Thursday, May 20, 2010

Quotes of the Week

Here are a few more gems from Seneca:

"As it is with a play, so it is with life: what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is." (Letter LXXVII)

"For a life spent viewing all the variety, the majesty, the sublimity in things around us can never succumb to ennui--the feeling that one is tired of being, of existing, is usually the result of an idle and inactive leisure." (Letter LXXVIII)

"In a single day there lies open to men of learning more than there ever does to the unenlightened in the longest of lifetimes." (Posidonius, qtd. in Letter LXXVIII)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Quote of the Week: The Dark Side of Church History

This week's quote comes from Paul Johnson's A History of Christianity. I include it here not so much as an inspiration or an uplifting thought, but rather as a challenge to certain over-idealized ways of thinking about Christian history that so often abound today:

"Christianity began in confusion, controversy and schism and so it continued. A dominant orthodox Church, with a recognizable ecclesiastical structure, emerged only very gradually and represented a process of natural selection--a spiritual survival of the fittest. And, as with such struggles, it was not particularly edifying."

When one reads histories of Christianity, they usually fall into two camps: either those by non-Christian historians which often make the impression that the author has an ax to grind against the church, or those by Christian historians who sometimes tend to oversimplify and gloss over the more unsightly details of the story in favor of their own particular versions of Christianity. Paul Johnson's work is different--he writes as a faithful Christian, but is unafraid to show the seamier side of our history. As such, it's one of the most challenging and insightful histories of the church I've read. I don't always agree with all of his conclusions (such as his inference that Paul's group was actually in direct opposition with James and the Jerusalem church community; or that Galatians and Acts 15 record very different perspectives on the same struggle and events), but his overview of history is worth considering nonetheless.

I feel that his rather unappealing view of Christian history is of immense usefulness, because our history (especially the history of the early and patristic church) is often subject to misuse by any Christian movement that seeks an added dose of credibility. (Interesting, isn't it, that even we evangelical Protestants, who pride ourselves on "sola Scriptura," still make heavy use of the support of early church traditions in favor of our own particular ways of doing church). Not long ago I picked up a recent book by two well-known proponents of the "house church"/"organic church" movement, and it was particularly egregious in this regard--twisting early church history to fit their arguments, ignoring some of the most prominent church fathers whose writings directly contradict their arguments, and relying on some of the most specious scholarship I've seen, all to make their point--that we ought to meet in home-churches, because that's what the early church did. Or take the example of the Anabaptist tradition (of which I'm overwhelmingly fond, and, as a Baptist, have some roots there myself), which often marks the Constantinian revolution as the downfall of the church, and in so doing, unfortunately, puts a pressure of holiness, peace, and brotherhood on the first three centuries of the faith which the actual historical record cannot measure up to. Even the renewed "ancient faith" interest that's sprouting up all over evangelical Christianity (to my great delight) sometimes wanders into this error. It tends to idealize the heroes and the statements of faith produced by the early and patristic churches, without doing the hard historical research of wrestling with the fact that many of our early heroes were not necessarily the best of men, and that the great creeds were both products of and producers of immense schisms, controversies, and even downright hatred and abuse among early Christians. And these are all just within the evangelical camp. The idealistic lens through which many Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians view their early history often has nothing at all to do with actual history, but much more to do with the centuries-later traditions of those earliest memories. Not only are the "saints" of the early church sometimes a bit more morally specious than they're presented to us, but there was apparently a massive disconnect between the high standard set in the writings of the Fathers (most of whom were bishops or other high church officers) and the behavior of the laity and lower clergy. This is a point well made in Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians--bizarre spiritualities, sexual promiscuity, greediness, and violence were everywhere evident in the early church. I suppose, after reading 1 Corinthians, that that shouldn't come as a surprise. But because we like to idealize our history, it does. (And for those who prefer to idealize the Reformation-period and its heroes rather than the early church, the same principles apply, and, I'm sure, some of the same surprises will be waiting for us if we dig below the surface in our historical research.)

