Sunday, March 30, 2008

Two Visions of Christianity

In reading about church and politics, I came across the following views of Christianity formulated by Mark Lilla in his recent book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. He finds that the early theological disputes in Christianity produced "two tendencies of Christian and moral thought that remain vital to this day." These consist of the following:
One tendency takes the basic goodness of the world as axiomatic, despite the presence of sin. It assumes that man, as a natural creature, is capable of good and therefor of improving himself and his social surroundings. . . . Whatever language or images they used, these Christian thinkers considered the natural world to be continuously blessed by God; they did not think of it as an alien, hostile, or abandoned place. Although man can do nothing without divine grace, it is not grace alone that operates through him, but also his own nature, which he is responsible for cultivating. . . . He is called through his free will to imitate Christ, who is moral exemplar. If he becomes evil, it is his own choice, though he can always be turned around. . . . Many things may contribute to man's moral improvement besides grace and revelation, including pagan philosophy. And that improvement does not happen suddenly, through conversion alone or a sudden infilling with the divine. It takes place gradually through effort in the world. That is why man should embrace worldly activity -- in work, study, politics, family, church -- and help to infuse all of them with the Holy Spirit. The willingness of God to condescend and become flesh, sharing our sufferings and our joys, should assure us that he still considers his creation to be good.

There is a second, and diametrically opposed, tendency in Christian moral and political thought, and it takes a much more skeptical attitude toward nature and man. It also expresses a worry having to do with human psychology. The worry is that if human beings become convinced that creation is basically good, they will conclude that they do not need grace. They will become, to use the Christian label for this heresy, Pelagians. The charge has to be taken seriously, for if man could indeed overcome the effects of the fall without divine help, if human life could be made self-sufficient in a good world, why would man need God? To cope with this possibility, many Christian thinkers over the centuries have emphasized the significance of Christ's departure and the persistent corruption of the world he left behind. To the extent that man is a natural creature, they argue, he is still governed by sin; that human stain can never be blotted out. He may have been made in the image of God, but he repeatedly defaces himself through his innate willfulness. Whatever man now shares with the divine has been given him only through God's merciful grace, he has not earned it by virtue of his place in a divinely ordered cosmological scheme. In fact, he has not earned it all.

This conviction can have a profound effect on the Christian's relation to the world. To take it seriously is to be reminded that, since Christ's arrival, there is only one door issuing from man to God, and it exists in the heart: It is an interior passage; it does not give out into the world. It is vanity to think we can somehow approach God by learning more about the world or by reforming ourselves or our political institutions to bring them into line with what we take to be biblical authority. We are justified not by our works in the world, but by our faith in Christ Jesus. We are reconciled with God by his grace, through his Holy Spirit, not by our own labors or even by our own initiative. . . . We will be redeemed when he wills it, when he raises us out of this fallen cosmos and destroys it, welcoming us back into his bosom. In the meantime, if we are active in the world, it is at his command and to serve his ends alone.
Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (Alfred A. Knopf: New York 2007), p. 37-38 (emphasis added).

There have been others, of late, who have identified two strains in Christianity, one emphasizing the goodness of creation, the other original sin. These include Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who spoke about divisions based on different views of Creation in her talk with clergy in the Diocese of New Jersey. Also is the more radical vision of Matthew Fox, in his A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity, in which he "proclaims that we are in fact confronted with two churches: one expressed by the image of the Punitive Father, personified by a rigidly hierarchical church structure, repression of the feminine, spreading of homophobia and the elimination of internal dissent; and the other expressed by the feminine figure of Wisdom, personified by a Mother/Father God of justice and compassion. It is time for Christians to choose whom it will follow: an angry exclusionary god or the loving open path of wisdom." (at

Lilla's account, however, is more complex in that it focuses on how these two tendencies play out through the course of Western intellectual history in terms of their relationship to political thinking. It is an admittedly selective view (see, for example, comments on The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla, Charles Taylor, and others here at The Immanent Frame) , focusing as it does on what he calls "political theology" in light of the writings of Locke, Hume, Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant and others (not to mention first touching base with St. Augustine and Thomas Acquinas). Lilla's book, based on a series of lectures given at Oxford, is quite a different enterprise than Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, which discusses the history of secularization in the West, but Lilla's intellectual history, however rareified, is marvelously suggestive of both current divisions within Christianity and how they play out in relationship to politics and the modern state.

The line bolded above leaped out at me as capturing what seems to drive some advocates of conservative views of Christianity and, perhaps, much of the Current Unpleasantedness in the Episcopal Church. I will never fully understand how calls to do good in the world and practical proposals to help alleviate poverty and hunger, such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), can be considered anti-Christian by some, but Lilla's perspective sheds some light on what may be at work. What remains to be seen is whether these two views, both part and parcel of the history of Christianity, are indeed contradictory and ultimately irreconcilable, thus requiring a split in those churches that profess or seek to accomodate both views.


Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting and also a very relevant (!) post in light of the texts for Easter this year as well as a conversation we have been having over at the Doorman-Priest's place.

For myself, I think we can honor the faithfulness of both assertions but the first has more resonance. I am very skeptical of the promotion of a gospel based on worry as you have highlighted.

klady said...

Sorry, I've been out a couple days with the "crud." I did read what you and Mimi had up at DP's and the comments.

Yes, I think it certainly is possible to maintain both perspectives (after all, they've been yoked together for quite sometime, especially within Anglicanism), but the anxiety, while perhaps not so much a conscious or fully articulated aspect, seems to be driving many of the most outspoken proponents of the second view of late. It's one thing to embrace the Prayer of Humble Access, for example, and quite another to have that kind of piety and theology noisily and aggressively proclaimed as necessary for salvation, individual and corporate.