of fundamental issues such as the teleological finitude of man made in God’s image and his correspondingly limited relationship with the world as his habitat, the origins of money and economics, and, as noted earlier, the nearly universal theme in the sources of the ethical corruptions (particularly the subtle ones) that easily enter when a mind sets itself on earthly gain.

Questions are a fascinating thing.  Sometimes they are good, sometimes not, but determining which status a particular question has is not always easy.  Moreover, any disagreements seem to turn on the simple fact that different people ask different questions about the same phenomena, and so come to different answers.  It is clear to me that my own life experiences (especially as refracted through the type of education I received – which many do not) more than justify the sorts of questions about the fact of and rhetoric of “poverty” I have asked in this post.

A decade later, I am still pondering the classical texts I studied in graduate school that got me started thinking about “poverty.”  I am still grappling with how to apply the New Testament’s largely negative words about wealth and material possessions to my own life.   I still have more questions than answers.

I am still a teacher, and, though I have risen almost double in salary over several moves to different schools, I still make well below the poverty line as established by Those Who Say They Know the Objective Truth About Such Important Matters.[ref]Part of that is, of course, because I now have six children rather than two.[/ref]  But every member of my family has more clothes than any of us can wear in a month, we have at any given time a month or more of food stored in our pantry, we now own two cars,[ref]Both are 16+ years old, and the second was bought reluctantly, and only because I commute 40 miles a day to work and we did not want to run our only family vehicle into the ground.[/ref], my children are all in above average health, we pay our monthly bills on time, and we only take on debt when it is absolutely unavoidable otherwise.

We are, as a general rule, pretty darn happy with our lives, and recently have begun to run thought experiments about how we might actually get rid of much of the simply superfluous stuff we have – not just to simplify our lives but to take a stand against the extreme materialism that so deeply infects the Faith in our fair land.  We’re not talking wearing hair-shirts and becoming pitiful mendicants, mind you.   We’re just trying to engage more faithfully the perennial issues surrounding the role of money and possessions to virtue.

But at the end of the day, I have to say firmly and resoundingly, no, no matter what the charts and graphs and Learned Articles and one-sided apologetics for God’s Own Economic System, American Capitalism, all say, I am not “poor.”  One may be able to show me a line on a spreadsheet marked “Poverty Line” and put an X below it where my family is, and one may be able thus to condescendingly speak of my regrettable state of “subsistence living,” but I don’t believe a word of it.  Go pack some meals for Feed My Starving Children and try to say that I am “poor.”[ref]What this sort of thing does is reveal that all standards of “rich” and “poor” are relative to some other standard – and it is that almost always unstated (and likely unexamined) standard that we need to be discussing, not the amount of money one makes.[/ref]

I can’t help but ask: does not such rhetoric grossly trivialize “poverty?”  And when it is tied to the Constitution-thumping, flag-waving theology of “American exceptionalism” that wrongly ties itself to the Gospel as cause-effect, presuming on God’s inscrutable providence, does it not also trivialize the Bible and the Christian witness?  And lastly, doesn’t it bury beneath confused and simplistic propaganda very deep questions with which our race has always struggled, and to which we are still trying to find answers?


Christians and the Goal of the Common Good

[The following may by its end seem somewhat cynical.  This is not how I intend it.  My goal in the post is simply to try to clarify some things about the roiling, ranting, rapacious mess that is Christian political discourse online, especially on social media platforms.  Critique is welcome, but please be civil.]

It isn’t difficult to grasp that in a pluralistic culture like ours, it is possible to reach a degree of general, secular-oriented anxiety about the supposed sacrosanctity of every individual opinion that a self-stultifying moral and intellectual equipollence ensues.  Since we are citizens of both the heavenly kindgom and a particular earthly kingdom, it should not be too surprising, then, that Christians seem just as divided as unbelievers as to the nature of the common good and how best to pursue it.

We see it every time there is an important election, especially presidential.  It is then that Christian pundits come out of the woodworks making impassioned cases for voting for X…no, for Y…no, for Z – all of whom are, to listen to their respectively Bible-toting, church-going Christian adherents, the obvious and best choice in this, “the most important election of our lifetimes.”

(Can anyone fail to notice that every presidential election has been / is the most important one of our lifetimes – as if the fate of God’s Own Kingdom quite literally hinges on who is sitting in America’s Oval Office.)

Sometimes the intra-Christian division has been basically agnostic about the Fundamental Two Party SystemTM, as when some believers dare to suggest that Jesus wasn’t a Republican, so it isn’t biblically necessary to vote Republican if you think a candidate from another party (even – gasp! – the Democrat Party) better aligns with what is good for the country as a whole.  These sorts of disagreements can get quite sharp, but there remain others sharper still.

Eight years ago, Christians were seriously divided over whether it was permissible to vote for a Mormon, Mitt Romney, in order to stop a (merely Detestable) Liberal, Barack Obama.  Four years ago, the division cranked up several notches over whether it was permissible to vote for a morally-compromised, intellectually-deficient, shady businessman and reality-TV star, Donald Trump, in order to stop a (manifestly Demonic) Liberal, Hillary Clinton.

(None can fail to notice that the common denominator in both contests was simply Stop the Slavering, Evil Liberal – as if Christian political thought is fundamentally partisan.)

More recently, some believers, like David French, writing in National Review, maintain that our present classical liberal system is the best hope for the future of America, particularly for the liberty of Christians.  Others, such as Sohrab Ahmari, writing in First Things, hold that Christians ought to adopt the political tactics of our enemies – since they refuse to be civil and use ordinary, rational means of persuasion, so should we.

(Do not fail to note that the crux of the French and Ahmari dispute was abortion, which some believers consider the make-or-break issue of just about all political contests, but which others consider a horrific evil that can only be fought incrementally.)

As if all this is not already complicated enough, much of the controversy between Christians is driven by deeper theological systems, themselves often driven by the seemingly irresistible pressures of the multi-faceted, mixed-heritage history of Christendom and its relationship in particular to the American experiment.

Some Christians are quietists, committed to private spirituality and the calm acceptance of the state of the world as manifesting the will of God.  Others are activists, committed to lively public outworkings of the Faith once for all delivered.

Confusingly, the activists are further divided by sharply diverging eschatologies.  Some are pessimists, expecting the world to go down in flames and continually torn between doing nothing (because, you know, the Rapture) and boycotting secularists (because, you know, Judaeo-Christian CultureTM).  Other activists are agnostics about temporal matters, content to go-with-the-flow so long as the sui generis realm of The Church is allowed to do its Special Spiritual Things until Christ’s return.  Still other activists are triumphalists about temporal matters, demanding a policy of constant, total war to the end of rebuilding the Once and Future Lost Christian Cultural Dominion.

My purpose in reciting this litany of intra-Christian political divergences is modest in this way: I am sure I have not described all the existing positions, let alone done justice to each in the strictures of just a few sentences.  My purpose is not comprehensive, but illustrative in this way: though it seems Christians ought to all be basically on the same page about implementing our Faith in the world since we all agree that Christ is King, we are every bit as “all over the map” as the hosts of unbelievers we live among.

This is a critical fact that always stares us right in the face, yet of which I am not sure we always appreciate the ramifications for how we treat our neighbors, whether unbelievers or fellow believers.  America has always been a pluralistic society, so it ought not to be surprising that no amount of grand talk about our “Christian heritage” can paper over the simple fact that to be truly unified, a people must have a shared concept of a common good, but even Christians have multiple concepts of the common good persisting in seemingly irresolvable conflict.

I would not ever propose anything so grand as a possible solution to such intra-Christian disagreements.  Indeed, despite our common adherence to the inspiration of Scripture, I am not sure that there is a solution to these disagreements.  Why?

