Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Christianity: The Sequel

Many people have pointed out that sequels are rarely as good as originals. National Treasure 2 wasn't quite as good as the original National Treasure. Don't even get me started about the 2nd and 3rd installments of Pirates of the Caribbean.

I think the reason this happens is that in the original, people are trying to capture the ultimate: best treasure-hunt movie ever, best pirate movie ever. Whether they succeed in being the best is one question, but their high goal leads to high results. Sequels often aim lower. They do not want to be the best ever; they just want to repeat the first. The same players come out to take another bow. They end up with the quality of stale leftovers, warmed over and not quite fresh.

The sequels that break this pattern are the ones that again seek to be the ultimate instead of being mere encores.

In the early days of Christianity, followers of Christ were breaking new ground. The territory was the whole world. Teaching monotheism to pagans -- or a loving God to those who sacrificed their children -- was a bold move. Love of enemies was a bold move, still original in the history of religion. Forgiveness on a radical level challenged the standard compromise of love with resentment. And above all, the living memory of Christ fueled the growth of Christian thought and teachings. The true "first quest for the historical Jesus" was the one that put away Marcion and the Gnostics as those who preached a non-historical Christ. The origin of orthodoxy was loyalty to the realities of Christ.

As much as I'm a fan of orthodoxy, an advocate of getting our teachings right, I have a caution: If we define "right teachings" in terms of Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon, we become a sequel. Please bear in mind that this "sequelizing" happens even if every word from those councils should be proved true. We end by trying to hold on, not to the original revelation of God in Christ, but to decisions about what that meant. The age of the early theological giants of Christianity is largely the age of people who looked directly to Christ. By all means we should read them: but in order that with their insights we may surpass them in their knowledge of Christ, not that we should see them as the upper limit and so continue to fall short. The sequels that break the pattern of mediocrity are the ones that again seek to be the ultimate instead of being mere encores.

12 comments:

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

I don't know that I agree with you there. We are not talking about movies here. We are talking about councils that sought to define WHAT Christianity is and what it is not. While we should not seek to fall short of them (though we don't seem to have that even as an issue) we should not seek to excel them, because their decisions were based on Holy Scripture, and have been upheld by Scripture and long standing beliefs. The problem is not that we are seeking to sequel them or live up to them, or exceed them. It is that no one really knows what happened there, why, or what that means for now. And then there are so many, who like then, reject what those teachings were, but still contend that they are within the bounds of Christianity.

Movies are fiction. The ecumenical councils are not.

Weekend Fisher said...

The reason I think we have to excel beyond the church fathers and the councils is because they left so much unsaid that needed to be said. If we don't excel them we risk paring down Christianity to something less than what was revealed. I don't think the ecumencial councils rank on a par with revelation. Take, for example, the short treatment that the Holy Spirit gets in some of the creeds. I think the Pentecostal movement -- with all its excesses -- was then inevitable. That's not because of what the councils said, it's because of what they didn't say, what the dogmas ignored.

The councils are incomplete.

japhy said...

(I am approaching this from the Catholic perspective.)

The age of the early theological giants of Christianity is largely the age of people who looked directly to Christ. By all means we should read them: but in order that with their insights we may surpass them in their knowledge of Christ, not that we should see them as the upper limit and so continue to fall short. The sequels that break the pattern of mediocrity are the ones that again seek to be the ultimate instead of being mere encores.

I can agree with this, more or less. The organic growth of the Church is not something to be avoided or stopped (or reversed). Pope Pius XII condemned the error of antiquarianism in 1947 in his encyclical Mediator Dei (cf. nn. 61-64): the idea that (specifically) the liturgy should be stripped of its organic development and reconverted into the earliest documented forms.

Sadly, the modern Roman Rite (or rather, the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, as it is now called) seems to have deviated from Vatican II's call for renewal of the liturgy; it has been called a fabrication. Some people don't think it went far enough, and want to invent a "communal Eucharistic celebration" (because the word Mass is too arcane) that they think existed centuries ago.

