Human & Divine Societies Require Careful Thought & Discourse
"Be not conformed to this world," St. Paul warns the church at Rome, "but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind" (12:2). In our time, that warning bears not only upon what we think, but also upon how we think, or that we think at all. For insofar as we regard everything, including matters of theology and church discipline, to be "political" as we employ that adjective now, we destroy what is political properly speaking, and we ensure that no pragmatic problem will be solved, no point of the faith will be clarified, and no truth will be granted the leisure of slow and organic development.
The Need to Deliberate
If we are to be prudent, we must deliberate. Given the kinds of creatures we are, in the world God created rather than in the far simpler worlds of our imagining, we cannot see the whole of a thing at once, or its many and intricate relations with other things. We have not with any reliability the instantaneous intuitions of angels, supposing that we ever have them at all. Discursive reason is ours, often slow and plodding, or we learn by slow experience, seldom forgiving and ever requiring to be affirmed anew in every generation, lest we condemn ourselves to barbarism and the reinvention of stone knives and pointed sticks.
It is unlikely that the conditions of our political conversations—not conversations really, but one-liners, simplisms, shouting matches, and slapping surprise cards on the table—will in the near future allow for much deliberation. The personal and social virtue of tolerance, putting up with something you acknowledge as bad because not doing so would make things worse, grows harder to find, as people grow more certain of the evil of their enemies and less aware of their own evil.
We still make examinations of conscience—the consciences of other people. It's an enjoyable pastime, since, unless we are quite honest with ourselves, we are apt to cast those other consciences in one easy dimension of our choosing, knowing beforehand what the result will be. Always the worst sins are those that other people commit, as we enjoy the convenience of not happening to be tempted to commit them or of not being capable of committing them if we wanted to.
The corresponding intellectual virtues are honesty and fairness: the habit of holding judgment in abeyance, attempting to see matters from another point of view, putting the best case forward for the opposition. These are not practiced, and in our schools they are usually held in scorn. The personal is the political, people say, or to teach is to engage in politics. That is as much as to confess that everything we do is part of a quick-hand shell game. "I am a scoundrel," we are encouraged to tell the world, though not in those words.
The United States Senate used to be known as the world's greatest deliberative body. I do not believe it is now a deliberative body at all. The more we conform ourselves to the mode of current politics, or, what is almost the same thing, the mode of current salesmanship, the less we will deliberate and the more foolish we will become, in a kind of folly that the world has hardly known before, because it is a folly intensified in degree and warped in kind by all of the engines of un-deliberation and of un-wisdom that blaze and blare at us at every pass. Authors of satire cannot keep pace.
Treating Society as a Machine
How do the impatience and folly touch the Church? "Prove all things," says Paul; "hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess. 5:21). We are to put things to the test, in the mind, in the heart, in action. Our criterion for judgment is truth—what else should it be? What else can it be? When we utter the word amen, we should remember that we are not saying anything about ourselves or our intentions, but about God and his works. The amen is an affirmation of truth, emeth, as weighty and solid as rock. There is nothing flighty, jittery, sudden, shape-shifting, slippery, about that rock. The mountain does not drift with the clouds about its peak. We do not rely upon a reed in the wind.
But we do not have that habit of slow, sober examination. I am often struck by discussions of social matters that strangely never address the reality of a society at all—a complex and living organism, spanning the generations, extending beyond the bounds of death, necessarily cultural if it is a genuine society and not a collective or a wraith, a web of relations among beings who are each of them more baffling and fascinating than the largest pinwheel of stellar dust in the universe.
We promote social nostrums without considering what is properly social. We talk about wages but not about the households for whom people earn the wages, or should earn them. We talk about electoral machinery but not about what the machinery is supposed to accomplish. We talk about "sex education" but not about what the sexes are to be for one another. It is like talking about health without looking at the body. It is as if we were dealing not with the animate nor with the exanimate, but with what must always be inanimate: society as a machine to tinker with.
A machine, Étienne Gilson once pointed out, is an imitation of an organism. The parts work by contiguity: one gear engages the next. There is no principle of co-inherence. Hence, you can replace one part with another of the same kind, and nothing is changed. The other parts of the machine lose nothing by it. They are not touched in the recesses of their being; there are no recesses. Or you can add a part here or subtract a part there, to improve the effects of contiguity.
