Cultural Captivity and the Domestication of the Church

Western Culture in Gospel Context, pt. 1

I first read David’s Kettle’s Western Culture in Gospel Context in a seminary apologetics course taught by Esther Meek. It stuck me then as deeply wise and challenging book, but I also sensed that it was a book that would be more profitable to read again in the context of ministry. Yes, it is a book of theology, but it is also a book that uses epistemology and cultural critique to searchingly probe questions related to the mission of the church. I find now that as a parish priest Kettle poses and seeks to answer the kinds of questions I’m asking myself. Most pointedly, what word might the gospel have to speak to us right now?

The subtitle of the book is “Towards the Conversion of the West”. This may strike some as odd or off-putting. Why speak of reconverting a once converted or seemingly converted context? On the face of it may seem either nonsensical, undesirable, ill-advised, or deeply offensive. But Kettle’s call to conversion is a call first to the church itself and then to the culture because he discerns that the western church has become captive to the culture itself. And I couldn’t agree with him more. For all sorts of various reasons that any one of you could name off the top of your head without really trying, the American church has had a kind of apocalypse experience in the last few years. There has truly been an unveiling of our hypocrisies and our comprised loyalties. We’ve not only peeked behind the curtain. The curtain has been ripped from the rafters, and we have come to see our deepest motivations laid bare. For those with ears to hear, we experience this first as judgement, but it is at its heart an act of mercy because of the ever present possibly of repentance. The exhortation remains, “Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts.” Because there is still a Today in which to hear, there is always the possibility of repentance and so always the possibility of conversion.

It might help to know that when Kettle speaks of conversion, he is no speaking in primarily individual terms. He speaks less of individual conversion and more of cultural conversion, and this is important for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that we as American Christians, with a national spirit of individualism coupled with two Great Awakenings, tend to think of conversion primarily in individual terms. But Kettle contends that it is us as a people that must be converted and us as a people that must engage in mission. As Kettle puts it, “Authentic mission requires that Western Christians become aware of the pervasive tendency among them towards captivity by the presuppositions of modern culture” (8).

And just as Kettle is not speaking primarily of individual conversion, he isn’t speaking primarily of the church converting the culture either, which we might rightly recoil from. He is first and foremost speaking of the church’s own conversion and the church’s own liberation from cultural captivity. If, as he says, “authentic mission must rise above cultural captivity”, then the church must first be set free from its own captivity. So he primarily speaks of the church’s cultural captivity and of the church’s domestication to culture. Though he describes captivity and domestication separately, I tend to think of them as related. In many ways, what we’ve experienced is cultural captivity through cultural domestication. Domesticated captivity is more a warm bath than a locked cage, but it is none the less captivity. The most dangerous prison is the one that doesn’t feel like a prison at all.

Even with these caveats, the language of conversion might still be off-putting. We can see the hesitation to use the word by looking at the words we use instead. We hear a lot about renewal perhaps or about flourishing, but not a lot about conversion. Perhaps there are lingering questions. Is conversion even possible any more? Has the word itself and perhaps its underlying logic become unspeakable and unthinkable? If these are your own questions, I’d encourage you to still engage Kettle, primarily because of the keen and humble ways he speaks of the need for conversion within the church, a conversion that first comes to terms with the church’s own captivity.

It is important to remember that the gospel of the kingdom was first a call to repentance for Israel, who were already the people of God, and yet they were called to a kind of conversion, a turning away from what they had trusted in and turning to the coming Messiah. This is a picture of what Kettle is speaking about. The gospel is forever and always situated within a cultural context and is communicated with cultural forms. But the gospel is also the Word of God that breaks in to challenge and to call us to repentance, so it also stands above any given culture as well. Kettle points to this paradox saying, “(T)he gospel speaks at once to and within the context of a our personal life-world: paradoxically it is always at once transcenedent and contextual. In this same encounter it at once discloses God’s fulfillment of and God’s judgement upon the context that makes up our personal life-world with its beliefs, practices, and commitments.”