Simply put, politics is a “human thing,” and human things, because they deal with situations that continually change, are inevitably full of uncertainty.  The weird thing about politics is that, unlike most arts, it is simultaneously natural and artificial.

On the natural end, politics arises fundamentally from the fact that we humans are social beings, wired from the start to talk to each other and try to form stable, mutually-beneficial relationships.  We cannot help but do politics, which explains why for so many of us politics can so very, very easily begin to function like a surrogate for religion – even becoming fused with it so that we can’t tell the difference.

On the artificial end, politics once it begins is immediately and constantly informed by an incalculable array of mostly local factors that shape the questions a people ask about itself and its purpose, the modes of solving the questions that that people considers “reasonable,” and all of that people’s relations both within the body politic and between the body politic and outsiders.  Moreover, empirical and historical examination of political orders quickly reveals that from beginning to middle to end, there is no settled claim to a universal, abstract system of Correct Politics.  Monarchies have come and gone.  Aristocracies have come and gone.  Democracies have come and gone.  Mixed republics have come and gone.  Sometimes, even, all these types of government have been tried in the same place by the same people – and all have come and gone, largely in response to changing environmental, technological, and sociological circumstances.

Thus, human history thus shows us – or at least, ought to show us – that politics inherently consists of a basic, stable human nature of desiring social bonds but as an art itself cannot provide anywhere only a single mode of arrangement that is indisputably the best.  This in turn entails that any postulated common good is and only can be relative to a particular group of people who have come together in a political union designed to secure that good.

I have long suspected that considered just from a secular standpoint, and in egregious defiance of the tradition of civic virtue that made our Fouders who they were, our America’s real common good is merely the continual fulfillment of the commercial impulses – many of them quite base – that our overarching system of classical liberal capitalism has drilled so deep into all of us that we rarely ever think about it.  (Sporadic uber-pious outbreaks of boycotting offending businesses don’t count.)  Thoughtless commercial activity for its own sake is the great pretend-unifier of the host of disparate sects (intellectual, religious, moral, and otherwise) that America actually is.  For money is a fickle, heartless master and always ultimately betrays any concerns larger than preserving its own smooth flow from hand to hand.

If we are honest with ourselves, we Christians aren’t much, if any, better than our secular neighbors on this score.  We pack up and move as easily as anyone else “for the job,” and in our business dealings we just as easily treat each other as producers and consumers, as interchangeable parts filling temporary niches in “at will” contracts.  Along with everyone else, we are objectively wage slaves and subjectively self-constructed denizens of the Great Marketplace – which exists only to facilitate and magnify and fulfill everybody’s individual-very-own-personal desires.   And like most corrupted people, we are generally too lazy to really think hard about the intellectual and ethical status of our desires.  Our desires just are legit, the appearances just are reality, and the Truth just is obvious to all “rational” people.

The only thing that we, considered from the angle of this world, have in common with each other and our unbelieving neighbors is making sure the money keeps flowing so that the goods and services keep rolling off the assembly line and get purchased, used, discarded, and replaced.  And thus when it comes to our spiritual common good, we have generated just as many “reasonable” options as there are styles and colors of ball-point pens on a retail shelf.  Like everyone else in a nation committed to unrestricted pluralism, our shared natural political impulse has responded to environmental pressures by wildly fragmenting.

But at least we all have our Proof-Texts – the rejection of which by the churches-that-aren’t-our-own only serves to prove that they don’t really care about Political Truth and Goodness and Beauty.

The significance for intra-Christian political disagreements seems obvious, though it is (at least to me) uncomfortable: to the extent that any collection of Christians fundamentally disagrees with any other collection of Christians about what is the common good of a nation they both inhabit, is political harmony that is not merely superficial ever going to be possible?  Stated another way, for all the grand talk I grew up with about America as God’s special “Christian nation,” for all the pious fervor of the Pledge of Allegiance about “One nation, under God,” is either of these really true?  How long can we all sort of coast along on the fumes of a dying pluralist order, invoking the tolerance-dreams of classical liberalism as we indulge ourselves in endless, almost-totally fruitless factional debates on social media, before it becomes clear that although Jesus is King, He hasn’t arranged the world – or our little national slice of it – in such a way that genuine political health can be found on the gigantic scale that we are constantly faced with every time the news cycle resets itself?

A Plea for “Politics As Unusual”

As we are rapidly nearing the opening phase of our next quadrennial verbal civil war (a.k.a., “the most important election of our lifetime – again”), I want to preempt the fighting with a few general considerations:

1) As image-bearers of a speaking God, we are speakers and our relations with others necessarily take the form of speaking. But a key difference between animal noises and human speech is that the latter is able to communicate complex ideas and needs that often require a much more sophisticated mode of judgment than animals are capable of.

This judgment is rendered by the mind – but not just any mind. To make sophisticated judgments about complex ideas and needs, a mind must be formed such that its thoughts are disciplined, ordered, and aimed at truth, not merely winning. It is unfortunate that “politics” in our modern context deeply confuses winning with truth, but Christians of all people ought to know that the two are not always conjoined.

Sum: Political speech deals with complex ideas and practices; uncareful speech based on
poorly-ordered thoughts is little better than animal noises.

2) As image-bearers of a God who is Himself a fellowship of equals, we are never just individuals, but are always part of a community. Thus, our thoughts and actions ought never to be based primarily on our individual concerns.

The purpose of speech between humans is to navigate the tossing sea of complex ideas and needs with a view to preserving the whole ship, not just our own personal lives or the limited number of other lives with whom we feel most comfortable dealing. In other words, though this seems quite counter-intuitive, politics is about more than party loyalty. It may turn out that preserving the ship requires going this way and not that way, but someone who does not understand, or who has no patience with, the art of navigation has no business contributing his “two cents” to a discussion about how to preserve the ship. Mere factional chattering on social media is not “political” talk at all, and is just a gigantic waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Sum: Political speech is about the common good, not just the good of our own circle of interests. Political speech ought to be based on the belief that one’s party has the best vision of the common good, not on the belief that The Other Party must be destroyed.

3) Passion is inherently immoderate and unstable. Animals are passionate about what they want, and it is this that makes us talk about “nature red in tooth and claw.” But human beings, being speakers of complex ideas and needs, should never be only passionate about what they want. Human speech about important matters must never be merely a mode of communicating human passions, for politics, the art of living together in a society, is never solely about passions. We are not undirected Darwinian animals involved in a “second place is the first loser” struggle for survival; we are, in Aristotle’s words, political animals aiming at much more than mere survival. Someone who does not understand this difference, or who thinks and acts as if political is a mere synonym for passionate ought not to speak at all in a public forum, for such speaking is little better than the inarticulate grunting of a beast.

4) Fourth, we all need to seriously and soberly consider the question: What precisely is social about “social media”? Any one of us may say anything we like with any degree of feeling in our own living rooms, but a social media platform is not a private living room – not even because it tells you that space you are writing on is “your wall.” Actually, it’s Facebook’s wall, and we all gave up our right to “free speech” (considered as an absolute lack of external restrictions) when we agreed to Facebook’s often restrictive terms of service. Facebook is Zuckerberg’s mega-sized, mega-crowded living room, not one’s own living room, so no, oneself doesn’t get to say absolutely anything anytime. It would be worth spending some time pondering what the real meaning of “social” is, including that seemingly outmoded ideal known as “social graces.” Remember that we are not made to be like grunting animals, and our passions shouldn’t be the arbiter of our words. If others are (acting like) grunting animals in a political discussion, what is gained by we ourselves joining them in that base activity?