But I digress.

I agree that we should not become "static" in our faith, but we should not become inventive, either. When we look to the councils of the past, certainly we wish to understand with the greater comprehension the mysteries of the faith. But we can't seek to become "better" by novelty. The faith remains the same, simply illuminated more fully.

japhy said...

The reason I think we have to excel beyond the church fathers and the councils is because they left so much unsaid that needed to be said. ... Take, for example, the short treatment that the Holy Spirit gets in some of the creeds.

The councils are incomplete.


The Gloria is rather short about the Holy Spirit, almost like an afterthought.

The Apostolic Creed is short as well; it doesn't describe the Spirit at all.

Athanasius didn't say much about the Holy Spirit that he didn't also say about the Father and the Son.

The Nicene(-Constantinoplian) Creed does a better job: the Holy Spirit is "the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son); with the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified; he has spoken through the prophets."

But yes, we have a greater understanding of the "ministry" of the Holy Spirit today. We've "studied" it more.

Give it time.

(But, may I remind you, when the Catholic Church "gives things time", we often get accused of inventing beliefs, e.g. the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.)

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Japhy

When you say 'we can't seek to become "better" by novelty.': Amen. One of the points I was trying to make -- and may not have made forcefully enough -- is that the real creative force comes from "originality" in the sense of seeking its origins.

But the Immaculate Conception / Assumption: I think those are examples of novelty. So here's the question that people have long discussed: how do you distinguish "better understanding" from "novelty"? (That's not a rhetorical question; I'm asking you.) :)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

japhy said...

But the Immaculate Conception / Assumption: I think those are examples of novelty. So here's the question that people have long discussed: how do you distinguish "better understanding" from "novelty"?

First (and I know you know this, but it bears repeating) Luther accepted so-called "extra-biblical" Marian doctrines (sources 1 and 2).

As for distinguishing between "novelty" and "better understanding", it's a matter of looking into the traditional belief of the Church. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not defined until 1854, but evidence for its truth go back to the early centuries of the Church.

There is never anything added, only seen more clearly (uncovered, if you will). As someone else said: Also, in his book, "True Devotion to Mary," St. Louis de Montfort postulates that the treasures of the faith regarding Mary were mostly hidden from the early Church and the Fathers because God intended them to be mined later, from the revelation of Christ, for an age that would need her more.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Japhy

And you're probably aware, but Luther isn't anything analogous to a pope for us, he's just a guy who stood his ground and touched a nerve.

See, in my mind, if anything was completely hidden to the apostles and the church fathers as you say -- or on this particular subject I'd take it back to the apostles' generation -- if it's not in something revealed by God -- then it's a human invention.

Now here's a touchy subject -- I understand that devotion to Mary can be a pure and beautiful thing, and that it can leave someone unwilling to consider that she was a wife to Joseph in anything but name. But there was nothing impure about being a wife to Joseph, and I'm not aware of anyone having, say, asked Mary about whether she and Joseph ... I think the safe presumption would have been that a man and wife ... So in the absence of direct evidence to the contrary, I'd figure she was a good wife to Joseph all the way, and that that's no blame on her character but rather a compliment.

The point is not the theology driving the understand of facts, but whether theology is driven by revelation and facts. To me that's the ultimate point.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

japhy said...

... if anything was completely hidden to the apostles and the church fathers as you say...

Not completely hidden, just not completely revealed, or at the very least not well-understood. That's why it wasn't until Ephesus that the Church had to solemnly pronounce that the Virgin Mary was indeed the Mother of God. That's why it wasn't until the Arian heresy that the Church finally proclaimed its official interpretation of the MANY Scriptures that seem to argue for and against the Trinity.

But there was nothing impure about being a wife to Joseph, and ... I think the safe presumption would have been that a man and wife...

