Monday, August 14, 2006

The Free Market of Ideas and when the Democracy elects an Enlightened Dictator

Pluralism of thought - religion, cultural preferences, lifestyle preferences, etcetera is a fact of modern life. All of these things are practically as ubiquitous and taxes, and if you take many of our cultural elites' word for it, far more real than death.

In re-reading Jaques Barzun's monstrously long treatise From Dawn to Decadence for the third time, I am once again struck by his scathing observation on the primary result of the Protestant REvolution in the intellectual history of the West. While Barzun is clear that Protestantism in not part destroyed 'religiosity', or even Christianity as a vibrant belief system, he observes that it did serve to destroy "that ancient solace of a single faith, universally agreed upon." After this came to lodge fully in our cultural conscience, pluralism and even universalism was a virtually guaranteed extension.

But what's the big deal? Shouldn't we be happy that the splintering of Christianity has afforded us so many alternatives? Shouldn't we thank these 'prophetic' figures for freeing us from the needed submission to a single, corrupt church?

My critique on this is in three parts, but with one major personal caveat about my own paradoxical involvement in this mixed blessing known as the Free Market of Ideas.

Firstly I believe whole-heartedly with Barzun's criticism that once the singularity of faith was no more that the door was opened for unmitigated preferential belongingness. As we know from capitalism, this consumer-friendly market, even if the goods are ideological rather than tangible, gives preferential treatment to soothing egos and placating popular desire. Religion quickly devolves away from what the learned, however corrupt, say it should be, and towards the Straussian axiom of the religion that is "whatever it needs to be" for people to more easily stomach it in their lives. Why submit to any ecclesiological discipline or censure if you can just move churches? Who cares if you're excommunicated if there's always a broader, more heterodox body that will gladly embrace your membership?

As Barzun contests, Protestantism, and the free market of denominational choices that has sprung from it, has led to religion being seen not as the better or worse attempt to live into an eternal standard that is mutually agreed upon, but rather as being one of the many "preferences" in peoples lives, "similar to their preferences in food". I cannot contradict him. I know of very few who genuinely see their faith as a given to be striven for and not a physical system to be challenged. People view religion as a general good, sort of like nutrition, but the particulars of a faith tradition are downplayed greatly.

Secondly, I question how much the Protestant ethos has really freed us. As Mel Gibson's character in the Patriot asked the Carolina parliament "why would we trade one tyrant a thousand miles away for a thousand tyrants one mile away?" Point taken. Whatever strangehold the papacy or Ecumenical Patriarch has ever exerted on Catholics in foreign lands, I do not believe it could possibly equal the disasterous effects of a corrupt local/congregational leadership that has enforcement powers.

Lastly, the idea didn't work. Protestantism is not, in its Reformational forms, structurally sound. The old Protestant churches did not say that there was no One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. No, they kept that confession in their prayer books. Rather, they simply claimed to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, over and against the Roman Catholic Church of the time.

I believe their failure to launch on this position is evident. The premise of scholastically or 'spiritually' interpreted Scriptures as the key to finding out "the truth" of Christian doctrine, then synthesized into a denominational confession, has led to more interpretations, scholastics, spirits, and 'truths' than ever pre-exsited them. The denominations then have a choice. They can claim still to be the one True Church, in which case they're only a far smaller and ridiculously puny Catholicism based on a very select and temporal interpretation of scriptures, or they can give up any claim of singularity for a more 'broad church' appeal. But then their authenticity is brought into question. If you're not more or less right than the thousands of other people, how deep can your theology get? Why would people submit to a rigorous theology that does not claim to be better than the less demanding theologies around it? This choice, in our capitalist market, is self-assured decimation.

I cannot stomach the plurality that is Protestantism. It leads to a public conscience wherein the truth of religion is how well it meets the consumerist needs of its paying members. It multiplies words and ideas, each putting our newer, longer, and more convoluted pamphlets desperately trying to convince you to pay dues to their little branch of truth. There are so many books, takes, interpretations, and worship styles that even the more sympathetic onlooker has to conclude that this form of Christianity has Anarchy latent in its DNA.

