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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.


Christianity as Agent of Disenchantment

[please overlook the ugliness resulting from this being adapted from an abstract.  thank you.]

I’d like to argue against the received tradition that disenchantment of the world undermines religion.  Instead, I argue, Christian doctrine is responsible for the lion’s share of the creation of a disenchanted worldview.  This is due to (1) Christianity’s  monotheistic repudiation of a world full of spirits, (2) Christianity’s insistence on interiority, and (3) Christianity’s agnosticism regarding the interpretation of divine action in the contemporary world.

(1) While acknowledging a spiritual world, the epistles of James and Paul both militate against an understanding of any power active in the world other than God’s Spirit.  [What of Plutarch’s roughly contemporary De defectu oraculorum?]  Indeed, James insists that, with regard to temptation, one should not look to the world of spirits, but within oneself, suggesting (2) the Christian impulse to interiority, manifested and legitimated theologically by Augustine.  In both his experiences, recorded in his Confessions, as well as his doctrine of original sin, Augustine finds evil within the human heart.  What external calamity does occur cannot be definitively attributed to God or mischievous spirits, but in the modern age (defined by Augustine as that occurring between Christ’s Incarnation and his second coming at the end of the world), we are forced into (3) an agnosticism regarding the working of the world.  Augustine (according to the R.A. Markus’ interpretation) reserved insight into God’s actions to prophets directly inspired by God.  In the present age, after the closing of the scriptural canon, humanity is left without such  inspired interpretation, and all time becomes, like that of Benjamin’s modernity, homogeneous.

Thus Christianity, in its biblical and early doctrinal expressions, establishes an understanding of the world much like that usually assumed to be specifically modern.  It resists looking for spirits in the world; it finds meaning within the self and urges caution about finding divinity in the world now understood as ‘natural’ (cf. Chesterton’s interpretation of St. Francis).  We must thus acknowledge the constructedness of the category of ‘religion’; when it is assumed that religion is a vector of supernatural powers irrupting in the everyday, ‘religion’ is a construct built without attention to its object, in this case Christianity.

Will I Be Ready to See God When I Die?

(This is the second of two [very brief and sketchy] posts on alternatives to the Baptist view of life after death.  Please forgive me and let me know if it’s too snarky; and of course please let me know what you think about the issue.)

Regarding Purgatory

What sin of yours has Christ not forgiven?
What part of you has Christ not redeemed?

What God says, is.  If Christ calls me brother, am I not his brother?

Yes, I cannot stand before our holy God.  But in the Spirit, I do stand before God.  I am redeemed.  I don’t know why, in faith, I would think that the forgiveness Christ extended to the thief on the cross He has not extended to me.

Against annihilationism

(This is the first of two posts on [what I believe to be false] alternatives to the Baptist view of life after death.  Please forgive me and let me know if it’s too snarky; and of course please let me know what you think about the issue.)

When I saw the wickedness of man I became an annihilationist, because, unlike man, God is not a torturer.  I once confronted a murderer.
‘You killed them!’ I railed.
‘Why are you concerned for them?  They are gone.’
‘I remember them.’
‘If you think of them, be glad they experience evil no more,’ he replied.
And I witnessed the extinction of the unredeemed.
‘You killed them!’ I railed.
‘Why are you concerned for them?  They are gone.’
‘I remember them.’
‘If you think of them, be glad they experience evil no more,’ God replied.
I did not expect annihilation to affect me.

A – ‘I could not live in heaven with the knowledge that there are those who live in hell.’
B – ‘You will think of those in hell?  Will you not reason their existence away as you do now?’

A Caution to the Sacramentalists

(I feel embarrassed to be writing from my experiences; but I suppose I’m some sort of embodied, located person, so here goes…)

The other day I attended choral mattins at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  The music and setting were greatly used by God to stir my heart to admiration of and desire for Him.   The ceiling of the place is fantastic, with amazing mosaics (I assume) that seemed almost Byzantine.  I’m not wholly an iconoclast (at the moment), so I appreciated the images of Christ’s life, as well as the Christ Pantocrator returning the congregation’s gaze from the far end of a succession of domes.  However, I don’t how to venerate and not worship an image (do you?), so I spent a good bit of the service with my eyes closed.

