Friday, March 10, 2017
Escape from Evangelicalism (Part 2)
In a previous article, I stated my view (a view I take to be obvious for anyone observing the present state of affairs) that mainstream American evangelicalism is a doomed ship. This is still my conviction. However, that does not mean our situation is hopeless. As I stated before, if we are to go forward from the shipwreck of American evangelicalism, we must take seriously and joyfully the fact of Jesus' resurrection--something that has been lost from evangelicalism. Not that evangelicals disbelieve in the Resurrection--belief in it could be taken as an essential part of evangelicalism--but they have ceased to take it seriously, have lost the central and vital importance of it. In that article, I dealt with the fact that without the Resurrection, we have lost sight of the central point of God's plan for humanity, which might be called Resurrection (though, more technically, Regeneration)--a failure which drains Christian life and the church of their meaning.
There is a second important aspect of the Resurrection, though the connection may not seem obvious (and, perhaps, I have been guilty of squeezing ideas together for the sake of an article.) We can get to the idea most quickly by asking ourselves this: what if their had been no Resurrection? What if, as certain liberal scholars believe, God had simply given the disciples a vision of Christ exalted at the right hand of God, but without any physical resurrection? I don't merely mean the theological implications of such a thing, but the psychological impact. How would the disciples have felt if they had experienced this instead of what they did experience? I think one of the main things would have been that the disciples would have lost sight of the humanity of Christ. It would seem that Jesus as a man had died, even though, as the Son of God, He was continuing His divine life. And that is precisely the opposite of what we get with the Resurrection. Of course, the Resurrection of Christ, is something more than a resurrection--in that, in the Resurrection, Jesus seems to have been glorified into a new kind of life rather than simply resuming His old one. But the important point is that this new life is decidedly human. “Handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:39b)
In this article, then, I want to emphasize the humanity of Christ, as one of the implications of the Resurrection--as one of the things which modern Evangelicalism has largely lost along with the Resurrection.
I don't mean to say that there is any special theological failure in regards to the Incarnation. I'm sure the vast majority of Evangelicals could give you a more or less accurate summary of the orthodox understanding of the nature of Christ as being fully God and fully man without mixture and without confusion. However, that does not mean there is no mixture and confusion in their doctrine. Perhaps it has something to do with the liberalizing tendency to treat Jesus as merely human--in reaction, many conservatives try to keep the humanity of Christ in the background; it seems almost like a compromise to admit that the liberals are right in believing Jesus to be a man, even if they are wrong in thinking He was only a man.
But the Resurrection reminds us firmly and thoroughly of the humanity of Christ. Jesus was so completely man that even His Resurrection--even in His Ascension--even in all eternity--He remains human. We are so used to this doctrine that we may miss the startling, revolutionary nature of it. The Incarnation has permanently added something to the nature of God. The source and center of all reality now has flesh and blood. The eternal wisdom, the ageless word now has a beard. If this is not true, it must be the outrageous and insane lie ever conceived.
I have written in a previous article (“Jesus, Our Brother, Kind and Good”) about the theological implications of Jesus' incarnation, as discussed in Hebrews 2. I do not want to recover that ground here. Rather, I want to point out that the Incarnation should alter our view of humanity. In Creation, the Image of God became Man. In the Incarnation, God became Man. In one sense, the Incarnation only reinforces or expands upon the essential plan of God in the beginning--the special blessing of Bethlehem repeats the special blessing of Eden. Though, since God is outside of time, you might as well say that the special blessing of Eden was only a foretaste or prophecy of the blessing of Bethlehem. But whatever the sequence, the final result is the same--there is a special honor and glory for mankind since both metaphorically and literally the image of God is Man. Christian doctrine affirms this one truth with almost outrageous emphasis--a man is not just another animal, even a higher one; he is not a “fortuitous concatenations of atoms” even especially fortuitous; he is not merely one particular emanation of the universe, even a rather nice one--he is the image of God, the one creature in all cosmoi whose nature has been wedded to God.
It is no answer to all this to say that God became man only after man had made a dreadful mess of himself and the rest of the world. If the fatted calf is killed only for a prodigal that does not make the fatted calf any thinner. That God “saw me plunged in deep distress/And flew to my relief” makes the story all the more interesting--the depth of our distress makes the height of our exaltation that much more extreme. In Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis said something to the affect that to be human is enough to shame the highest king and enough honor to raise the head of the lowest beggar. “In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners.” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 6) This is the note of orthodox Christianity. I leave it open to candid judgment whether it is a note of modern, American evangelicalism. And though, as Gerard Reed observes, “Holiness theology forever celebrates the primary and potential grandeur of humankind,” (37) it must be admitted that in most Wesleyan/Holiness thought today, there is little difference in this regard between them and their Evangelical contemporaries.