Besdies, the Scriptures were supposed to be plain and obvious according to their original letter. That's the foundational presumption of the entire Protestant ethos. Scholarship has now shown, to my mind, that this is a baseline error according to the early Christian writers who first understood those same Scriptures to be holy writings and the common sense of rational people. If they're so easy we wouldn't have 235293590283042 different understandings, point blank. Also, we're finding more and more that this simply isn't the way the ancient writers understood the inspiration of scripture. It was a treasury of images used for well-understood metaphors, not a quarry of words from which a few diamonds of doctrine needs to be extracted and polished by gated professors.

Ultimately Protestantism, to my way of thinking, falls victim to St. Irenaeus' ultimate slam on the so-called Gnosticm heretics: The Gnostics were shown to be absurd and self-contradicting precisely by their multiplicity. Many teachers, each claiming to render teachings leading to Gnosis, or True Knowledge, each had different and competing views. They were localized, culture-specific, and impossibly varied whereas the One catholic Church was the same in all places, and even those who held the faith without the ability to read could understand the teachings of the most cosmopolitan and would reject the teachings of the various Gnostics and being senseless and not in accord with the preaching they received.

But as for my own part. I am, as some of you know, Orthodox. But I was not born into it. Thus, my choice was precisely one made among the Free Market of Ideas. I feel like the Iraqis who would use their newly found democracy to elect a theocrat. It's always been one of those dilemmas of being free - what to do when a free people freely choose to curtail freedom?

But in my own defense, I see my choice of Orthodoxy less in the sense of intellect and more in the realm of hope. I confess certain things because my faith depends on their truthfulness. Unable to ever again submit to the anarchy and ideological choosiness of the Christian world outside of Ortho/Catholic claims, I submit to the small bickerings and theological priorities of a faith I sometimes don't have a completely organic relationship to. I have learned to love the old liturgies, but it was no love at first sight. I will learn to chant and even be sincere in my appreciation for Greek and Russian hymnody, but they will probably never warm the cockles of my heart the way a high Anglican organ can do with Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence or a Scottish bagpipe busting out a rendition of Amazing Grace, or even a large Baptist choir bringing in the Fall season with Come Ye Faithful People. I have come to understand the goods of Confessions and Mariology, but I was certainly not drawn by them, nor am I blind to their excesses. But I submit nontheless. Submission, and not choice, is ultimately how I must proceed. I am comforted that I cannot trust myself, and that I am not the arbiter of all truth. Submission has honed my understandings, and in its own way increased my effectiveness as an individual. I know that I stand in a line of thinkers not totally bound by my own day and time, with all of the pecularities and discomforts that come with that gift. I feel safe that if I am wrong, I am wrong by what was traditioned to me, which I believe that God has sympathy for, and not for the destruction cause by my own hubris.

Perhaps this is the "solace of the ancient faith, universally agreed upon." The peace that passes all understanding.


Blogger Lobo said...

To me the variety of Protestant Christian expressions shows us other ways we can think of our relationship with God and Christ. The vareity of expression we have come to know of non-Catholic Christian churches may reflect what is convenient for people to be able to stomach or handle. That does not mean they have a good way of seeing things. Just because it makes sense to them does not mean it's the truth. Lots of truth in science and human logic does not seem logical at first sight. We must work to get to the truth and sometimes realize it goes against what seems good or obvious to us (look at the problems physicists are having with unerstnding the atom and what is going on in the molecular world still).

The Roman Catholic Church has a lot to offer the world but I think for the last few hundred years, it has been fighting a few fights - Protestant Reformation (chich the Roman church addressed and took care of on its own even without Luther's help); the problems with Eastern Catholic Churches; Modern philosophical thought and trends (Vatical I tried to deal with Modernism - a philosophical way of thinking rather than accepting modern new ways of life); some of its own poor decisions (its run by humans so we make errors). With all of this focus, we became defensive and inner focused, like self preservation. I think now we can look outward more and spread more of the truth that the Roman Catholic church has about God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Since Vatican II, we have experimented and even seemed to adopt some Protestant Christian ways, at least it seems to me. The church opened itself up to the world more (Other religions, cultures, ways of thinking) and I went through some of those changes with some good and many bad results. I'm glad the laity is as involved as it is and though the decline of the clergy and religious members in the church has declined, I think it was for a purpose - It's hard to include other people with some real power (laity) unless you do something to those who have the power (clergy & religious).