It’s interesting to me to think of Jesus in a first century context and view his ministry as both transcendent and contextual. As the Messiah Jesus is certainly the fulfillment of Jewish hope and expectation, but also a judgment of false ways of being and doing. If Jesus were not bringing a kind of judgment then “Repent and believe the Gospel” would be a meaningless imperative. But at the same time, if he were not the fulfillment as well, then “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4), would be hubristic nonsense. And he speaks these words to God’s people because judgment and therefore conversion begins in the house of the Lord. By speaking within a culture, Jesus makes himself known in ways that are accessible to those he speaks to. What he says may baffle or offend, but it is on some level intelligible because of the cultural context. But his words are also a summons out of those aspects of culture which enslave, which hold people captive. And as such Jesus through offers liberation through conversion.

Liberation through conversion is an important theme of Kettle’s book, and I want to close by saying that liberation from cultural captivity is different from liberation from culture itself. The former is our great hope, while the latter is impossible. I hope to explore this theme further in later posts as I work through the second of half of the book which proposes ten conversions the West must undergo.

Bonhoeffer on the Interplay of Mystery and Joy

In the latter part of his biography of Bonhoeffer, Charles Marsh carefully works through Bonhoeffer’s prison writings. The prison letters have come to be seen as some of Bonhoeffer most important and challenging theological work, and in this post I’d like to reflect on two recurring themes from those letters, namely the themes of hilaritas and arcnaum. Hilaritas is Christian joy that embraces the this-worldliness experience of life and Being, while arcanum is the unfathomable mystery of God as God. I’d like to suggest that these two themes are deeply entwined, that the proper response to mystery is in fact joy, that the recognition of arcanum is not a throwing up of the arms in the face of mystery but a joyful embrace of life as life and God as God.

Bonhoeffer’s reflections on these themes speak to his understanding of the vocation of theology. In a purely academic setting there might be no place for mystery at all, expect perhaps to solve it or to dispel it. But this is not how Bonhoeffer ever saw his own theological vocation, and especially not in prison at the end of his life. As Marsh writes: “It was a great mistake, Bonhoeffer said, to think of theology’s purpose as being the unveiling of mystery, ‘to bring down to the flat, ordinary wisdom of experience and reason!’ Theology should rather, as its sole mission aim to ‘preserve God’s wonder as wonder, to understand, to define, to glorify God’s mystery as mystery,’ ‘In the arcanum,’ he said, ‘Christ takes everyone who really encounters him by the shoulder, turning them around to face their fellow human beings and the world.’ Theology’s task was to preserve the eternal mystery in a catastrophically demystified time.” (from Strange Glory)

And it is precisely at this point that joy enters the conversation because the preservation of mystery is not a dour task, but a deeply joyful invitation into the life of God and into the world itself. Bonhoeffer sums this theme up as hilaritas. Bonhoeffer’s initial reflections on hilaritas emerged from his reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics II.2 in prison. In that volume, Marsh notes, “Bonhoeffer discovered the value of hilaritas—good humor—as the quality of mind, body, and spirit most important to animating the greatest human achievements.” But it was more than this too. Hilaritas is also a joyful resistance to the nihilism Bonhoeffer saw around him. It is a refusal to accept the construal of the world as nothing more than power, an absolute determination to not surrender. But it is more than a No; it is first a Yes. As Marsh writes, “hilaritas is “saying the Yes and the Amen in gleeful defiance of the Nothing” (366).

Thinking of the interplay of mystery and joy, I’m struck that the book of Ephesians is both the most extended meditation on the mystery of God as revealed in the gospel and the most breathlessly doxological book epistle in the New Testament.