5) Lastly, and most importantly, though it sounds like a cliché to say it, no matter who gets into office and what policies they implement, God is the one on the throne and His purposes cannot be thwarted by any man or woman. We Christians today have a rather large blind spot in terms of having only recently seen very radical cultural reversals that make us unthinkingly pine after “the good old days” when (as we inaccurately style it) the “Judaeo-Christian worldview” ran everything.

After 1600 years of mostly Christian cultural hegemony, it just doesn’t feel right to us that we should suddenly be on the radical defensive, and that “the Christian Nation” par excellence should be going the way of the dinosaur. We must vote to Save Christian America! We must fight tooth-and-nail to turn back the tide! We must fight for Truth, Justice, and the Biblical-American Way!”

Well, maybe. Political quietism shouldn’t be acceptable to us, because even the Jews in captivity prayed for the peace of the city and longed to return home, and the Apostle Paul often invoked his rights as a Roman citizen to not be treated in a certain way simply because he announced unpopular religious ideas. There is a legitimate place for political activism rooted in our religious convictions, and we dare not simply lay down our swords and die.

But the City of God only ever overlaps earthly cultural and political realities, never identifying itself with any. We may fight to the last metaphorical drop of our blood and still lose the political battle. Things may get very uncomfortable for us if that happens. But it has happened before, and the Gospel prevailed in the end. What impressed most thoughtful Romans in the time of the martyrs was less what the Christians said, but how they died. Nobody could die like a Christian could, and the more of them who died, the more the Gospel worked its way like leaven through the Empire.

We shouldn’t want our nation to wither and die in a whirlwind of secularist tyranny and idiocy. We can and should fight as we are able and as God moves us. But we mustn’t ever confuse the fortunes of America with the fortunes of the City of God. It sounds like a cliché, but as I watch the Christian political landscape take a predictably factional, tribal, largely passion-driven shape every four years, I don’t think it is. Like everyone else who has ever lived, we Christians are a forgetful people, prone ever to misreading the knowable past and present, and so to immoderately fearing the unknowable future.

Ascent to God (III): The Theme of Ascent in Greek Philosophy

The “ascent of the soul” has had a colorful and venerable history in the Christian tradition, reaching back as far as the apostle Paul, who was “caught up to the third heaven.” Although the terminology can be traced as far back as Pythagoras (sixth century B C E) and then Plato (fourth century B C E), it was thoroughly appropriated by Jewish apocalypticism around the time of Christ, having been wedded to the traditional “ascended” figures of Enoch and Daniel.[mfn]Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company), pg. 2[/mfn]

Following these words, Canlis notes that Christian theology has long struggled not with the idea itself of ascent to God, but with trying to articulate how it happens.  As we saw in the last part of this series, ascent to God is clearly writ large in the Old Testament, so there is something natural, something that is just “built-in” about both the aspiration to ascend and human attempts to do so.

The problem for Christians is that the biblical story of human ascent to God does not stand alone, but is always also a story of the descent of God to us.  Indeed, a great deal of the tension in Christian theological attempts to deal with ascent to God – tension that manifests itself in different ways in different traditions – concerns precisely in what relationship ascent and descent exist for biblically-normed religion.[mfn]This is one reason I reject Roman Catholicism’s doctrinal and spiritual claims: Rome’s understanding of the ascent theme, though beginning with Scripture, runs very far astray from Scripture and reads key parts of Scripture as if they were just endorsements of Neoplatonism’s suspicion of matter and over-exaltation of spirit (more on this below).[/mfn]

An excellent way to bring out the tension Christians necessarily feel trying to hold ascent and descent together so as to do justice to the Scriptures is for us to briefly survey what one of the best pagan philosophers did with the theme.[mfn]I will here only talk about Plato; I had planned to say some things about Plotinus, but I’m trying to keep each post in this series relatively short.[/mfn]  In particular, we need to recognize that although they, “groping after God” (Acts 17:27), did stumble across significant truth about the matter, they nevertheless placed the emphasis on ascent as fundamentally good and desirable while construing descent as fundamentally bad and undesirable.  Among other huge problems, that way one finds, with sect-specific inflections, versions of Manichaeanism,  Docetism, Gnosticism, and a colorful variety of “too spiritual for the rest of you carnal folk” Christian heresies.  In this latter category I would put perfectionist Holiness movements, schismatic “lone pilgrim” ecclesiologies, and the invocation of sub-mediators to help one gather the merits needed to climb the long, arduous ladder into the direct, unmediated presence of God.[mfn]One historic take on the Beatific Vision, about which I will post extensively in the future.[/mfn]


Before I say anything about Greek philosophy, let me give two brief disclaimers.  First, I am by no means hostile to Plato, but have rather found (and continue to find) much of his work of great intellectual, academic, and even in a way spiritual benefit.  Second, I am not in the sub-camp of Reformed believers who over-magnify the supposed immense chasm between things “biblical” and things “philosophical.”  Thus, though the limited purpose of this series of posts requires here a more negative sort of tone about some parts of Plato, I do not wish to have myself construed wrongly as some kind of anti-philosophy advocate of “Bible Only”ism – for that I certainly am not.

A commonplace of Plato’s philosophy, and all philosophy, even Christian, that in any significant way follows his lead, is the distinction between appearance and reality.  This was Plato’s way of interacting with the much older theme of becoming “versus” being, or change “versus” stability.  I put “versus” in scarequotes because pre-Plato Greek philosophers did put the two things in stark contrast to each other, and wound up with one more-or-less eliminating the other, but, speaking very generally, Plato tried to take a fuller account of both.  To what extent he succeeded or not is a matter for professional philosophers to argue about; my only purpose here is to offer a layman’s-level sketch that will be useful for later talking about Christian theological takes on ascent to God.

Plato often gets a severe bad rap from “biblicist” Christians, who portray him as simply despising all things substantial and material and changeable in favor of ethereal, disembodied and unchanging abstractions.  I have long suspected, without having the time to show it in the form of a rigorous philosophical treatise, that such is a sophomoric caricature of Plato.  Alas, I also cannot undertake that task of attempted proof here, so for my limited purposes, two dialogues of Plato, the Symposium and the Phaedrus will serve to help give a bare-bones recounting of the theme of man’s ascent to God in pagan philosophy.

In the Phaedrus (246a-248c) Socrates tells the myth of the immortal soul’s revolutions through the heavens, where it sees True Beauty,[mfn]This would be one of the places where pagan philosophy stumbled onto truth, I think, since what Plato describes here is what Christians, reflecting on Scripture, will later describe as the Beatific Vision.  But again, more on this in the future.[/mfn] only to later fall to earth and forget.  On earth, besotted with sensual cares that weigh it down, the soul can nevertheless come to recall its former sight of True Beauty by the images of beauty that exist in earthly things.  Inspired anew to the love of Beauty by these images, the lover seeks, by philosophical contemplation and conversation, to help his beloved, and himself, ascend beyond the images to the reality.

This imagery of the soul climbing steps comes out more explicitly in the Symposium, where, as they talk about the different images of Beauty (210a-d), they ascend as it were up a graded hierarchy of steps of purification – and as each step is taken, the physical thing is left behind in favor of something more spiritual.  But more explicitly still is 211c:  “Beginning from obvious beauties he must for the sake of that highest beauty be ever climbing aloft, as on the rungs of a ladder…so that in the end he comes to know the very essence of beauty.” (emphasis mine).  Again we can see a glimmer of the truth in pagan gropings after God: did not Jacob dream of a ladder (or flight of steps) spanning between heaven and earth, beholding God standing at its top?  And why does there have to be a ladder, anyway?  Because for Scripture Adam fell into sin, while for Plato, the soul fell away from True Being.  The similarities between the Platonic imagery and the biblical are at least as instructive as the differences.

