Read This!

February 17, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Posted in Theology | Leave a comment

No, not this post, but I suppose that you really must if you are to get the gist that you owe it to yourself to read this.  Actually, read all four parts — the best is saved for the end.

However, if the sheer length is too daunting, please allow me to provide some excerpts by way of summary:

American history is a pageant of houses which have been raised up upon the sand, and the storms have come and lashed unfounded structures built on bad ideas. And many of these houses have carried Christian addresses.

… the Graham Crusades firmly established, for the Religious Right, a centralizing religious principle: the evangelical revivalist tradition of a crisis decision “to accept Jesus Christ as one’s own personal Saviour.”

As unifying as this new “lowest common denominator” as this formula turned out to be, it also produced a rejection of asceticism, a simplification of repentance, an overvaluation of individual experience, and a diminution of doctrinal and ritual into the category of “denominational distinctives.”

We will look, later on, at the profound hypothesis of Harold Bloom – literature critic and professor at Yale, who suggests – with a great deal of reason – that the American religion has always been and is manifesting itself outright as a gnostic ethos.

We have seen this American Gnosticism induce a lot of privatized, subjectivist emphasis in the protestant movement, even in the conservative evangelical movement. We see it especially in the charismatic/Pentecostal yearning for ecstasy and for esoteric experiences and knowledge. More generally, we see it in the “radical individualization” of religion.

In American evangelicalism, you have the full development of democratized Protestantism, not only extant within the Protestant community, but also showing up significantly in the Roman community and also in some of the latest controversies of the Orthodox movement.

Evangelicalism is American religion. The study of the history of Evangelicalism, which we probably ought to call American Protestantism, is the best way to understand the genius of this country or a nation.

 Religion is the teaching of the “genius” of a country to pray. That, I know, is the oddest formulation you have heard today, but we will take the rest of this course to try and figure it out. But suffice it to say that I think Harold Bloom is right: American religion has always been at least latently gnostic – it is only becoming more explicit. It is gnostic, because the American genius is gnostic. It cries out for ecstasy and esoteric power. It wants freedom from other selves, being allergic to koinonia, and it seeks (foolishly) a bareheaded solitude in the face of the demiurgic abyss.

The arrival of Orthodoxy in America is an ongoing process of introduction that is far from over. Sts. Cyril and Methodios, as did all the Apostles, established the fullness of the Christian faith at the very heart of their destination. For St. Paul, this obviously meant Athens and Rome. For the American Orthodox Christian, however, this destination remains unknown. We probably know more about America than we did a century ago. But we do not know nearly enough, not yet.

The American language that Orthodoxy does speak already is really the gross tongue of “television American.” It does not yet know the grammar of the back yard, the church parking lot, or the town or union hall. We Orthodox, in our Greek-ness and Russian-ness or whatever-ness, are too practiced at looking upon the hoi polloi as just so many bumpkins. We either follow the mainline tradition of trampling down the grass roots and taking up the ghastly modernistic tongue of academic crusade against blue-collar, hill-billy piety. Or, if we’re still Christian, we adopt a Greek or Russian accent, and preach Orthodoxy as if it were a new alternative (and very chic) ethnicity, and present it in a fashion that is most calculated to throw down the maximum number of obstacles and scandals in front of your usual truckdriver who listens to Willie Nelson, your retail associate who walks down the Mall texting on her iPhone, your burger-flipper who spends his days at Burger King and his nights on meth or ecstasy or whatever’s in his neighbor’s medicine cabinet, or your Dilbert-reading telemarketer, trapped for life in a cubicle.

I think we need to “get there.” And to make that journey, we need to comprehend the American “need” for the Gospel. If we were to experience a “Macedonian vision“ like that of St. Paul’s, what would an American say beyond “Please help us”? Just why is the Good News so good for an American?

In his book, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch extended Rieff’s grim pronouncement: the narcissistic personality was not that of an inflated egoist (like Trump or Napoleon) whose self-love had reached astronomical proportions, but the narcissist is really that of the insecure soul who lacks the very requisites of selfhood. In this sort of deep, psychic insecurity, there is no possibility for real fulfillment or happiness. As Rieff wrote of this chilling prospect, the modern individual in the therapeutic culture “finds himself buried incredibly deep in a night he never consciously desired” (Rieff, Triumph, xxx).