Joyful doxology is the proper response to mystery. If mystery becomes simply something to be solved, then two possible dangers emerge, one being a throwing up of the hands and the other being the temptation to move on once the mystery is “solved”. Balthasar expounds on this second danger, writing, “Problems do not exist in order to be solved; we can never get ‘behind’ Being. We always look with mild contempt on everything we have solved. Problems should always become more luminous in the light of the great mystery in which we live, move, and have our being.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat

Bonhoeffer and the Crisis of the German Church

I recently finished reading Charles Marsh’s excellent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory. There is much to reflect on in the book, and I would commend it to any one not only interested in Bonhoeffer but also to anyone interested in the question of what difference theology might make in a given life or given historical moment.

Along those lines, I was particularly struck by Marsh’s damning critique of theological liberalism and the German Church’s complicity with and acceptance of National Socialism. Marsh writes, “The German Christian movement did not so much destroy as emerge from the ruins of the once-grand Protestant liberal architectonic. It was perhaps a predictable dénouement for a tradition that increasingly turned theology intro anthropology, surrounding the disciplined language of belief to the habit of speaking about God as if of human nature write large.” As a consequence of this anthropological reduction of theology, “the clerics of the German Christian Church would recast the Holy Spirit as an ethos instead of a person: ‘a nature spirit, a folk spirit, Germanness in its essence.’”

Marsh’s critique aligns with Bonhoeffer’s own misgivings about the German theological establishment, which Bonhoeffer harbored even in his own university days. But it is not just this theology that contributed to the German church’s fall to Nazism. As Marsh observes that theology was part of a dangerous cocktail that included Lutheran understandings of the relationship of Church and State, as well as the deep resentments within Germany in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles, and perhaps most dangerously, the long standing legacies of Germanic warrior culture and blood and soil nationalism. In other words, bad theology may not have been the only cause, but it certainly didn’t help, and the bad theology had no resources of real protest, no prophetic counter-witness to offer.

So how to respond? That question sits at the center of Bonhoeffer’s own life work, and while a part of his response to these conditions was protest, more central in my view was his reimagined vision of theological education as a kind of Protestant monasticism centered on a rule of life and the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. Speaking of his written reflections on these issues, Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Marsh observes that Bonhoeffer’s call to radical discipleship and his renewed emphasis on the Sermon the Mount is at one and the same time a needed corrective and an overstatement. On one hand the state church’s captivity to the Nazis and the underlying complacency of German Christianity needed to be challenged, as Bonhoeffer rightly does. But on the other hand, there is a danger within his vision of radical discipleship in laying “upon the individual soul not just his cross but the weight of the world.” Such a burden can “too easily (become) a recipe for a tortured soul or, worse, for an unforgiving perfectionism and sanctimonious bravado.” Despite these dangers, however, the book succeeds because “it was addressed to the crisis at hand.”

Addressing the crisis at hand, in other words, might, or maybe must, take the form of overstatement. This is a helpful reminder as we look at the past and assess Christian theology in different historical moments. What may have been the right book then, may not be the right book now or the right book for another moment with different challenges and conditions. Faithfulness does not necessarily look like a timeless response. It’s more like driving the conditions of the road.

The Mission of the Church: Moving Into and Through History

Further reflections on Balthasar’s essay, “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves”

In the last post I looked at Balthasar’s image of the tree of culture from his essay “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves. On the basis of this image, I described his admonition to receive from the past without overly romanticizing any given period, age, or thinker. In sum Balthasar argued, “Don’t so long for the past that you forget the moment that you actually live in.”

In this post I want to look at the same article and examine the larger argument he makes about the three great periods of Christianity, the patristic age, the scholastic age, and the modern age. In proposing this three fold division, Balthasar seeks to articulate what he discerns to be the inner core of each period. As he puts it, he wants, “To press on past all external and superficial features of each epoch, to focus on its innermost structural law, and then to measure each respective formal law according to the structural law of what is essentially Christian as we encounter this norm in the Gospel” (352).

