A Hothouse of Mutual Admiration

I have been on a blogging sabbatical for pretty much the last three months, I’m afraid, and I wouldn’t blame most regular readers if they’ve given up this blog for lost, especially as its last utterance was hardly a dazzling display of intellect.  But as the maelstrom of conferences and job applications is finally drawing to an end, I hope to resume some sustained blogging over the coming weeks and hopefully months.  However, the posts here are likely to be more personal, occasional, and aimed at my immediate community, as I devote my more public blogging energies to the various other fora in which I have been asked to write.  You will find monthly posts from me on current events at Capital Commentary, monthly essays on historical political theology at Political Theology Today, monthly book reviews at Reformation21, and hopefully regular contributions again at Mere Orthodoxy and The Calvinist International (as well as, Lord willing, essays at Humane Pursuits).

With all of that, I may not keep my promise of blogging here again for long, but I’ll at least make a start over Christmas break, with, among other things, a series of posts sharing delightful excerpts and insights from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, which I recently had the great pleasure of re-reading for the first time in several years.  Most posts will include some brief notes of application or elaboration, in addition to the quoted excerpt; in other cases, Lewis’s observations may serve as the occasion for more extended reflections of my own.  For now, one of the former, from the inimitable Letter #7, on pacifism and patriotism:

“All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged.  Not always, of course, but at this period.  Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep.  Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.  Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse of mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the ‘Cause’ is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal.*  Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true.

We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity of a secret society or clique.  The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her all the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results, from the parties of Paul and Apollos at Corinth down to the High and Low parties of the Church of England.**”

*”thought to be impersonal”—what a sharp observation and rebuke.  For too long in our evangelical circles have we comforted ourselves with the mantra that we “hate the sin but love the sinner.”  Oh, it’s the sin of homosexuality that we hate, not homosexuals or gay rights activists.  It’s Darwinism we hate, not Darwinists.  Socialism and liberalism we hate, not socialists or liberals.  We forget that to truly hate a sin while loving the sinner is a work of grace, against which so much of our sinful nature militates.  In reality, what generally happens is that we so adamantly hate what we take to be sin that we tell ourselves that no sane person could love something so hateful.  Those outside our small coterie, who espouse this deplorable doctrine, are thus scarcely to be considered rational beings, but are virtually blind brutes, and thus are not worthy to be patiently listened to, patiently talked to, or treated with dignity and respect.  All of this, of course, at a very unconscious level; few would ever come out and admit to such feelings.  At the same time, we have so convinced ourselves that pride is an essentially personal sin (more on pride in a later post), that it is always about having too high a view of my own individual merits, that we never pause to consider whether we are in danger of succumbing to that far more insidious and destructive corporate pride which was what Christ and the Apostles so rebuked the Pharisees for.  To be sure, some of them suffered from individual self-righteousness as well, but far more pervasive was their national self-righteousness, their conviction that they were God’s favored people, and all those outside were under judgment.  This kind of pride can co-exist with the most self-flagellating personal humility, and often does in contemporary Reformed and evangelical circles.

**And, one might add, down to the various micro-denominations among the American Reformed, who seem to have perfected this kind of factionalism into an art form.


Why Academics Need Lent

I could make apologies for simply re-posting, verbatim, my Lenten meditation from last year.  However, the liturgy doesn’t make apologies for repeating itself, verbatim, every Ash Wednesday, does it?  (Oh great—I just compared my blog to the Book of Common Prayer.  So much for Lenten humility.)  And these thoughts are as relevant as ever to my experience of studying theology in constant dependence on God’s grace.  Each week, it seems, I am more aware of how little my studying, writing and theologizing is something I do, and how much it is something I receive—as I study, I feel less and less like an adventurer forging my way through the thickets and more and more like a child following a winding little paper trail that my parents have left behind, luring me toward the prize.  Lent serves as an annual reminder of this dependence, and of the far more mundane dependence of the mind on the body and its earthy rhythms.  So enough of the prologue.  Here’s the repost:

Many evangelical and Reformed folks today are wont to turn up their noses at the practice of Lenten fasting.  There seems to be something unhealthily ascetic about it, with the notion that somehow we draw nearer to God by mortifying our flesh and thereby becoming more spiritual.  There seems to be a trace of Gnosticism, a sense that the body is a bad thing and we must beat it down, cast off its desires and its needs, to be truly spiritual.  And there is also a sense that this practice must lead to pride, to the notion that because one has overcome one’s bodily desires to become more spiritual, one may take pride in this superior spirituality and self-discipline.  