In other words, the American – in his genius, in the national consciousness – already knows the bad news of sin, and he already knows the dread of the Last Day and the Hades that is leading up to it.

But it is not enough to shake one’s head at a drunkard in a trailer park: what must needs be is an Orthodox parish that can teach the son of that drunkard, an unwed boy with children of his own how to grow up, finally, and become an Orthodox man. For it will soon be that the only way a boy can become an American man is through Orthodoxy: so it will be for a girl to become a lady, a house to become a home, a social security number to become a Christian citizen, a pensioner to become an American Saint.

And God knows we need more of these.

It is this loyalty, this old-fashioned love of people and the land, and this devotion to the native Natural Law written in America’s past and her majestic landscape that stand, as the man from Macedonia, as the modern call to the Orthodox Church: “Come and help us!” It is this love of the American people and the American land that the Orthodox Church must travail toward before the Church can lead American sinners to Jesus.

 There is also, in Evangelicalism, a thirst for experience that eclipses any importance of doctrine or truth. What matters, the Evangelical will tell you, is heart knowledge as opposed to head knowledge. What matters is a conversion experience, even an ecstatic experience that is well known to Gnostics and neo-platonists of all ages – the individual, solitary psychic ascension from the created world into an individualized confrontation with the Infinite.

“Take Jesus as your personal Saviour” is the common denominator that links all Evangelicals and Charismatics, many Catholics and even Mormons together. I think Harold Bloom is right in discerning in this radical individualization of religion a significant vestige of the Gnostic religion. Despite their doctrinal affirmations to the contrary, the Evangelical emphasis upon experience and ecstasy is rooted in the old Gnostic conviction that man’s soul is divine by nature, and not by grace as Orthodox Tradition teaches.

Enthusiasm, not doctrine, is the keynote of the American religion, whether it is manifested in Evangelical or other forms. Monsignor Ronald Knox wrote an important, and I think brilliant, historical study on this subject: Enthusiasm, a Chapter in the History of Religion (1950). In it, he writes:

Enthusiasm does not maintain itself at fever heat: dance as you will, flap your hands as you will, you cannot conjure up the old days when people rolled on the floor in agonies of convincement, and talked in strange sounds. (p. 565)

Enthusiasm cannot be pursued as a goal. And even when it comes, it exhausts the subject and insinuates a cynicism toward religion. There are entire regions in the US which are called “burnt over districts.” I think that Evangelicalism as a whole is entering the “burnt over phase.” It has been mightily disappointed by political misfortune in the last year. It has suffered the scandalous offense of some of its top leaders. It has also suffered the aggregate result of failure to catechize, failure to indoctrinate, failure to draw the link between theology and ethics. It has permitted the free migration of people from one denomination to another, and in so doing, it has diminished the faith commitments of every denomination.

“Spirituality” in the new American genius, which calls our young like the sirens called Odysseus, is mystical ecstasy without morality. It is experience without dogma. It is prayer that is uttered in an echo chamber. It is a religion that has stripped meaning away from the physical world: there is no Creation, because there is no Creator (since evolution is used mainly by American gnostics to eradicate the dogma of Incarnation and the wisdom tradition of Natural Law). It is a religion that has fully embraced the therapeutic culture, and has made a full entrance into gnosis.

This is the reason why the new generation of unaffiliates are so patently anti-authoritative. They do not hate adults. It’s simply that they live in a different world, and are impatient with us primitives who will not evolve from the old.

The American Gnostic experience is not harmless, as much as our modern unaffiliated, anti-authoritarian spiritualists fervently believe. It always turns out to be full of peril and jeopardy, and is the culprit for much of the nation’s anxiety, depression, immaturity and irrationality.

The American Gnostic experience seeks to experience the divine, but outside the protective communion provided by Jesus Christ and His Body, the Apostolic Church.

The American experience seeks gnosis, or knowledge, outside of the Apostolic Dogma.

It seeks ecstasy, outside of the discipline of ascesis … outside of the grace resident in Eucharist, Baptism and Chrismation and all the Mysteries.

The American Gnostic urge is a romantic foray into a bodiless solitude or alone-ness.

Despite its naïve enthusiasm that is the golden fleece of all romantic endeavor, this urge is really an attempt to launch out alone into the Mystical Fire, the Uncreated Light.