To talk of something like “the dignity of humanity” instantly calls up to some people the image of something like gilt--something pleasing but very rigid and entirely superfluous. This might be, they think, a fitting topic for poets and theologians (those two social parasites) but having little to do with practical matters. But poets and theologians have far greater affect on practical affairs than most people suppose--and what we believe about who we are has great deal to do with what we do. And a failure to recognize the honor and dignity of humanity as such has had a great impact on practical matters--mostly, a bad affect.
One such affect has been a deemphasis on human labor and vocation. God created man to be a worker even before the Fall, though the Fall introduced the curse of toil into the blessing of work. When God became man, He spent the vast majority of His life working as a carpenter in a back-country town. St. Paul told the lowest and most prosaic laborers of all--the slaves--that their work was done for God and not for men. But for modern Evangelicals this is all lost and I suspect some of them might have told Jesus that He wasted far too much of His life on carpentry when He could have been preaching. Ordinary, non-religious, mundane occupations are seen as peripheral and superfluous. So they are. So is everything, from a certain point of view. But that does not mean they are entirely without meaning or honor. The whole attitude has been encapsulated in the phrase “full-time Christian service”, a special ranking or class reserved for preachers, Christian Day School teachers, and missionaries. Of course, even if you do not belong to this aristocracy, there is hope for you. You can do part-time Christian service by taking up the offering at church. Your secular, mundane work can even be used by God--by using it to get money to put into the offering at church--or by passing out Gospel Tracts to your coworkers. And that is just about it for modern Evangelicalism. One seldom stumbles across the idea that ordinary, human labor might have some value in and of itself--that the God who first came up with the idea of a gardener might be pleased with gardening--or that God would probably not call people to vocations which had no purpose except to raise money which God doesn't need in the first place. Of course, it should be noted that this is not an entirely accurate picture of modern Evangelicalism. In the fiery trail of the Schaeffer Comet, there have arisen some who argue that intellectual and artistic pursuits may be used to glorify God in and of themselves. They stop with intellectual and artistic pursuits because it is much easier to explain how a scientist, a philosopher, or composer can glorify God in their work than to explain how it can be done by a farmer, an insurance salesman, or a dish washer. But in any case, these voices are a minority. And so the vast majority of people in the Christian world are told that forty hours out of every week are wasted and (though not in so many words) that they can barely redeems their lives and find a purpose and glory in life for a few hours on Sunday. We teach people this. And then we wonder why they do not seem very excited about it.
Another result of this loss to emphasize ordinary human dignity is the loss of ordinary human virtues. Of course, virtue itself is something an embarrassment for evangelicals since--given their scheme of redemption (as discussed in the previous article), virtue seems a superfluity. But evangelicals do, in fact, make a point of preaching many virtues, many good character qualities like faith, hope, and love. And that is good in so far as it goes. But my conviction is that it does not go far enough or, rather, that it does not begin soon enough. There is no good in drawing up the plans for the march on the other side of the bridge if you have neglected to build the bridge. And the Christian virtues can go nowhere without the humdrum human virtues--things like loyalty and courage. This paragraph of necessity be more subjective and personal than even this generally subjective and personal article. I may be quite wrong on this and I am sure I cannot here prove I am right--but it is my conviction that modern Evangelicalism has lost the force of these elemental human virtues. I can take two examples to show what I mean. Modern evangelicals (in America) make a great to-do about being patriotic, about loving their country, about being willing to fight for it and also willing to change it. Those are all good things. But in their patriotic rhetoric all one hears is about the inherent greatness of America and its “manifest destiny” to succeed. It is not a merely material greatness--it is a moral greatness and, especially, a liberal greatness; that is to say, its greatest quality is the freedom it allows, especially to people of religion. I have nothing to say against any of that. But one cannot help but get the feeling from listening to them that if things continue in there present course and the greatness of America continues to decay--that if it should become a place of financial disappear, political dishonor, and personal tyranny--they would all leave and go somewhere else (if there was somewhere else to go); that they would do this, not unwillingly and with sadness, like a man cutting off his right hand to save his soul, but cheerfully and unhesitatingly, like a man walking across the street to get out of the sunlight. They seem to have no sense of that fundamental loyalty which is the meaning of patriotism. They fight to keep the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and one cannot help but think they would be willing to drop all the other words. The other obvious case is that of marriage. Evangelicals are inveterate romantics when it comes to marriage (which is one of the many good things about them); they produce plenty of books explaining out the blessings of a godly marriage and how a good spouse can create Heaven on earth. Somehow they usually neglect to mention that many, even among Christians, are likely to end up in an ungodly marriage (since you cannot control the spiritual choices of another person) and that even the best spouses sometimes, at least, even by accident create, if not Hell, at least Purgatory in the home. It never seems to come up in their discourse that there is such a thing of a fundamental loyalty and courage which ties a man and his wife together on the very simple, mundane grounds of a promise which is not made to be broken, regardless of the happiness or blessing of the home. Because they have forgotten about humanity, they have forgotten about human virtues--and without these, you cannot even have super-human virtues. Without courage and loyalty, faith and hope will be merely wishful thinking and love will be merely sentiment.