And so there has been a tendency to try to re-cast Lenten fasting–we are exhorted to choose something that we are too attached to, and to “give it up” for Lent so that we can become more cognizant of our warped desires, our idolatries of worldly things, and be more single-minded in our devotion to God.  If you care too much about chocolate, give up chocolate for Lent, acknowledging that God is more important than chocolate, etc.  Or it needn’t even be food.  Perhaps you watch too many movies–why don’t you give that up, so as to put God back at the center?  We’re afraid that Lent not be construed as an unhealthy mortification of the body, so we recast it as an opportunity to refocus our desires and devotions on God alone.  

There’s certainly nothing wrong with such a refocusing, and indeed that ought to be part of a healthy Lenten practice, but it seems that something crucial is left out in this approach.  And this, I think, is because the standard discomforts about Lent–it leads to Gnosticism and pride–have got it precisely backward.  Rightly understood, Lent is about purging us of spiritual pride by reminding us of our bodily condition, of snatching us away from lofty heavenly speculations and putting us firmly back in our tabernacles of skin, bones, and appetites.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” the priest tells us as he administers the ashes.  Remember that you live in the body.  And being in the body means being a dependent being, a being that depends upon God’s animate and inanimate creation, in its manifold forms, to continue living, functioning, thinking.  (My friend Byron has highlighted this nicely in a Lenten reflection he’s just posted.)  How does Lenten fasting do this?  Well, it’s really quite simple.

Usually, we don’t know how much we need something, until we don’t have it.  Indeed, we might start to imagine ourselves as self-sufficient, as “self-made men,” because we have become so accustomed to the prerequisites of our existence, that we forget that we’re even there.  If you’ve spent your whole life going to a fantastic church, you might start to imagine that your rich spirituality has something to do with your own excellence of soul, and only when you have to move away into a spiritual wasteland do you realize how dependent you were on the spirituality of others.  Likewise, as long as we have all the food and drink that we need, we forget that we even need it.  We forget that our ability to function, to do anything–to walk and run, to think and write clearly–depends first on the nourishment of our bodies by things outside us.  For academics like me, this temptation is all the more powerful.  The athlete is aware at all times of his bodily needs, but the academic can start to imagine that all he needs is his mind, and his mind is his own, his private domain, the accomplishments of which he can take full credit for.  He may eat three square meals a day so as not to feel a stomach-ache, but he doesn’t really need them to do what he does, right? 

Until he doesn’t have them.  Try skipping a couple meals, and then try to carry on an intellectual debate.  Try to write a paper.  How ’bout just reading a book with comprehension?  It doesn’t take long at all without food before mental function starts to get cloudy, until the conceptual leaps one might ordinarily make with effortless facility become slow and arduous tasks.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  We are not independent minds or spirits, communing with God and thinking deep thoughts all on our own.  We are embodied minds, minds that cannot so much as follow a syllogism without a regular supply of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.  This is easy enough to forget as long as you have that regular supply, but by taking that away, Lenten fasting provides us a rude awakening–it brings us face-to-face with our own frailty, our humanity, our dependence.  

Lenten fasting, then, does not try to liberate us from the body, but reminds us that we are chained to it.  It does not encourage spiritual pride–on the contrary, it mocks the very notion, by reminding us that we cannot take credit for any of our accomplishments–we’re hardly able to even think spiritual thoughts without the aid of dead plants and animals filling our stomachs multiple times a day.  Lent is not an ascetic exercise to take us away from earth on lofty flights into the third heaven; no, Lent brings us back down to earth, the earth of which we are inescapably a part.  Lent reminds us that we are creatures, dependent at all times on other creatures, and on God the creator of all.