Christian Selves are Buffered Selves

What follows is part of a paper I wrote recently.  The last three paragraphs are where the action is.  If you’re interested in the elided section, in which I quickly quote Luther, Zwingli and Calvin on adiaphora/Christian freedom, just ask and I’ll send you the whole paper.  Comment, please.  🙂

Though the term has found usage in creedal debates, and is today most often heard in liturgical discussion, adiaphora is originally a term of ethical discourse.  From the Greek for ‘indifferent,’ adiaphora in biblical theology has referred to those moral cases in which a definite, binding command is not given, but a better or worse option may lawfully be chosen.  Think, for example, of the Pauline discussions of marriage, the eating of meats sacrificed to idols, and circumcision, in which Paul says such things as : “This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you…” and “he who [does] does well, and he who does not…will do better” and “let him do what he wishes, he does not sin.”

The concept of adiaphora was originally developed in the ancient world by the Cynics and Stoics, for whom it was a virtue to remain indifferent to things pertaining to one’s animal nature which, unlike virtue and vice, had no impact on eudaemonia.  Paul’s use of this Cynic-Stoic conception of adiaphora is evident in those passages (Jaquette) in which he describes the Christian’s indifference to her circumstances.  It is no difficulty for Paul to live in plenty or in want; the external things of this world are adiaphorous.  Likewise, none of the antinomies of life and death, height and depth, etc., can make a difference to the Christian for whom the love of God in Christ Jesus the Lord has relativized, made indifferent, the present world.

The middle and later Stoics, beginning with Chrysippus (RPP 55), recognized that though the cares of the animal nature were to be treated indifferently, there was indeed moral reasoning to be done in determining certain cases.  This recognition of adiaphora as a moral category occurs in the Pauline discussions of marriage and a number of issues regarding ritual, for example, the eating of meats sacrificed to idols, the observance of certain days and circumcision.  Notice that these categories bear resemblance to the needs of the ‘animal nature’ discussed by the Cynics and Stoics in that they regard physical actions, even ritual actions.

Paul’s language regarding adiaphorous issues is often that mentioned at the beginning of this paper, of doing well and doing better.  In the case of marriage, Paul speaks of neither preference being ‘sin’ (1 Cor. 7:36), and of himself not bearing a ‘command of the Lord’ (1 Cor. 7:25).  Regarding the eating of questionable meat and uncircumcision, Paul refers to believers’ liberty (1 Cor. 8:9; Gal. 2:4).  Most tellingly, Paul refers to conscience or conviction or faith in his discussions of eating meat in Rom. 14 and 1 Cor. 8, his discussion of marriage in 1 Cor. 7(:37) and in references to human teachings in 1 Tim. 4 and Titus 1, the last containing a repetition of his dictum that “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure.” (Cf. Rom. 14:14)

What then does this mean for decision making in these areas and the moral universe in which these decisions are made?  A number of possibilities may be suggested.  Perhaps the term ‘conscience’ refers to each one’s wisdom, and thus an allowance is made for a broad range of expression in the areas deemed adiaphorous due to a lack of divine command.  Or conscience may be taken to refer to that part of the Christian that is informed by the Holy Spirit, and though the church is free in that no express command is found in Scripture or apostolic command, a uniform answer to the issue at hand will be determined by the Christian community.  Again, in the absence of a command, perhaps our freedom is quite broad, and, say, utility is all we need worry about.  (I suggest this with Paul’s comment in mind that he writes to the Corinthians “for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you” [1 Cor. 7:35].)  Finally, given that consideration of one’s neighbor is a key concern in the discussions of food in Romans and 1 Corinthians, perhaps the action only attains to moral consequence in its performance or abstention in the presence of the Christian community.

For all three Reformers, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, adiaphora is a function of Christian freedom.  The indifference of certain moral issues is a result of one’s morality being relativized by being found in Christ.  However, there are differences between the Reformers’ moral universes.