We have challenged the Catholic Church and some helps us grow and other was just protest which continues to this day (ordaining women). I have come to appreciate a lot more of what we have in the Chruch by my contact with others in the ecumenical circles, and with other cultures, religions and ways of thinking (Dr. Wayne Dyer, Joseph Cambell, business thinking). What I have appreciated are Catholic practices.

The sacraments, sacramentals, devotions, rites, hold days, celebrations, prayer types, etc. all help us come to contact with God, not just for the salvation of our soul but to bring God's and Jesus' presence into the world and to others. When you do things in the name of Christ because you are a Roman Catholic, it brings a different power than just doing things because you are who you are, part of a family, or other organization. What I believe is that we forget this and act like individuals and not the community of Catholics we are.

Interpreting Scripture on your own is a double edged sword. You can be moved by your 'feelings' about what you think you are called for and sometimes it does help you know what to do in your situation; but it is grounded in your view of the world and interpretation, which can lack real rigor and good structural approach to understanding life. You can make judgments of what to do today on your own but how good it is depends on how grounded you are in good thinking, not just your view. Being grounded is to compare your view and reasons for it with a good standard - not just what is popular among your group.
Just because something is in scripture or not, does not take into account humans' ability to reason and see deeper.

Our old traditions are making a come back (Adoration, Latin Mass, incense, the rosary, etc.)in integrating our traditions with what we have discovered new since Vatican II. It's still an adjustment and orthodoxy brings solid backing from years of use and rigor of tests. We seem to think the old or orthodox is old fashion, as I used to think. YOu can get stuck in Orthodoxy in the wrong way. What helped me see this was sports - when the coach told the players to get back to basics and back to what they do best. You can add all kinds of splashy ways and they have their place (youth mass, high mass, organ mass, choire mass, silent mass, etc.) but at the core we still need to be Catholic. Protestants ultimately went too many places in the thought of getting back to Christ. They followed their own whims and not what Jesus passed down through the apostles, the early Christians and the Fathers of the Church. I've attended a number of other services - Eastern ORthodox, Jewish, Protestant, Spiritual, etc.) and what we have and how we do it in our practices has so much more. Our structure has its limits but there are more safeguards to get to where we need to go. There are many ways to be a Catholic and the different types of groups show it - laity, religious, clergy, monks, brothers, sisters, nuns; many styles of worshiping (different cultural expressions) and many practices for the individual (devotions, sacramentals)and involvements (groups, clubs, committees, types of meetings). YOu get to choose the amount of involvement you want to do. You can change how much you are involve depending on your situation in your life - young, middle aged, older, old - very busy, work focused, traveling, etc. At its core we are still the same. I remember that you could say - wherever you are in the world, going to a Catholic Mass means you get the same ceremony. It's still true with a few language adjustments. How the Chinese celebrate is different from Mexicans but they are still both Roman Catholic at their core. Protestants splintered in other ways. We have our variety and search for contact with God thru the truth of the Roman Catholic Church

1:03 PM  
Blogger Roland said...

As an Eastern Orthodox I must disagree that Catholicism has more to offer. :)

But I do view it as a sister church. I think Orthodoxy and CAtholicism are estranged siblings, but at a certain level we are still the only two speaking the ancient language.

At the most basic level we both confess that the Church of Christ should be one... and that we should mean that in tangible reality rather than ethereal.

I would be the last one to say that Protestantism has nothing to offer or hasn't contributed anything valuable. I think they're a judgement on the ancient churches for not doing their business.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Theodore Paraskevopoulos said...

All I can say after reading this is that I hope you put this little tid bit in your book my friend. Maybe the best you've ever written!

4:04 PM  

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