Look again at the phrase of Plato, “so that in the end he comes to know the very essence of beauty.”  Of critical importance for later Christian thought, at least, is the appearance here of the principle “only like can know like,” which means that a human soul, by definition not  what God is, cannot be in communion with God unless it has in some (mysterious) way(s) become different than it started out so that it is now nearly indistinguishable from that with which it is in communion.   A human being must in some real, that is not-merely-apparent, way be like God in order to actually see God and fellowship with Him.

And here is the rub for Christian theologies of ascent: God is fundamentally not the same kind of being we are, yet the thrust of biblical religion is that man, “made in God’s image,” can nevertheless somehow be in communion with God.  Once we were in face-to-face communion with Him, and ascent must have meant something different at that time, but the Fall disrupted and destroyed all of that.  How can we get that face-to-face relationship back?  Having descended through the Fall, we must re-ascend through redemption, yet somehow, perplexingly, we cannot even begin to re-ascend unless God first descends to us, and it is going to be His descent to us that sets out the necessary shape, mode, and scope of our re-ascent to Him.  It stands to reason that nothing that aggrandizes our pride is going to be able to help us re-ascend, for it is by pride that we first descended!

Any genuine Christian answer will, of course, bring in at this point the descent of God to man in the Incarnation of Christ, leading to all those fantastically enjoyable patristic exultations about the paradoxes of the infinite being contained by the finite, the unsuffering somehow suffering death for us, God taking on man to make men “gods,” and so on.  But again, how does this work?  Much of the historic and ongoing controversy between Christian traditions turns on this question, and since I am Reformed (but not, as I noted above, a biblicist!) I will close this post by noting the dangers inherent in too close a juxtaposition of Greek philosophical schemes with biblical ones:[mfn]The following are from Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company)[/mfn]

Christian theology leaned heavily on these concepts, and it was not without temptation and crucifixion that it gradually (and not entirely) transformed them…Plato’s sharp disjunction between the realm of appearances and the realm of Ideas threatened to taint a typology of ascent with material suspicion, even for those who believed in a Creator (pg. 29)

In the Christian narrative, the human drama is less a matter of “like returning to like” than an act of salvation, of grace bringing unlike to participate in unlike. (pg. 30)

Ascent to God (II): The Theme of Ascent in the Old Testament

Though as I noted in the first post, I will not be able to proceed systematically through this huge topic, at least for the first few installments I am aiming for some small-scale sequence of ideas to lay the groundwork.  This second post will lay out the basics of the theme of ascent as they are found in the Old Testament, non-Christian philosophy, and  the New Testament.  This bracketed order is deliberate, since whatever non-Christians think of ascent, and how ever Christians may be able to profitably use their insights, we must take our final, infallible cues from Sacred Scripture.  And when it comes time to discuss how the theme of ascent works out in different Christian traditions, the age-old question “What saith the Scriptures?” will be of paramount importance.

Old Testament

Peter Leithart, starting from the language of Genesis 2 that a river “flowed out of Eden,” intriguingly says that the Garden of Eden was located on a mountain,[mfn]Ezekiel 28:12-13 is often held to support this, also.[/mfn] but not at its top (rivers flow down from sources) – meaning that Adam was “created to ascend” to the source of the river.[mfn][/mfn]    Being cast out of the Garden after the Fall would have meant a downward motion for man, thus generating a powerful desire to re-ascend, which we then see in a series of ascents throughout the rest of the Bible.

Leithart portrays Noah as “the first post-diluvian Adam” who “rebuilds humanity from [the ascended position of] Mount Ararat, where he plants a vineyard.”  Noah and his family then descend in order to repopulate the earth.  I add that it is not long after this that men attempt to build the great tower to heaven – an attempt to ascend to the heavens if there ever was one – but are directly prevented from this by God’s confounding of their languages.  It is safe to say from this incident that for biblical religion, man’s innate, created (and so good) desire to ascend can never be accomplished by his own willing and running, let alone on terms he sets for himself.

Next in the biblical record of the godly seed comes Abraham, who ascended in Genesis 22, notably to the very mountain where long afterward the Jews built the Temple.  Note again that both the ascension and its specific form and content were a response to a direct command from God.  Abraham neither initiated the ascent nor made it according to his own parameters, and the end of the ascension featured a gracious interposition of God to fulfill terms that Abraham could not have, since (if I may be permitted a reference to Hebrews) sacrificing a sinful human being would ultimately have availed as little as sacrificing animals in the later Mosaic system ever did.

The next ascension comes quickly in the narrative: in Genesis 28, Jacob had a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder that went between earth and heaven.  This image has stuck with me for years in my cursory thoughts (prior to the current series, a sustained attempt to work through the issues) about the theme of ascent in biblical religion.  I will say more about this in my post on ascent in the New Testament, but for now, and given the highly speculative manner in which man’s ascension has often worked itself out in Christian theology, I find the comment of Leon R. Kass apropos:

Jacob’s dream turns out to be a perfect (not to say heaven-sent) device for confronting the rational man with the limits of his rationality.  It comes to him when his power is weakest: all alone, in the wilderness, at night, when reason is idling and fears emerge.  The dream occurs, to be sure, “within” his mind, and because it so clearly answers to his needs, it must be suspected of being the mind’s own creation.  Yet the substance of the dream shows precisely the limits of the human mind’s ability to discern the truth about the world and to provide for a man’s most urgent needs.  The sharp-eyed man – and also the sharp-eyed reader – is invited to see the limits of his own sharp-mindedness.[mfn]The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis(New York: Free Press, 2003), pg. 415).[/mfn]

The next major ascent we see in the Old Testament occurs in 2 Samuel 15, when in the midst of his trials with his rebellious son Absalom, David goes up weeping, barefoot, and with his head covered onto the Mount of Olives “to the summit, where God was worshiped” (32).  The first century Jewish historian Josephus remarks that David must have looked down on Jerusalem as he wept, a thought that immediately draws the Christian mind to Christ doing precisely the same thing in Matthew 24.  Moreover, it is quite likely on the same spot of this same mountain that in I Kings 11:7-8, David’s “wise” son Solomon will erect high places for the gods of his foreign wives.

Next we come to 2 Sam. 24, in which David goes up to the threshing floor of Araunah to sacrifice to the Lord because of his (David’s) sin of numbering the people.  The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21:16 has the angel of the Lord standing “by” the threshing floor, and David “saw the angel standing between earth and heaven” waiting to destroy Jerusalem.  Here we see again (cp. Jacob’s ladder) the figure of an angel sent down to bridge the ascent between earth and heaven, and the necessity of sacrificial offering to make any true ascent of man possible.

Note again (as with the sacrifice of Isaac story) that this was the place where the Temple would later be built.  The multiple reinforcements we have seen so far of the theme of man’s ascent to God with a specific location is highly significant, especially since throughout the mostly depressing narratives of the kings, shrines to idols tend to built on “high places” and also since the New Testament priesthood, held by Christ Himself, is precisely not identified with a specific location on earth, but is in heaven and draws the eyes of our hearts upward (ascending) to it.

Again, I am not here attempting a systematic, let alone a comprehensive summary of such a vast topic, so I will end this post on the Old Testament setting by noting that there are fifteen Psalms of ascent (120-134), sometimes also called “Pilgrim songs.”   The Hebrew word מעלה (ma’alah) describes upward movement, hence our translation “ascent.”  The Israelites sang these songs on journeys to Jerusalem for festivals, and also on the return ascent from Babylon to Israel after the captivity’s end.   During the time of the Temple, the priests sang them as they climbed the fifteen steps to enter the Temple – which shows the liturgical (here meaning just an ordered, communal participation and response) “step-by-step” nature of ascending to God.   According to one Jewish source,[mfn][/mfn] singers would start each ascent song in a low voice and gradually raise their voice tones.   Notably, the Psalms of ascent played a significant role in the daily liturgies of Medieval monasteries.  At some point in the future, I may write more about these Psalms.