For Luther, all ‘works’ may be seen as being adiaphorous.  The key moral consideration, having found one’s justification in Jesus Christ, is what brings about the suppression of the flesh’s desires.  Perhaps we may say that Luther’s conception of adiaphora is keyed by Paul’s teaching on marriage, in which the adiaphoron is decided by the power of one’s passions and what must be done for their suppression.

Zwingli also preaches the Christian’s radical freedom from the law, though this freedom is less absolute.  While the Christian is free from ceremony and any unbiblical, human imposition, the Spirit guides the Christian to live in accordance with God’s law.  Because Zwingli retains the notion of law, adiaphora may obtain, and they do on those points left unaddressed by law.  We might say that Paul’s description of both responses to the adiaphoron of marriage as ‘not sin’ is foremost in Zwingli’s mind.  For him, the Christian experiences freedom, but this is freedom described as guided by both the Spirit and divine law.

Calvin seems most tied to the particularly Pauline adiaphora, speaking mainly in terms of ritual observance.  Of the three Reformers examined, Calvin is keenest to speak of conscience and the possibility of offense.  Adiaphora represents a special measure of the Christian’s freedom in Christ; in these external things, the believer is liberated from law and acts in consideration of his own conscience and that of his neighbour.

Thus, the realm of adiaphora is variously delimited by, for Luther, the believer’s theological status as justified, for Zwingli, the written and internal law of God, and for Calvin, the indifference of external rites.

What is particularly interesting about the concept of adiaphora in Paul and its elucidation by the Reformers is that it represents a displacement of moral meaning from an act-in-itself.  First, an action’s meaning for its actor is relativized when the actor is freed from consideration of her morality by a righteousness granted or found in God’s grace, as we can see in all three Reformers.  Second, an action’s meaning is not given by itself, but is partially determined by one’s understanding of the act, an understanding developed by one’s conscience and/or faith.  Thus, “to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean,” even though “nothing is unclean in itself.” (Rom. 14:14)  This is perhaps less of the case for Zwingli, for whom a conception of law still lurks at the boundaries of Christian freedom.  Third, the action’s meaning within the actor is partially determined by circumstance, that is, by the presence of others and by the action’s effect on their consciences.  This is most clearly seen in the distinction made by Luther and Calvin between giving and receiving offense, between an intended offense (as is recommended when in the presence of the Pharisaical) and an unintended offence resulting from carelessness or ignorance of the presence of those weak in faith.

Describing meaning in the enchanted world of five centuries ago and our contemporary, secular age, Charles Taylor speaks of ‘buffered’ and ‘porous’ selves.  For the buffered self, meaning “is a function of how we as minds…operate.  By contrast, in the enchanted world, the meaning is already there in the object/agent, it is there quite independently of us; it would be there even if we didn’t exist.” (Secular Age 33)  I suggest that the three-fold displacement of moral meaning occasioned by the Pauline and Reformation-era conceptions of the adiaphorous undermine this evaluation of the self of the enchanted world.  Moral meaning is not given, it arises from the interplay of the justifying God, the agent’s understanding of the action and the circumstances of the action.  And were we to limit this meaning-making to actions in the realm of adiaphora, we would be met by Luther’s insistence that all actions are now adiaphorous and subject to the Christian.

More important than a critique of Taylor’s history, however, is our assessment of the modern, buffered self, which views itself, per Taylor, “as master of the meanings of things for it.” (38)  I suggest that understanding ourselves as partially ‘buffered’ is properly Christian when it comes to assessing moral meaning.  While we may fear the caprice of a self that believes it can assign any meaning to any action, the Christian buffered self is checked both by the Spirit, as well as by concern for his Christian fellows.  Further, I do not argue that meaning arises entirely from the self, but simply that an action does not contain its meaning entirely within itself.  In any case, the modern development of the buffered self can be said to point Christian theology back to the lesson learned from adiaphora, that moral meaning arises between an actor, his God and his neighbor.

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