I may also say here, that this may explain some of the strange things that go on in Evangelical politics. Without recognizing humanity, they seem quite confounded by the human virtue of justice. They seem quite willing to push it aside, as something of new use to them. The widow asked the unjust judge to avenge her of her adversaries, because she had no other judge she could ask. But some Evangelicals give you the impression they would prefer an unjust judge on the grounds that he would be more likely to avenge them of their adversaries. But this may all be my personal opinion and I will not push the theme here.
All these things have a curious connection to our discussion in the previous article. There, we saw that modern evangelicism (and even, modern Wesleyanism) has failed to emphasize regeneration, Christian living, and the church. And it is clear that all these things are connected to our humanity. If Christ simply died and then was exalted, then we might only need to be (and only could be) justified. But if Christ returned to human life, than our human life must (and can) be transformed. Regeneration is only possible because of the humanity of Christ. “Christ Jesus salvaged human nature by refilling it with His divine presence... To fully redeem man, the eternal Word necessarily lifted unto himself, joined himself to, all that required redemption... As Jesus Christ's brothers, join-heirs with Him, we share the nature He assumed and made holy.” (Reed, 170) And because this is possible--because there is a transformation of our human life--it can result in practical, Christian living among our ordinary, mundane duties. And because human life is redeemed, the church (which is a meeting of humans) can have true meaning and significance. All this is possible only because of the human resurrection of Christ and will be lost without it. Christ ascended on high and we know Him no longer after the flesh. And because of that, we also know no man (even ourselves) solely after the flesh. When Christ ascended, He tore the roof off our human house. And our life which we lived before in the dark now can be lived in the bright light of Heaven.
While writing this article, I have been very much aware of the thundering sound of a herd of elephants in the room. The essential charge of this article seems to be that Evangelicals are not human enough. But the obvious charge to those who follow what has been going on in modern evangelicalism (a charge which I have myself made elsewhere) is that evangelicals are altogether too human. I theorized that Evangelicals would sacrifice their country for their religion--but it is apparent (and can practically be proved empirically) that some of them have already sacrificed their religion for their country. I complained that they have not given due reverence to mundane occupations, but it can be argued that they have turned religion into a mundane occupation, making God's house a den of merchants if not a den of thieves.
This objection needs to be raised, but I do not think it disproves my point. In fact, the reason for all this is clear. We cannot escape our humanity. Whether we think human nature is the family fortune or the family curse, it is in the family and we cannot get rid of it except, perhaps, in Hell. And so if do not realize the essential dignity of our humanity, our humanity will not be dignified. If we will not let Jacob's latter set its foot in our human nature, our human nature will never become the House of God. If we will not present our body as a living sacrifice, it will remain dead. The tragic consequence of our failure to include our human nature in the redemption is that it is not redeemed. St. Paul said we should die to our merely human life so that we might live a new, transformed human life in Christ. But too many Christians are zombies, continuing to live their merely human life because they have never heard of anything to replace it. They have never allowed God turn His light into it, and so it remains dark. So for many Christians, their human life continues quite unrelated but quite as real as spiritual life. And in a moment of crisis, they will act out of their humanity rather than their Christianity. There humanity remains a substratum beneath their Christianity. But the plan of God is that our humanity would be merged with our Christianity, so that we might love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength.
Humanity, as such, is a noble thing. But in the end, it can never remain merely a noble thing because it can never remain merely human. If it does not become divine, it will become diabolical. When the great continent of Humanity began to sink beneath the waves, Jesus Christ descended from Heaven and by His own essential buoyancy turned the island into an airship and it is now flying with Him into the heavens. We must ride with it or be drowned in the depths of the sea. It is no longer an option to stay where we are.
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. Project Gutenberg E-Book.
Reed, Gerard. C. S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1999.