In the next segment, following the bracketed order I mentioned earlier, I will look at the theme of ascent in Greek philosophy, and then close the brackets by turning to the theme in the New Testament.


Ascent to God (I): Introduction

The “ascent of the soul” has had a colorful and venerable history in the Christian tradition, reaching back as far as the apostle Paul, who was “caught up to the third heaven.” Although the terminology can be traced as far back as Pythagoras (sixth century B C E) and then Plato (fourth century B C E), it was thoroughly appropriated by Jewish apocalypticism around the time of Christ, having been wedded to the traditional “ascended” figures of Enoch and Daniel. – Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company), pg. 2

As part of an ongoing research project, I will occasionally be posting on the subject of spiritual ascent / descent.  This is a major theme in historical Christian theology, and to better understand a given tradition’s doctrines and practices, it seems to me necessary to be able to see something of how the theme gets”inflected” in different ways by each.  But this presupposes some general knowledge of the theme itself; hence, this occasional series of posts.

I first encountered the Christian theme of ascent to God many years ago when in a primer on Reformation theology, Michael Horton’s Putting the Amazing Back Into Grace, I read of how Evangelical piety tended to cast the story of Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:10-19) as us climbing up to God, but as it turns out the ladder is actually coming down from God – and the ladder is Christ.  That made a lot of sense to me at the time, but I never tried to follow up on it.

Much later, in grad school work I did in Medieval theology and literature, I encountered the theme again and had to engage with it in some detail.  For instance, for one assignment I wrote on the theme as it is found in Augustine’s Confessions, and for another, on how it is found in Canto XVI of Dante’s Purgatory.   While this was very interesting at the time, again I found that after those papers were done, for a long time thereafter I did not revisit the theme.

For a third time I encountered the theme of ascent to God when about three years ago I read a large portion of Pseudo-Dionysius, a 5th century Neoplatonist Christian whom the Middle Ages confounded with the Dionysius who was one of Paul’s converts on the Areopagus.  I was at that time struck by how closely a lot of Roman Catholicism’s doctrine and practice parallels Neoplatonism’s idea of “lesser” creatures traveling up a metaphysical ladder to achieve mystical union with the Perfect One by becoming entirely different sorts of things than they started out as.

Since that time, I’ve begun to deal with ancillary issues such as what precisely “the image of God” is, and in that context, the Catholic concept of the donum superadditum (a special, supernatural addition on top of an inherently imperfect juman creation that enables him to rise up to God) and most recently, the Beatific Vision (the end state of man apparently looking directly at the very being of God in and of itself by reason of having been transformed in some mysterious way out of “mere” finitude so as to be able to meaningfully contemplate infinitude).

Needless to say, the issues are complex enough taken individually, and even more so when they interact with each other in multiple different ways in various Christian traditions.  Catholicism thinks of ascent (and descent) in one way, and winds up construing the Beatific Vision in a certain way that flows from that.  But the Reformed tradition, of which I am a happy part, also has a thoroughgoing doctrine of ascent (and descent), and also winds up construing the Beatific Vision in a certain very different way that flows from that.   As with many theological divides, Augustine is, of course, at the heart of most of it, on all sides.

I don’t pretend at the outset that this series is going to proceed systematically.  I haven’t yet got a systematic grasp on its many angles, and so can’t give what I don’t have.  What I’m going to be doing is more modest: just posting relevant quotes and analysis as I find them, and aiming over time to arrive at a better, fuller understanding of this very important theme and how it works itself out in the different traditions.

Raphael Hythloday and the Protestant Reformation

As a thoroughly convinced Protestant who is already home and so isn’t looking to get there, I find it interesting that we often speak of the Reformation as beginning on October 31, 1517 with Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses. It’s a convenient date, to be sure, and a good one with which to mark the specifically spiritual emphases of the Reformation. But there were other times, such as the 11th century, 500 years before Luther, when Christians called very important work to fix problems in the church “reform” and even talked about the “necessity of preaching the Gospel,” or the whole of the 15th century, which was consumed by a variety of programs all explicitly invoking the necessity of reforming the Church.

This suggests that too rigid a periodization of history will fail to notice important overlaps of ideas and circumstances, protracted and complex movements that cut across all the later, tidy categories of developed polemical positions, influential people who can’t be neatly pigeonholed as “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys.” This being the case, a long running theme of mine has been and continues to be that all of Church history is the common property of all Christians, so we Protestants need never feel shame talking positively about people and events prior to October 31, 1517.

What if, for instance, we thought of the Reformation as beginning nearly 100 years earlier than the 95 Theses, that is, in 1439 when the humanist Lorenzo Valla exposed as fraudulent the document that had served for centuries as the historical basis of the papacy, the Donation of Constantine? Valla’s solid, factually-based polemic against the papacy’s reliance on frauds is a fun read, especially since it was written a bit less than 50 years before Luther was even born – and by a Catholic priest. If you haven’t heard my earlier episode, “The Insolence of Ecclesiastical Princes,” I covered a similar theme there.

But what if we went further back than Lorenzo Valla, to events that had already severely damaged the credibility of Rome, and so set our starting date for the Reformation as the beginning of the Western Schism in 1378? Over the next 40 years, numerous attempts to heal that intractable breach of unity, focused on the very office that supposedly guarantees the unity of the Church, showed vast tracts of Christendom that councils could sometimes be superior to popes. This idea didn’t die with the formal collapse of conciliarism in the late phases of the Council of Basel, but resounded like a gong in everyone’s ears for almost two centuries, all the way into the 17th century.

Or maybe we should push our starting date for the Reformation back to the recovery of Aristotle by Western Christians from the middle of the 12th century, 400 years before Luther. Studying Aristotle closely set in motion an unstoppable tsunami of Christian realization that there were quite other ways to order the government of both the Church and the State than subjugation to one guy in Rome. John of Paris and Marsilius of Padua are must reads on this topic, but we might, just for the delightful historical irony, point out that even Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle to exposit ideas about how one-man rule too easily devolves into tyranny, which leaves his subjects room to resist his authority.

Other dates might be proposed, but in the interests of time, let me instead state my point in these speculations about other starting dates for the Reformation. Didn’t I start by saying I was going to talk about the first part of Thomas More’s Utopia? Quite so, and here’s the connection: Thomas More, though a staunch Catholic to his death, here shows us through both his own character and that of Ralph Hythloday, certain important clues to why the early 16th century conflict needs much more careful handling than is frequently done on the popular level.

On that level, which most of us either inhabit or have frequent dealings with, historical lines tend to be drawn far too sharply in the wrong places. It’s very easy to draw lines at predestination and justification, for example, but if we aren’t careful, we will put crucial antecedents to our own views on the wrong side of the lines, thus lopping off the branch we ourselves are sitting on. A major reason I’m focusing on Thomas More’s Utopia here is precisely to avoid such branch-lopping by pointing out the necessity of firmly planting the Reformation’s feet deeper than October 1517 – namely, planting them where they belong, in the catholic Christian cultural renewal movement called the Renaissance.

Time is short, so I’ll have to move quickly. For reference purposes, I will be quoting from the translation of Utopia by Robert M. Adams as found in the Second Edition of the Norton Critical Edition published in 1992.