Afterward I took in the Courtauld Gallery, and the Manet, van Gogh and Gauguin paintings (so famous I recognized them) made me weak with Stendhal syndrome.  Foolishly homeopathic, I made my way to the British Museum.  How amazing, that place (pace the kid who, seeing the crowd around the Rosetta Stone, asked “What’s so good about that?”).  I was moved in a way I couldn’t quite understand by the Elgin marbles and Assyrian statuary.  The objects inspired awe, not just because they were ancient or meaningful, but also because they were tremendous pieces of art, of handicraft, of man’s creative mind and hands.  Could they be idols?  Could I, or perhaps, could Christianity, or Judaism, or God, condemn such pieces?

I’m curious as to how we assess idols today.  I suppose we don’t need to, for the most part, as we never encounter a physical object one openly worships as a god; and so we don’t find ourselves asking whether an item might go from piece of art to idol or from idol to piece of art.  Perhaps this can happen when an object is removed from its setting and worshipers.

More basically, however, it struck me that God’s Old Testament people were quite distinct in their remove from most imagery.

I also was curious as to how careful the sacramentalism is of many of my Evangelical-plus friends (that is, those who are or were Evangelicals, but supplement its supposedly sparse theology and worship with other parts of the Great Tradition).  We appreciate art and wish not to miss out on the blessings of any part of God’s creation.  What I want to know, however, is if we can distinguish (or, to be practical, simply if we distinguish) an icon from artwork.  Do you know what it is that makes this materially constituted bull a bad thing?

Perhaps I’m wondering if there’s a distinction to be made between being influenced by a theology of the sacraments and simply having the famed ‘sacramental worldview.’  I’m not sure it’s OK to have the latter uninformed by the former.  Who am I to be speaking on this point?, but it seems like the sacraments are about God’s irruption in the physical world in a very particular way, a way that in no way can yet be applied to all of materiality.  The special coming of the Spirit upon bread and wine, oil and the conjugal couple might not be an endorsement of all art.

The (Modern/Baptist) Worldview

Real quick: on this blog ‘modern’ is not an epithet.

Is cessationism not definitive of the modern view of reality, vis-à-vis the ‘enchantment of the world’?

The Baptist view of reality seems to be (to me, a Baptist) that miracles can happen, that they’re rarely seen, that they have happened in the past and that supernatural things will occur again.  We do not believe in a ghost world regularly irrupting into the corporal world.  While we do believe in the Spirit and in humans (and animals [<‘anima’]) being spirited, we believe in the invisibility of spirit.  Depending on our theological strain, we may suggest that God’s work and that of humans are not competitive, that God (for the most part) only builds the house that humans build.

Baptists have little to fear from a temperate empiricism.  The miracles we believe in are Scriptural, that is one-off, historical events.  They cannot be disproved (though likewise can’t be proved).  I’m not aware of many supernatural occurrences Baptists today have seen in broad daylight.  Much of the supernatural experiences we report occur in the invisible realm of the Holy Spirit and our spirits.

I do not think it’s the case that Baptists disbelieve in the supernatural and self-deludingly say otherwise.  We do not live in a regularly supernatural age, ever since the cessation of apostolic signs and wonders (by the way, check out cessation in the ANF and NPNF).  But, we do not deny the possibility of miracles happening today.  Indeed, we watch the Eastern skies for our Savior coming bodily down out of heaven.  And never having seen a miracle with our own eyes we believe fervently in the truth of those recorded in the Bible, most of all, our God’s assumption of flesh, his sinless life and obedient death, his genuine resurrection and his ascension, and foolishly, we expect his return.

That Baptists believe in miracles yet seem not to believe as some other do is, I hope, honest faith in God.  It is honest in its recognition of our lack of experience with the supernatural overwhelming the material (I hope; perhaps we blind ourselves to some of God’s actions today).  Yet with these desert eyes, it still believes in God’s promises and trusts the record of his extra-ordinary activity in the past.  It lives between the times with faith in what God has done and what God will do.

contra sacramentalism, the Incarnation is not a principle

Jesus Christ was/is an historical person.  Per the New Testament, he is presently at the right hand of the Father, preparing a place for his children, and he will return at the time assigned by the Father.  Though we Christians have developed a number of principles for understanding his Incarnation, we always remember that he is not a principle, but a person.  Indeed, for the Christian ‘Incarnation’ is not a deverbal noun but a name for Jesus Christ.
Thus, the symbolic interpretation of the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper.  It is not so much the difficulty of Christ’s omnipresence that drives me from a hard interpretation of the bread and wine as Christ’s more-than-symbolic body and blood, but the fact that Christ was an historical person and that he still exists as such, and that Incarnation is his being and not simply a principle initiated by him and repeated weekly.