But every cell in your body is intimately related to every other. You can die from an infected finger. "And whenever one member suffer," says St. Paul, "all the members suffer with it" (1 Cor. 12:26).
The Body & Its Law
How often do we need to remind ourselves that when Paul says that the Church is the Body of Christ, he is not speaking metaphorically? No more was Christ speaking metaphorically when he called God "Father"; rather, as Paul says, all fatherhood on earth derives its name and its being from him (Eph. 3:15). God is the full reality; we are, as it were, the shadowy metaphors into which he has poured his being.
The Church is the full and ultimate body. The body of the individual man, a work of consummate beauty, is yet radically incomplete: each sex is made for the other, and the face of man, the "human face divine," is meant for beholding other faces, other persons, even the face of God. Says the psalmist: "When thou saidst, Seek ye my face: my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek" (Ps. 27:8).
What is true of the body is true also, I would assert, of the law of the body, the law that guides from within the maturing of the members and the health of their mutual relations. Again we must not flee to abstractions. You cannot remove a son and brother from a family, replace him with someone else, and have the same family. The boy is not a gear or a sprocket. He does not merely perform the function of son and brother. He is those things, and every other member of the family shares intimately in his being so.
Likewise should we consider the divine law as revealed to the Church, including those tenets of the law that are meant to impart to her a visible and pragmatic structure, as a living body: "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple" (Ps. 19:7).
I do not intend here to broach, much less to decide, ecclesiological questions that have divided Christ's Church. I have not the temerity. I do wish to recover a strong sense of bodily and organic reality as it informs our relations within the Church and without, and the deliberative virtues that are required of anyone who would minister to the body, the habits of seeing living wholes as such.
Progressives in our midst, quite misnamed, appear to suppose that the Church is like the civic order, and that the civic order is like a machine, invented for work that may be evaluated according to clear and uncontroversial metrics. A candidate may thus recommend that all debt incurred to colleges be forgiven, as if that could be done without profound and unforeseen effects upon the body politic, as it would affirm the evil principle that those guilty of scandalous misuse of funds—our colleges, in this case—should be spared the consequences of their malfeasance. "Save Our Swindlers," cry the victims and enablers.
Or they believe we may change, ad libidinem, what shall be recognized as marriage, and expect only a mechanistic alteration—a statistical extension of marriage to couples formerly considered incapable of marrying, while everything else about the institution would remain the same. The cog does not know it when you replace the lever. If you ask the progressive, "What effect will this change have upon the culture-making and culture-preserving power of the family?", you might as well ask what digging a hole in China has to do with the height of Mount Washington. The things are not perceived as mechanistically contiguous, and so they appear to have nothing to do with one another.
An Indivisible Body of Doctrines
It is, as I say, a false and foolish way of looking at secular society. What is not true of the state and its man-made institutions is certainly not true of the Church. For here we are dealing with a body of doctrines—not a set, but a body—revealed by God, in whom there is no shadow of change: "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and tomorrow" (Heb. 13:8). Christ is not to be amputated. One may be a good disciple of Plato or Confucius, and select among the old man's teachings, affirming some and rejecting others. But Christ is what he teaches, the what and the whom of our profession: "For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:22–23). We are to be "baptized into Jesus Christ" (Rom. 6:3), engrafted onto a new trunk, the principle of new and everlasting life.
If we love the Lord, we do not want to cut away little pieces of him, a finger here, a toe there. It is wrong likewise to look upon his law as divisible. The Lord, surely, is no stickler, no Pharisee in protest against microscopic sin, and yet he insists upon our being holy, or, to use an English cognate, our being whole. "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments," says he, "and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:19). It is pharisaical to look upon the law as a set of strictures, a check list for winnowing the good from the bad, whether you observe them or not. We must instead see that to love Jesus is to love his commandments also, to insist upon an organic and essential unity between the body broken and bleeding upon the Cross and the body revealed to us by his teaching. Himself says so: "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him" (John 14:21).
I have heard it said that systematic theology in our time is in eclipse. The very existence of the term, as distinct from moral theology, social theology, sacramental theology, or some other adjectival theology, suggests that we are in danger of losing our hold upon the thing itself: theology. A neurologist must know about the heart and lungs. A cardiologist must know about the digestive tract. They heal not parts but bodies, persons. The body of Christ is not less corporal than these, but more: the ultimate corporeal reality. When the theologian, as someone speaking about Christ, about him and no other, treats of marriage, he touches upon the Trinity; when he treats of the Lord's Supper, he touches upon moral issues of death and dying; when he treats of the priesthood, he touches upon a Christian understanding of physical being, in place and time.