But this steps dangerously close to the "Mary, did you know?" camp which seems to ignore that both Mary and Joseph received messages from angels about the nature of the child she conceived. Clearly they were not unaware that the child was conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit, that Mary was giving birth to Emmanuel, God-with-us, the Lord! And after the miraculous conception and birth (which, as the Church teaches, "did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it" (Lumen Gentium, n. 57)), would Joseph have entered into his wife, who was the Living Temple of God, the New Ark, the Eastern Gate (cf. Ezekiel 44:1-4)? Perhaps, if Mary and Joseph just "didn't get it"...

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Japhy

And those examples are interesting. See, "Mary, Mother of God" can be understood in a way that is completely true; it can also be understood in a way that's completely false. Likewise the Trinitarian formulas have some aching gaps in them (at the least), while correctly defending that Father/Son/Spirit are not identical yet One God.

And the tendency to make *the dogma* the point of defense is, I think, exactly what "sequelizes" Christianity / theology. If we made *the revelation* the point of defense, it would be better.

See, for example, how the "quest for the historical Jesus" has been largely taken over by people who have no interest in the historical Jesus, only with being anti-dogma and contrasting the historical Jesus with the dogma. Moltmann was right: if orthodoxy does not necessarily follow from the history of Jesus, then it's not worth our loyalty. (Then he proceeded to defeat Bultmann on Christology on "historical Jesus" grounds, which was the ground from which Moltmann defended orthodoxy. Very gratifying.)

Originally "orthodoxy" was the quest for the historical Jesus: Son of God and Son of Man, over against the Marcionites and the Gnostics etc.

Btw, the argument about ever-virginity from "Mary as the Temple" goes straight back to leaving history as known completely out of the picture. I'm not aware of any direct evidence as to whether Mary and Joseph ever consummated, but "wife" rather than "maid" makes the presumption in favor of consummation. In absence of other evidence, I see no grounded way to dogmatize that "she was never fully a wife to Joseph".

Even if we do play "Mary did you know?", if Mary was "the Temple" (a title Jesus claims for himself, but could be transferred to Mary while she was pregnant), then after Mary delivered Jesus and "God was no longer in the Temple" (so to speak), then if God isn't in the Temple, it's no longer got that unique protection, isn't really the Temple anymore without God there. Which is why God's Presence left the Jerusalem Temple both times before it was destroyed.

Wow, you start a little conversation and watch where all the threads go. I've definitely missed you around here Japhy!

japhy said...

Glad to be back. I'd been busy with my job, a Bible Study, and a lot of reading... not to mention being a husband. I'm doing a bit better balancing them now.

I understand your points. The Church only defines the dogma as best it knows how, which is why, for instance, the Church did not include whether or not Mary died before her Assumption: we don't know, and it hasn't been revealed to us. So sometimes the dogmas are a bit vague, other times more specific.

Keishia Lee Louis said...

I say amen! Speak the truth-- to much of this post...

In response to rebellious pastor's wife (and others), the only problem is that the ecumenical councils are still mere men... We can not make them gods and expect to reap God's reward...

We have seen the fallout of the councils throughout history and so we must go directly to the Source... And seek to express Him through our walk...

We look to the councils for history (or His Story)... How was God moving through these people? How is He glorified? How is He shamed by their actions?

And then we must seek to glorify Him without falling... Of course not falling is impossible...

However, we become better by walking closer to God... Not man.

We look to people only after we seek God. And we should follow teachings only if they are in line with God's Word.

That way, we don't get a watered down Gospel...

I think WF captures the essence in the original post well...

Weekend Fisher said...

Keishia, thank you for being such an encouragement to me!

About what you said about falling -- sometimes I think God is as glorified when we fall, if people see that we're nothing and God is who gives the courage to get back up, then they see that our trust in his faithfulness is real.

Blessings to you!
Anne / WF

P.S. I saw the jewelry on your website. You're an artist.