If we are lovers of history (as I am), and if we believe that the Holy Spirit has continually worked through his church in all eras, then we should do ourselves the credit of making our historical assessments wisely, neither throwing it all out the window as irrelevant (which many Baptists, sad to say, are prone to do), or embracing it in glowing, naive idealism as in the examples I listed above. There is, of course, a lot to be proud of in Christian history. There is a tremendous wealth of wisdom and experience from which to draw. But let's be wise about how we do it--the early Christians were just human beings, as we are. Some of our dearest heroes from those days may disappoint us. But I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that their lives don't quite measure up with their writings. That's how it is with all of us--we know what we ought to do, but we have a hard time doing it. The best of Christians has a hard time practicing what he preaches.

But this should give us some consolation. We like to terrify ourselves by convincing each other that we're at a stage in church history where "the church is in crisis!" But truth be told, the church has always been in crisis. It has never lived up to its ideals. And we're all, as one community throughout history, wrestling against our sinfulness as we try to follow Jesus faithfully. Let's be wise about how we assess ourselves and about how we assess our fellow Christians, wherever they may fall on the timeline of our history. And let's strive to give ourselves a little grace even while we continue to press on toward our ideals.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Quote of the Week

Here's another bit of wisdom from the Stoic philosopher Seneca:

"Soft living imposes on us the penalty of debility; we cease to be able to do the things we've long been grudging about doing." (Epistulae Morales, Letter LV)

This is an important point to remember, especially in such an age of "soft living" as we in present-day America now enjoy. It implies a secondary point, nearly as important: that there are things in our lives which we ought to be doing, but which are diffucult for us to do. There are things which do not immediately spark an affinity with our natures and habits, but which are, in spite of that, essential. What are these things? Practices like prayer, moderation, study, exercise, and so on--anything that requires self-discipline. And this speaks directly to who we are. Our human natures do not naturally encourage us to self-discipline. Rather, we slouch towards mediocrity and whatever is comfortable. But Seneca recognizes that this is in fact a disease of human nature--the tendency against self-discipline is part of who we are, but it is not part of who we ought to be. So that's the hidden point of this quote. To be truly human, in the best possible sense, requires a life of challenging ourselves to continuous moral and personal growth. That life will not come easily, but it is necessary. But the main point, the evident point, is that if we don't practice the activities of self-discipline, if we don't intentionally push ourselves towards good deeds and temperance, then we will slowly lose the capability to do those things. They take practice, and if we don't practice them, they become harder and harder to do. We fall into ruts of mediocre living. And then we can't get back out. My generation, sadly, has fallen into the debilities of soft living--of making entertainment and pleasure the center of their lives, brought to them by TV and video games and online attractions. And unfortunately, one needs only to look at the moral stagnation and lack of development in so many young people (but, of course, it's not limited to young people) to see the cost of this debility. It's a danger to me, too--a danger I feel all too powerfully. Soft living is attractive,and easy to fall into. Recently I instituted a plan of action for myself, so that I intentionally make time each day for some good activity. I call them "Day-Challenges"--I have a list of about fifty different activities that I want to make a regular part of my life, activities which take discipline and intentionality (simple things, like taking the time to go on a nature walk or writing letters to my grandparents). If I tried to make myself do them all each day, they would never get done. And if I just left it up to my whims to take them up, they would never get done. So each day, I pick one day-challenge to do that day. Without this intentional self-discipline, practiced in a prudent and sustainable manner, I would be living a much more debilitated life, dictated mainly by the comforts waiting for me at home whenever I come back from the office. Seneca has challenged me on this mark, and I hope he may challenge you too. So take this warning from an ancient wise man, and push yourself to live the best possible life you can, with God's help, before you lose the capacity for practicing the disciplines that will lead to a rich spiritual, moral, and social life.