The first thing to note is when More’s friend, Peter Giles, tells More that Raphael Hythloday, who has discovered fantastic and world-picture altering things, is not some careless, self-destructive traveler like Palinurus in Vergil’s Aeneid. Hythloday is, rather, a careful, rational adventurer like Homer’s Odysseus, who learned many new things by traveling, or like the careful, rational philosopher Plato, who traveled to learn new things (pg. 5). These images well describe the Renaissance, particularly its emphasis on the God-given power of human reason to penetrate the obfuscations of false appeals to antiquity and attain to actual truth. This emphasis had by More’s and Luther’s day been trucking along for nearly 200 years, upsetting more than few important apple carts in both the Church and the State.

Whatever one winds up thinking about Hythloday’s account of the marvelous land of Utopia, note that More positions him such that the very ideas of traveling, both physically and intellectually, of discovering new things that challenge the old, and perhaps even of demanding change for the sake of the common good is not some novel notion invented by heretics or rebels. To see this point, who would claim that Amerigo Vespucci, the real Italian mariner who sailed West in 1499 and found South America, was by his journeying off-the-beaten-path, and by his discovery of a new (really, an ancient) land some sort of agent of the Devil attempting to overthrow in favor of silly novelties the once-for-all-delivered Truth handed down in unbroken succession from the Geography and Cartography Fathers?

Indeed not. More instead positions first Hythloday’s experiences with the civil justice mechanism of England, and later, his experiences with the natural revelation-based society of Utopia that he finds after taking his leave of Vespucci as prompting entirely legitimate criticisms of traditions that, despite their supposed hoary age, are quite bad and must be altered for the good of the whole society.

Since that theme, that the health of the whole society outweighs the good of an individual, even when he is the leader, was an old theme of ancient Greece and Rome, and upheld by no less than Thomas Aquinas, it is interesting to read between the lines as More’s Hythloday spins out explicit classical references and implicit classical allusions right and left in order to ground the acceptability of today’s generation questioning various ideas and practices that claimed to be ancient and without error. The classics, of course, being the common property of Christians, are not only non-sectarian, but also far older, more clear, and much more stable sources with which to evaluate contemporary problems.

There are, for instance, several connections in Hythloday’s speech to the Athenian lawgiver Solon and the Ionian “father of history” Herodotus. Solon, you remember, traveled abroad and took a little of this and a little of that from various cultures as he prudentially judged them better than his city’s own conventions, and so as more likely to foster her security and peace. You can glimpse Solon easily, if you’ve read Plutarch’s account of his life, in More’s report that Hythloday “described quite a few other customs from which our own cities, nations, races, and kingdoms might take examples in order to correct their errors” (pg. 7). Wait, what? Isn’t More a Catholic? Indeed, which makes you wonder what happened to make Catholicism so hard and unteachable after his day.

As for Herodotus, one of my all-time favorite classical authors, the way he appears in Hythloday’s words to More is pretty much dynamite to any ipse dixit claim that things are true by virtue of great age and long, uninterrupted practice. But don’t take my word for it – here’s the Catholic Thomas More, er, the adventurer Raphael Hythloday:

Now in a court composed of people who…admire only themselves, if a man should suggest something he had read of in other ages or seen in far places, the other counsellors would think their reputation for wisdom was endangered, and they would look like simpletons, unless they could find fault with his proposal. If all else failed, they would take refuge in some remark like this, ‘The way we’re doing it is the way we’ve always done it, this custom was good enough for our fathers, and I only hope we’re as wise as they were.’ And with this deep thought they would take their seats, as though they had said the last word on the subject – implying, forsooth, that it would be a very dangerous matter if a man were found to be wiser in any point than his forefathers were. As a matter of fact, we quietly neglect the best examples they have left us; but if something better is proposed, we seize the excuse of reverence for times past and cling to it desperately.” (pp. 8-9)

Just in case you’re wondering, that entire sequence of thoughts is found multiple times in Herodotus, who told so many seemingly outlandish stories about faraway lands, peoples, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (thanks, J.K. Rowling) precisely to help his culturally-insular Greek fellows try to realize that, well, a thing is not true just because it’s old, has been done for a long time, and makes us feel that we must be closer to Truth than all the benighted “barbarians” who do it all so very, very differently than we.

I guess the connections I want you to see relevant to the Reformation are pretty clear by now. And since they are so clear, I’m going to wax a bit rhetorically strong for a minute. We live in an age of mass disinformation caused by information overload, and many Christians begin to feel an impatient intellectual and spiritual longing for Totally Unquestionable Truth. Such Truth, many of us feel, must be mediated Infallibly to our brains by “Authority,” which from the standpoint of the Renaissance might as well be called surrogate brains relieving us of our personal responsibility to think. For many of us, Catholic and Protestant, led about by such “Authority,” it’s too easy to surrender to quick, sloppy polemics about inestimably important religious matters like those that exploded Christendom in the early 16th century.

So here’s my little piece of strong rhetoric: Book I of the staunch Roman Catholic Thomas More’s Utopia, renders it impossible to responsibly say such things as that the Reformation popped out of nowhere, or at any rate, from the addled little brain of a rebellious German monk who thought himself wiser than all his betters. Moreover, it’s impossible to responsibly say such things as that it was the Reformation which caused many of our Modern cultural woes by breaking a more primal Catholic unity and peace and by denying the unbroken history of the ages in favor of novelties. Of course, one can say such things all day long, and be quite untroubled by them. But I think that what More shows us is that to say such things is irresponsible.

Now how can I say that, since we know that More went on to write blistering polemics against Luther, and went to his own death staunchly resisting what he thought of as the unconscionable impositions of the secular power into spiritual matters? Well, I can say that because in two words, Renaissance humanism. I cannot here diverge even for a bit to discuss that topic. It will have to suffice to say that like early Scholasticism before it, Renaissance humanism, by its relentless insistence on criticizing present verities on the basis of their conformity to a standard of truth outside themselves, made it not only possible, but actually both necessary and unavoidable for someone like Martin Luther to arise and do what he did.

Take a look at pp. 9-19 in the version I am citing from, at Hythloday’s account of the corruption of the English court on justice for thieves. The application of the entire exchange to ecclesiastical matters as well as civil is going to be quite difficult to deny in any way other than merely begging the question.

Remember, the Renaissance’s call “Back to the sources!” had been in the air everyone breathed for nearly 200 years, which shows us a very lengthy process of Catholic Christians learning to ask questions about matters they had for too long wrongly thought were settled. It would be grossly anachronistic to read back into the historical records the hardline, post-Tridentine uniformitarianism that lies behind the popular Catholic rhetoric that “Luther was a rebel against authority.” Again, just go back to 1439 and hear the Catholic priest Lorenzo Valla’s scathing indictment of the fraudulent “historical” basis of papal power:

    •  I know that for a long time now men’s ears are waiting to hear the offense with which I charge the Roman pontiffs. It is, indeed, an enormous one, due either to supine ignorance, or to gross avarice which is the slave of idols, or to pride of empire of which cruelty is ever the companion. For during some centuries now, either they have not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they themselves forged it, and their successors walking in the same way of deceit as their elders have defended as true what they knew to be false, dishonoring the majesty of the pontificate, dishonoring the memory of ancient pontiffs, dishonoring the Christian religion, confounding everything with murders, disasters and crimes. They say the city of Rome is theirs, theirs the kingdom of Sicily and of Naples, the whole of Italy, the Gauls, the Spains, the Germans, the Britons, indeed the whole West; for all these are contained in the instrument of the Donation itself. So all these are yours, supreme pontiff? And it is your purpose to recover them all? To despoil all kings and princes of the West of their cities or compel them to pay you a yearly tribute, is that your plan?