Sodom reacts backward upon Eden, rendering men unable to understand how "from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female" (Mark 10:6), and then we lose the very concept of creation and how it reveals God in part, "for the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made" (Rom. 1:20). Babylon reacts backward upon Jerusalem, making the state into a totem, a tutelary god professing to determine what is and what is not, and men forget that of Jerusalem's Temple itself, the Lord said, "There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down" (Mark 13:2).
Does that mean that Christians do not grow in the knowledge of God? Hardly, for the Comforter—the corroborator, the strengthener—"whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you" (John 14:26). "The Spirit is doing a new thing!" say the progressives among us, but if what is new is organically separate from the old, from the things the Lord has taught and commands us to remember, it is not the eternal but the time-bound, not the Selfsame but the diverse and the diversionary, not the Ancient of Days seated upon the throne, who says, "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5), but an old fogey who catches the latest fad from the social pages of the New Church Times, and decks himself in academic polyester.
John Henry Newman, who gave the progressives in my Catholic Church the term "development of doctrine," but not the deletions of past principles that they intend by that term, says that we can distinguish between true and specious development by thinking organically: "An eclectic, conservative, assimilating, healing, moulding process, a unitive power, is of the essence." "Development," he says, "is a process of incorporation." Just as the body of the man is the body of the child in full flower, for "young birds do not grow into fishes," so a true development of doctrine
is conservative of the course of antecedent developments being really those antecedents and something besides them: it is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds; and this is its characteristic as contrasted with a corruption.
The Threat of Enthusiasm
We return, then, to the need for slowness, sobriety, deliberation. Had Eve obeyed even when she did not see why she must, she might have come to see why, and she might have laid her finger upon the thread that would unravel the enemy's lie. Enthusiasm may be the reverse of love, as it is often notably impatient and puffed up with self-regard. Says the great apostle of love: "Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning" (1 John 2:7).
The enthusiast is quick to trust himself—or herself; many an enthusiast is a breathless prima donna in the sweet throes of self-love. He cannot wait to submit his feelings to the judgment seat of truth. Therefore he is a threat to rational discourse. Where the exclamation points proliferate, the judicious commas and semicolons of qualification, clarification, and an ever-tentative investigation into the depths of received truth recede. Enthusiasm demands a dozen innovations before wise humility gets to the subject of one sentence.
"First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," cries the low-life follower of Jack Cade, the rebel in Shakespeare's play (2 Henry VI, IV.ii.77). "Let order die," says Northumberland, more eloquent in expression, but a rebel all the same (2 Henry IV, I.i.154). Sign this bill of sale, says the confidence man, playing for his gain the part of the enthusiast, and you will be rich! Drink this elixir, says the quack, and your tumor will shrivel and vanish! We believe we are too wise in the world's ways to fall for those quick and easy lines. We are not. Quick and easy lines are all we hear, and perhaps all we will suffer ourselves to listen to. Thus does a magical gnosis make common cause with a mechanistic a-gnosis: in neither case do we have a body to tend, to nourish, to heal, to make strong. All is flash, glare, noise.
Tilling with Patience
When Mary Magdalene saw the risen Christ, she did not recognize him, but that was not because he had overwhelmed her with deity-generated images. She mistook him for the gardener. Perhaps he had a hoe in his hand, as we see in some paintings of the scene, ready to till the old soil of earth and stir again its powers of life.
We do not return to Eden; that is the error of the reactionary. We do not shrink in stature until we are no bigger than children again. We grow into our new childhood. Eden returns to us, the same and not the same, transfigured, raised up; not a plot of heaven-blessed earth, but earth renewed and raised to the heavenly.
Till the soil, then. Be patient. Think; but do not make your obedience dependent upon your thought. Remember always your incorporation in the body of Christ—not the machine of Christ, the social structure of Christ, the cultural constitution of Christ, but the body. And may we all heed the words of Christ, who prayed "that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee" (John 17:21).
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalene College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius Press, 2019). He has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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