Setting aside whether or not such a goal is even possible, especially in the span of a short essay, if we take his methodology at face value, the most important thing to determine is what he means by the “norm of the Gospel”. So what is the norm of the Gospel? It is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and because the norm of the gospel is the Incarnation itself, it can never be an abstract principle. By extension this norm, “expresses itself in the level of history in ever-new forms without out being able thereby to call any one of these forms the absolute one” (352). Again he emphasizes that each age has sought to articulate the gospel faithfully, but even faithful articulation is never absolute. History changes so the forms the gospel takes must change too. So whether he fairly represents each period is in one sense slightly beside the point because his primary point has to do with the relationship between the Incarnation and history, a theme I wrote about in an earlier post about his book A Theology of History.

One form the gospel has taken on are the reigning philosophical systems of a given era. That the theology of the church takes on philosophic forms is both a kind of truism and a matter of heated debate. Everyone agrees that is does happen, but not everyone agrees to what extent it is a good or bad thing. Balthasar seems to argue that in one sense it must happen. The norm of the gospel must take on a form: “The Church has been sent to all peoples and to all times; and since she is expressly meant to speak in the form of the visible and the natural, she is also directed to take on the kaleidoscopic variety of the different situations of those times and peoples. Every epoch has its own language, world view, perspective; and the Church must make use of all these in order ’to become all things to all men and so to win all for Christ” (367). The “ever-new forms” include appropriating philosophical systems and concepts in order to articulate the Gospel. For him John’s use of the Logos concept to describe the Incarnation is the prime example of using this appropriation well.

Philosophical systems, such as Platonism for the Fathers and Aristotelianism for the Scholastics, are forms that theologians take on in order to articulate the gospel terms that make sense to a given culture, to a particular time and place. There are dangers in this, and Balthasar acknowledges this. With Platonism there is the possible danger of other worldliness, of escape from creation, and there is the possible danger of pantheism. With the Scholastics the danger is to naturalize everything. But this does not mean that the theologians of the those eras were wrong to adopt these forms.

Problems only arise when the philosophical appropriation becomes untethered from the Incarnation. And the temptation to untether is the problem of the Garden extending through history. The sin of Eden is for Balthasar the desire to ascend to God on our own terms, and philosophical forms can become just that. Gnosticism is the example par excellence. But that does not mean that using Platonic forms is inherently wrong or will inevitably lead to Gnosticism.

It comes back again and again as it so often does for Balthasar to the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. Christ as the concrete universal, the form of forms by which we measure all other forms. And the movement of Christ into history becomes the norm of the church’s mission. The Incarnation is the movement of the Logos into history, the Word becoming flesh, and as Christ’s body the movement of the Church is into history, into the particulars of each time and place that she find herself in. The Church moves into and through history, not soaring above it or standing beside it, but into the midst of it. From the Garden onward we have tried to ascend to God on our own terms, but the scandal of the Gospel is that God descends to creation, enters history, and embraces the particularity of the human form.

It is worth keeping in mind that for Balthasar it is the perennial temptation to ascend to God on our own terms that most corrupts the gospel rather than a particular philosophical form per se. When we think about philosophical and psychological and cultural forms on offer in our day, using the norm of Gospel in the Incarnation can be an extremely helpful way to determine whether we are trying to ascend to God on our own terms or to descend with him into the particulars of history.

No Golden Age? No problem.

There is no golden age, and that is a good thing.

“We are living in a time when the images of the gods and idols are crashing all about us. The spiritual and cultural traditions of vast regions of the West are increasingly being called into question; indeed, we can go even further and say they are being liquidated, quickly and relatively painlessly. Just as a tree in autumn drops its leaves without pain or regret in order to gather once more new strength from within, to renew its powers in hibernal peace, so too the tree of culture is now being stripped of its leaves.”

So begins Hans Urs von Balthasar’s essay, “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves”, an essay where Balthasar examines those specifically Christian streams of thinking, writing, reflection, and prayer that have nourished the tree of culture in the past.

