This poor blog sits forlornly, the flame gradually dying to a low heat beneath the ashes. I hope to throw some new coals in and fan the flame to a warm glow.
I hope you are all doing well. I have been frighteningly busy, which I am now beginning to see as a theological problem. People who are unclear about what God has given them each day to do as their duty don’t usually just sit idly, which is actually a great way to in a short time be brought to consider our life far too closely for comfort; they fill their time with distractions, which our world specializes in producing. May you in the next week see the glory of Christ so clearly that the unnecessary chaff of your worries and distractions burn in the heat.
The great swirling conversation surrounding the Benedict Option is worth peeking in on again. Whatever Rod Dreher wanted, he got his wish that it would be primarily a big conversation starter for the church. Its a New York Times bestseller, many major organs of our nation’s news have published reviews of it. Tell your friends about it, its the closest thing we have to a publicly recognized symbol of what we are talking about when we say the church in America is in fatal captivity to American culture. Its a conversation that just being aware of is a step in the right direction as far as I can tell.
Here’s a thought I was having about the subject in general, but about some other figures only loosely involved.
Dallas Willard and James K.A Smith: both philosophers by training, both heavily involved professionally in phenomenology as a field (Edmund Husserl and his followers), both involved in the topic of Christian formation and virtue ethics. Both of them through their careful philosophical study of human nature came to be very invested in writing works about how people can change, ultimately to become more like Christ. It is remarkable that both of them come at the problem of discipleship through their training in topics like consciousness, intentionality, being in the world, and returning to the things themselves. Smith cites Willard as an influence, and says he was attempting to write an ecclesiological supplement to The Spirit of the Disciplines.
But there is a difference in tone, and it led me to wondering about this broader split one can see in emphasis between the individual and the collective. The church, and the member. Put crudely, Willard’s is the individualist book. Smith’s work is more about what is done in groups. Dreher, like Smith, emphasizes the corporate church as well. We of course frequently lament the individualism of our era, which has the effect of attenuating our connections with larger groups. Obviously both Willard and Smith try to do justice to the other half of the coin: no one is saying the church doesn’t matter, or what you do on your own is irrelevant. But I think that Ephraim Radner’s reflections on individualism are worth noting, especially for how unexpected they are. Individualism is in many ways identical with the development of modernity itself, and thus accounts of one inevitably constitute an account of the other. Radner’s disturbing thesis that modernity arises as a kind of tragic corrective from the failure of the church the love its own members and the world has implications for how we interpret the individual/group dichotomy.
As one case study in his work A Brutal Unity, Radner observes that most churches in Rwanda, Catholic and Protestant alike, failed to resist the genocide in 1994, and instead actively participated. He wanted to know what set those churches apart that did resist, and to identify aspects of their practices or teaching which enabled them to do so. Drawing on a study by Timothy Longman, he finds that the congregations whose members did resist had an ethos of teaching which strongly emphasized individual responsibility. An excerpt from a sermon given in a parish which remained faithful:
“Those who do evil, each will be saved by his actions. In Romans 14:12 it is written, “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” What do you want to show God? Hate? Jealousy? What do you display before God? You hide nothing before God. As Peter said, “Leave me, I’m a sinner.” We must imitate Peter, tell God we are sinners and ask forgiveness.”
Radner concludes that individualism, best understood, is a hard won and necessary burden we must bear precisely out of our obligations to one another, to the church, and to God. Going even further, he concludes that while being faithful to the gospel in a liberal democracy like our own is extremely difficult, it is what must be done precisely because of the gospel. Of course, Radner is writing a book about the unity of the church, which is about as collective an emphasis as one can think of, so the emphasis upon the individual’s responsibility to take the initiative is in service of this goal.
Coming back to Willard and Smith, it is a salutary reminder that many of the most essential spiritual disciplines for us to practice are for us to perform alone before the Lord. Looking at the problem of evil from a more personal perspective, it is easy to see how atheism can slide neatly in with a view of evil that removes all responsibility from all actors. Its not God’s fault, its not our fault, its certainly not my fault, and it mostly can be blamed on sociopaths and people of the other political party. But once we see that we do want things to change for the better and that we are the first to need this change, we can then see our most critical duties do not belong to anyone else to exercise and our preparation to serve the needs around us will consist largely of taking our leave to be alone and pray.
Nota bene: Only three days ago, Pope Francis went to meet with the President of Rwanda Paul Kagame to apologize for “the sins and failings of the church and its members.” It is the most forcefully worded apology to date, for including “the church” in the culpability.