Now since Valla’s discoveries were just the tip of the iceberg, it is irresponsible to claim that the Reformation was a bizarre, rebellious, novel eruption into the unbroken purity and continuity of Christ’s Church. To those who would speak thus, I point to Thomas More’s Raphael Hythloday mocking the childish belief that something profound has been said merely by invoking a supposedly unquestionable antiquity that is a mish-mash of half-truths, legends and fables, and romantic longings for Ideal Worlds that never did and never will exist. Please don’t be mad at me for saying that; be mad at Thomas More. I’m just channeling him.

If we want to better understand our own past as Western Christians, to better engage the ongoing, serious disagreements we have over so many issues, we really must try to hear what Raphael Hythloday is teaching about the real shape of the relationship of historical and current authorities to Truth. For though it stings to take it seriously, it really is true what Hythloday somewhat snarkily said about people who imagine that their fathers were necessarily rationally superior to themselves, and so are simply to be followed without question. That is, Hythloday via Thomas More, not Enloe via Martin Luther, says that such people are pretty shallow thinkers who confuse their own intellectual laziness with pious reverence for antiquity.

In reality, what the whole of the Renaissance shows us, in everything from the new (old) geography to the new (old) books to the new (old) modes of politics to the new (old) ways of construing spirituality, is the uniform lesson that we are just as rational as our fathers, which is why we can honor them by attending closely to what they say while at the same time feeling free to examine what they say and follow it only if it is actually True. The Renaissance showed us that human nature is always and everywhere the same. A consequence of this is that we are to realize that the Fathers were not constitutionally superior to us, but that we are every bit as rational and capable as they.

Indeed, were we to get the kind formation of intellect and soul that our Fathers in the faith had, we ourselves might just be able to equal their achievements and take our rightful place among them in what is often called “The Great Conversation.” Rather than sit at their feet like helpless children, imbibing all from them, we might actually talk to and with them, and – as we say in Latin, mirabile dictu!, “amazing to say!” even offer corrections where they erred. This seems an astonishing thought, yet in the Renaissance, it actually did happen. People who began in an intellectually and aesthetically and spiritually lesser condition than their Fathers began to study the works of their Fathers and, in time, found themselves producing literature and theology and architecture and art equal to, if not greater, than their Fathers.

Such a way of relating to our Fathers, realizing that we share a common human rational nature with them and can fully participate in the kind of life they had, even to the point of criticizing what they did and making our own judgments to the contrary, is called “adulthood,” the attainment of which is, or at least is supposed to be, the goal of every child. What we should see from Book I of Utopia is that Thomas More the Catholic is telling us all to stop being led about by authorities who don’t actually know what they’re talking about, and instead to grow up and start thinking for ourselves. The road from here to Luther is a very short one, indeed.

But here is where it will be said by the Catholic that I’ve gone astray in my reasoning. Have I really missed the brute historical fact that if it’s so rational and proper to criticize even spiritual authority and hold it responsible to standards outside of itself, why didn’t Thomas More follow in Luther’s footsteps? Don’t I believe that there is a radical difference between mere geographical realities or mere civil order arrangements and the Divinely-Revealed Constitution of the Church of Jesus Christ, let alone Christ’s own promise that the gates of Hell will never prevail against her? Don’t I grasp that while it was quite alright for the Renaissance humanists to debate all kinds of alternative civic governmental schemes and fine-tune public and private ethics by close engagement with ancient systems of thought, Luther and all his followers went wrong precisely in extending such debate to matters impinging on the next world? I mean, what’s next – textual criticism of Bible manuscripts and the unworkable social chaos of cuius regio, cuius religio? Don’t I see that More had to draw lines to keep Hythloday-ish adventuring toward a good land from winding up in the mocking wasteland of Voltaire?

The answer to these and other like questions starts with the Renaissance recovery of the fact that our minds were made to engage with the world and substantially understand it. Revelation is not confined by human rationality, but neither does it simply contradict it or do an end-run around it. The parts of Utopia Book I that I have engaged herein show that growth in wisdom is for everyone a very difficult, time-consuming, fallible process involving so many interconnected factors that nobody but God can see how they all fit together.

That More and Luther used the same intellectual tools provided by humanism, pursued adulthood down the same paths of their common Fathers, but wound up in different places at the end is unsurprising to any careful student of human nature. And when, using the kinds of critical tools that Renaissance humanism bequeathed to Christendom, we take the trouble to descend into the details of various controversies, when we aim to be prudent travelers like Odysseus and Plato and Raphael Hythloday rather than foolish ones like Palinurus, we will discover, perhaps surprisingly, that a few key issues well understood can illuminate what before seemed only a Stygian labyrinth.

Illumination is not, of course, perfect understanding. Discerning readers will detect several fronts of the soon-to-be Catholic vs. Protestant divide looming large in More’s Utopia, which, after all, was published in Latin only a year before the 95 Theses. It is well-known that More held Luther in great contempt as a purveyor of abominable heresies for which he tried to offer proofs from the Bible that really only showed his own idiocy. Luther, he said in places, had authored a pestilent sect teaching execrable heresies that turned “the antidote of Holy Scripture entirely into poison.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies, Pt. IV, pp. 456-457).

All I can say about that, I guess, is, “Sticks and stones may break bones,” and so forth – and certainly we own that Luther could give as good as he got in the department of personal attacks full of rhetorical excess. All this aside, though, Thomas More the humanist writing about universal human issues was a far more judicious and thoughtful man than Thomas More the Catholic polemicist writing about his favored sect of Christianity, so I still say that dyed-in-the-wool Protestant though you are, you should still find yourself a copy of Utopia and get busy reading and enjoying it. There’s much, much more in this short little book that deserves sustained, sober thought, no matter on what side of the Catholic-Protestant divide you find yourself.

Thoughts on Culture and Culture-Warring

I wrote this more than a year ago but just sat on it due to some misgivings about its clarity and value.  But whether any particular statement below is right or wrong, the fact is that Internet discussions are mostly driven by extremes, so I don’t think it’s improper (though it may be the conservative version of politically incorrect) to try to encourage slower, more careful thought about such important matters.

I. “Culture”

Like “society” and “civilization,” this is a general term that refers to a complex interplay of ideas, beliefs, and behaviors shared by many people who by the fact of the sharing exhibit a significant degree of outward (political) unity.

Modifiers attached to the word preserve its general nature while at the same time highlighting particular aspects of it: “Modern culture,” “American culture,” “consumer culture,” “Christian culture,” and the like.

The general nature of the term obviously facilitates easier communication by avoiding the need for complex, time-consuming sub-discussions about the numerous local variations on the theme that exist.  But a question I have is whether and to what extent the general term “culture,” even with various modifiers, permits us to get at deep fundamentals more than at surface appearances.

For instance:

II. “Christian Culture”

This term functions popularly as a catch-all label for Our Side as opposed to Their Side (see III, below).  Christian culture is something that once dominated the world, and, depending on who you talk to, there seem to be three broad possibilities.  Namely, Christian culture

(1) has just gotten a bit occluded with grime that proper political incrementalism pro Rege can wipe away,

(2) has just about fallen to nothingness and needs to be rebuilt from sola Scriptura scratch, or

(3) has changed form from the papal ecclesiocentricism of the late Middle Ages to a “Two Kingdoms of Christ” model – BUT

(3a) There is presently much dispute over what precisely “Two Kingdoms” means and entails, since much of what goes by that name now does not match what the Protestant Reformers themselves taught.

The question of end dominates here.  American Christians are divided on eschatology, and each view contains within it a whole different take on the biblical theme of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation.  A variety of takes on “Christian culture” are thus possible, and none are dismissible without substantial argumentation from Scripture, the history of interpretation, and careful enumeration and analysis of many contingent factors that can produce only the relative certainty of prudential judgment rather than the absolutely certainty of geometrical demonstrations.