But this opening points to something that is especially worth taking to heart: Look at the tree, he says. Stop looking at the dead leaves on the ground. Stop lamenting that you live in autumn. Look up. Though the season speaks of coming death, the tree isn’t going anywhere.

The point is worth taking because looking at the tree and rightly discerning the season in which we live helps us guard against a temptation Balthasar readily describes, namely the temptation to return to some golden era, some previous age that is imagined to be better and purer simply because it was prior. First is best, we might say. Earlier is purer. And because of this temptation we might lament living through autumn rather than spring. He argues that we are especially prone to look back to the Patristic period with “Romantic longing”. Why? Because the Fathers were first and are therefore purer. But to return to the image of the tree, the argument of first is best, first is purer, is like saying “I would rather have a sapling than a redwood.”

To be clear Balthasar notes the ways in which there is a purity to Patristic thinking, a spring time newness to things. And there is a sense in which what they faithfully did, what they thought and what they died for, set the parameters and the terms of the conversation that continued in their wake. But they have not said everything. We must keep this in mind because of this temptation to look back on a particular historical moment or a particular thinker and believe that their way is the way, that their way is the only way to approach things.

This does not mean that we don’t have anything to learn from earlier ages and earlier thinkers. Quite the contrary. Take the example of Paul, though we must begin with understanding him in his context in order to faithfully preach what he preached, it is not enough to simply say,this is what Paul said, and then imagine that we have said everything there is to say. We must move to the next step, which is coming to terms with what Paul is saying to us in our time and in our place. Now what Paul is saying will not wholly contradict what Paul said. Remember the primary metaphors Balthasar employs are organic—the tree, the stream—so this is not about radical discontinuity and rupture. But being faithful to the word is something more than being able to say, this is what it meant. We have to be able to say also this is what it meant then, and this is what it means now, because the word of revelation is a living word.

I find Balthasar’s point about avoiding a naive nostalgia about the past especially interesting because I grew up in a context where the church of the book of Acts was held up as the golden age of the church. It was a variation on the argument that first is best, that first is purest. And Balthasar will have none of that thinking. I know people, and I myself have been guilty of this, who have traded the church of Acts as the ideal for the theology of the Fathers as the ideal, but Balthasar challenges both ways of thinking and says, yes, looking back is part of being faithful, and s we should look back, and we should read and learn and understand, but not so that we can perfectly replicate what they did in their time and place, but so that it might source our own faithful expression in our own time and place.

An historical example, he says, is only ever an analogy, and for him the inner paradox of analogy is that for all the similarity, there is always the ever greater difference, which means that we can glean things, yes, but we cannot perfectly replicate them, nor should we try. Take for example an argument that I hear a lot, namely that the time in which we are living in is like the fall of Rome. There is something to this argument that resonates with people, and we can readily find touch points, and it is a reason that some many are finding great nourishment in returning to Augustine and The City of God. Though we should read Augustine and learn what he is saying to us now, the analogy is never perfect. As Balthasar puts it, theology at its best in a given era is the the light of Truth breaking through “a vast number of mosaic shards of broken and smokey glass: in the thousands of many forms in which it is announced, systematized, humanized” (369). Which means that even in autumn, and even in a coming winter, the light comes and is coming into the world, and though we might only be a shard of broken glass, we are still able to let the light shine through. So the question becomes what might it mean to faithfully speak the living word in the midst of an autumn?

A Saint: Both an Answer and a Contradiction

“The Spirit meets the burning questions of the age with an utterance that is the key-word, the answer to the riddle.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theology of History

If there is such a thing as revelation, if God has made himself known in various times and ways and has made himself supremely known in his Son, then at some point every person who takes these things seriously has to attempt to answer some version of the following questions. How does the life of Christ come into the world now? What does Christ’s life have to do with our lives in the present? What does his work have to do with our work? How does his mission become our mission? We might simply call these questions of application or livability. I believe the gospel. I believe the creed. I believe in the risen and ascended Lord, but how do I live like it’s true? Or to put the question in Han Urs von Balthasar’s terms from his book A Theology of History, how does the norm of Christ come to norm our own lives?