And so a serious problem presents itself for culture-warring rhetoric: we Christians do not agree among ourselves about what Christian culture even is.  How then, do we act as if there is a single agreed-upon set of cultural goals that the culture-war is aiming at?  As far as I can tell, the idea that we are all aiming at a single, agreed-upon thing called “Christian culture” stems from the fact that among conservatives, there is consensus on a handful of high profile, high-emotion issues such as abortion, evolution, and the biblical-creational pattern of marriage.  But we are all over the map on other important matters of strategic tactics (in ethics, biblicism or natural law; in politics, careful distinguishing of the Two Kingdoms or “American exceptionalism”; in public witness, aggressive pugilism / stigmatization of “Them” or contemplation-based efforts at civil persuasion).

Given these considerations, it seems that much of the ongoing advocacy of “Christian culture” as a clearly discernible side in a great culture war may be more on the level of connotative reasoning (virtue-signaling / emotive prescription) than denotative (an “objective” dictionary description).


“Secular Culture”

This term looms large in apologetics interactions between Christians and the world outside our Faith.  Frequently it succeeds in reaching a strictly denotative aim that, as said above, facilitates easier communication.

For instance, if “secular” gets defined as “broadly unconcerned with objective truth” and there is a large group of people who share ideas, beliefs, and practices flowing from that definition, then there really is such a thing as “secular culture.”  When everyone, or most everyone, in a given conversation agrees on the denotative meaning of a term, communication is indeed much easier and more productive.

However, language is meant to reflect reality, to properly describe the extra-mental world, to connect the human mind with the external world in a way that points toward wisdom.  If the received denotation of a term, and so, all that is based upon it, does not properly reflect the world, it is not good that communication occurs more easily and productively.  (The production of falsehood, especially when easily achieved, is surely undesirable.)

Thus, I wonder if at times, perhaps even frequently, such generalizations function as deficiently rigorous boundary markers, or rather, to use the term that is in vogue, just simplistic ways of virtue-signaling.  That is, while generalizations do often succeed in strictly denotative aims, do they sometimes achieve little more than shoring up connotative (more subjectively emotive and less rigorously intellectual) aims, and so preserving an unexamined, unhealthy sense of deeper unity and correspondingly unhelpful polemics against others?

Thus, lastly, for now:


Probably few Christians have not heard this term, and there are probably even fewer who do not engage in the activity of culture-warring in some form.  For some decades now, it has seemed obligatory, and that sense has only intensified in the few years since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.

Indeed, on the cluster of complicated issues regarding sexuality that seem to be consuming the lion’s share of our national ethical-political conversation, it is doubtful that anything seems more blazingly clear than the daily spiritual, ideological, legal, and often personally-relational, war between “Christian culture” and “secular culture.”

As the cannons continuously fire up and down each side’s line, threatening shell-shock for all but the most battle-hardened, there seems little time, and even less interest, in closely examining terminology, implications, and practices.  Few seem to want to try to untangle denotations from connotations, to refine public understanding of the relationship of the terms to the realities they are trying to describe, to more clearly identify the shape, scope, and even the location of the battle lines.  Memes and tweets and YouTube clips of Extreme Horror Stories frantically carpet-bomb each side, and for many on both sides, any wavering from the posture of Constant, Total War is tantamount to treason.

To me, however, “culture war” is an intriguing term if one stops to think about its component parts and ask a few unconventional questions.  Thus:

  • Have we defined “secular” correctly when we treat it as unequivocally antithetical to “Christian”? Etymologically, “secular” just means “of this age,” or “of this world.”  But isn’t every age and isn’t this world Christ’s?  Over the course of Christian history through the Middle Ages, “secular” came to mean “not church-y,” and though prior to the Reformation this was treated as a deficient thing, the Reformation recognized the goodness of created norms in the “not church-y,” and so dispensed with mere cynicism about “the world.”  So I want to ask, shouldn’t we take care in our view of “secularism” to distinguish what is good in it, and not merely engage in a Constant, Total War against it?


  • If a culture is a complex interplay of ideas, beliefs, and behaviors shared by many people who by the fact of the sharing exhibit a significant degree of outward (political) unity, BUT if there is also a war focusing on culture, we need to ask how many cultures exist in America – that is, how many combatants are there in the war?


  • If there is in America only one culture, what is the place of Christians in it? If there is only one culture at stake in the culture war, we have to ask at what points do we, as a part of that one culture, agree with those whom we otherwise portray as slavering, anti-God, despicably immoral idolators?  Are there deeper structures of thought, ethics, politics, and economics on which we share the same assumptions as “Them,” and if there are, what are we talking about when we say we are at war with them?  It is an uncomfortable question, but one necessitated by asserting that there is only one culture involved in the culture war.


  • As some, such as Alastair Roberts, argue, what if we Christians are complicit in all the deeper matters of culture that have led to our present sexuality crisis. If so, whom are we fighting in the “culture war,” what are we fighting over, and to what end?


  • Moreover, if there is only one culture at work, then we are fighting a civil war over competing definitions of that culture. And as with the word “secular,” it seems unlikely that a simplistic Black Hat / White Hat view of what the culture ought to look like properly describes the real situation.  Perhaps it is no accident, in this light, that many conservative Christians readily identify with the “Great Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War proper, in which little bad can rightly be said of the South and little good of the North.  A kind of political Manichaenism, maybe?


  • Finally, if it is a civil war, then we are not fighting Orcs, but errant neighbors and fellow citizens – and shouldn’t that crucial fact help determine how we fight, what strategic goals we pursue and by what means, and what our long term understanding of victory is?


  • On the other hand, if we are dealing in America with more than one culture, we must ask to which one Christians belong, and what it is that unifies “our” culture as over against “theirs.”


  • This is an extremely complicated question that flows straight into weighty matters of external political organization and integrity. For if there are actually different cultures at work in the culture war, on the definition of “culture” noted earlier, there are different political orders manifesting themselves.  If our culture is, to borrow a slogan from the abortion debate, a “culture of life,” and theirs is a “culture of death,” two different governments are required to express the very different lifestyles inherent in those terms.  Yet few Christian culture warriors are calling for, say, the overthrow of the United States government or, less extremely, secession from it.  Rather, even the most devoted culture warriors continue to canvass for Approved Politicians and to vote in elections, as if the goal is really only to capture common external political machinery for the next cycle or three, and as if victory is really only just getting to gloat for a while because the opponents have been legally forced to submit.  But on the principle “What fellowship has light with darkness, the kingdom of God with the kingdom of Belial,” it seems fairly un-Christian to try to maintain the cyclical, politically external mash-up of two entirely different cultures, the culture of life and the culture of death.  There seems a serious inconsistency in this take on the culture war.


  • But this raises the further problem that in many Evangelical and Reformed circles, the institutional church is held to be a “parallel culture,” a “counter-polis,” which is often described as if it were a self-contained locus of “true civilization” outside of which is mere darkness and barbarism. This view makes it very clear whom we are fighting and to what end, but it also puts us in a very problematic position relative to those we call our adversaries.  For very obviously, the institutional church doesn’t provide electricity, groceries, running water, trash disposal, safe and usable roads, postal service, or any of a dozen or score other services that seem quite indispensable to civic life as we know it.  Very obviously, the institutional church concerns itself with nothing more than aspects of life held to be “spiritual,” that is, not civic-political.  And so, very obviously, the institutional church is not able to provide us with everything we need for “true civilization.”  We must still in hundreds of of ways continuously rub shoulders with “Them” – and that has rather pronounced effect on how exactly we can characterize the culture war we say we are fighting.  Specifically, it takes us back to the possibility that really, there is only one culture involved in the war, and to all the questions listed above under that point.