In a chapter called, “Christ the Norm of History”, Balthasar proposes three ways the norm of Christ becomes our norm: Ascension, sacrament, and mission. Ascension, sacrament, and mission are all Spirit permeated, Spirit mediated realties that bring Christ’s time into our time and can make his norm our norm. To briefly sum these up, first, Christ’s time does not simply wait for us in the future, but by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit permeates the now, and this is for Balthasar the ongoing meaning of the Ascension. Second, the sacraments are means of grace precisely because the Holy Spirit makes sacramental presence a reality. The sacramental life nourishes the life of the Church, making life under the norm of Christ both a possibility and a reality . Third, the Church as the Spirit-filled body is called to mission and empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit.

To push the third point a little further, through the Church the Spirit bring Christ’s time, Christ’s norm into the world. In this context Balthasar argues that the mission of the church finds its most concrete expression through the saints, holy ones made holy by the Holy Spirit. Here is a long and beautiful quote to that effect:

“Whenever the Spirit takes the Church by surprise with these gifts it is going to be, in the main, by the proclamation of some truth which has a far-reaching meaning for the particular age to which it is given, in both Church history and world history. The Spirit meets the burning questions of the age with an utterance that is the key-word, the answer to the riddle. Never in the form of an abstract statement (that being something that it is man’s business to draw up); almost always in the form of a new, concrete supernatural mission: the creation of a new saint whose life is a presentation to his own age of the message that heaven is sending to it, a man who is, here and now, the right and relevant interpretation of the Gospel, who is given to this particular age as its way of approach to the perennial truth of Christ. How else can life be expounded except by living? The saints are tradition at its most living, tradition as the word is meant whenever Scripture speaks of the unfolding of the riches of Christ, and the application to history of the norm which is Christ. Their missions are so exactly the answer from above to the questions from below that their immediate effect is often one of unintelligibility; they are signs to be contradicted in the name of every kind of right-thinking —until the proof of their power is brought forth. Saint Bernard and Saint Francis, Saint Ignatius and Saint Teresa were all of them proofs of that order: they were like volcanoes pouring forth molten fire from the inmost depths of Revelation; they were irrefutable proof, all horizontal tradition notwithstanding, of the vertical presence of the living Kyrios here, now and today.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theology of History

Saints are those who are so formed by the norm of Christ that their lives are at one and the same time an answer to the deepest questions of an age and a living contradiction to that age. G.K. Chesterton makes a similar point in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, but he emphasizes how saintly contradiction can expand beyond the age in which it emerged and begin to convert another age too. In speaking of the Victorian fascination with all things medieval and with St. Francis in particular, Chesterton points to the enduring power of contradiction:“Therefore it is a paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas

We need such saints, these living answers and contradictions. And we don’t just need those who have gone before, but more desperately, we need the Spirit to form and empower such people now. To take one of a thousand possible examples, as much as we can and should learn from St. Augustine, we should also pray for ones like St. Augustine to emerge. We don’t just need the St. Augustine, we need our own St. Augustine, one uniquely formed and trained to speak to the burning questions of our time. And my conviction is that we should pray like such things are possible. We should pray like such people can and should exist. We should pray like such people are not fixtures of the past but possibilities of the present. We should pray that in the power of the Spirit we might become such people ourselves. To put it in a pithy, and possibly snarky form, we don’t simply need a Benedict Option, we need a St. Benedict to enact a way of living that brings the life Christ, by the power of Spirit, into our time.

Here is my question, in all honesty, and I would love to invite conversation around it—who are the people who stand in contradiction to our age? Who says a simultaneous no to the world and a yes to Christ? Who stands in contradiction, not in simple and oppositional belligerence, but as a counter-witness, as a beckon of light amidst the darkness? Who are those that point in word and deed to higher and clearer and deeper things?