And as the Fathers warned us repeatedly: to enter the Uncreated Light naked, and autonomously, without the garment of righteousness granted by Baptism and bestowed under the Name of Jesus Christ … to be so foolish and irrational … to do this outside of the exclusive, Only-Begotten Son of God …

This experience, shorn of its glittering signs, is just another word for Hades – perdition in the here-and-now.

We should look especially to the Apostolic response to Gnosticism, which is germane in most of the Epistles, especially the First Epistle of John the Theologian.

In this simple, elegant and luminous letter, St. John emphasized the exclusivity of the Incarnate Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. St. John identified the Grace of the Holy Trinity as the Light, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God the Father and Creator.

He emphasized that there was to be no individualized, solitary confrontation with the Infinite. Instead, we are to love our brother, to walk in the Light, and to have fellowship with the Church of Christ, and to abide in Christ as the Son of God.

Here is the lesson of First John for American Orthodoxy, in this gnostic new age:

    • Enhance the teaching of dogma, even at the expense of political clarity.
      • Make explicit the Tri-Personal, Single-Essential Fellowship of the Trinity vs implicit diffuse Gnosticism of the world
      • Make explicit the Incarnation: the exclusive identification of Jesus Christ in His Two Natures as Saviour, vs the constant gravitational tide of Arianism in the heterodox community
    • Be identified more with the dogma that we are for; more than the positions that we are against
    • Enhance catechism in terms of sequence of Bible as the great narthex of dogma: every story should point to an article of the Nicene Creed … and in turn, the Bible and the Fathers should point toward theosis and the struggle against passions

We must recognize that Orthodox dogma – Trinity and Incarnation – is not just a prerequisite for membership in our club … it is a prerequisite for sanity in a decadent civilization that is driven to insanity by its increasing proximity to Hades

We must teach Americans how to be Orthodox, to think Orthodox and do Orthodoxy in their own local America. Let us help Americans get over their wanderlust and demand for the greener grass and learn how to stay and pray. Let us renounce the commercial entrepreneurial claims of the Church Growth Movement and bloom where we are planted.

Finally, we must reveal to Americans the real destination of Orthodoxy at the end of the historic Sawdust Trail: a destination of Repentance and Theosis.

The only way to reveal this Sawdust Trail is Sainthood, and nothing less. Not jurisdictional unity. Not ecumenicity. Not modernization. Not liturgical reform. Not commercialization, commodification, and selling our children to the bitch goddess of success.

The late Russell Kirk once wrote an essay entitled “Donald Davidson and the South’s Conservatism.” Kirk, in this essay, celebrates Davidson’s constant call to arms against the encroachments of “Leviathan” – an especially pungent icon of “the omnipotent nation-state, what Tocqueville called democratic despotism, the political collectivity that reduces men and women to social atoms.”
Kirk lauds Davidson and his other Southern Agrarian confreres who all insisted “… that society is something more than the Gross National Product; that the country lane is healthier than the Long Street; that more wisdom lies in Tradition than in Scientism; that Leviathan is a devourer, not a savior.”

 We must know more of Leviathan to fight it. We must know more of America to save it. We must know more of Orthodoxy, in faithfulness, to proclaim it – existentially, authentically, mystically, naturally and supernaturally, face to face.

Those are Kirk’s words – no mean rhetoric, that. But then Kirk concludes with Davidson’s words from I’ll Take My Stand:

[Some] moderns prefer to grasp the particular. They want something to engage both their reason and their love. They distrust the advice of John Dewey to ‘use foresight of the future to refine and expand present activities.’ The future is not yet; it is unknowable, intangible. But the past was, the present is; of that they can be sure. So they attach themselves – or reattach themselves – to a home-section, one of the sections, great or small, defined in the long conquest of our continental area. They seek spiritual and cultural autonomy … They are learning how to meet the subtlest and most dangerous foe of humanity – the tyranny that wears the mask of humanitarianism and benevolence. They are attacking Leviathan.

The past was. The present is. These are Orthodox words: and it is especially Orthodox to figure out that the Dewey-ite “future” of the industrialists is demonic fantasy.

 We must know Orthodoxy and America to be the American Orthodox Church. I worry that we do not, nearly enough for either, just yet.  

 In our attempts to “be” the American church, we discard — sometimes with force and with regrettable Fahrenheit 451 fury — all those smallish, embarrassing antiques from our immigrant past. We converts are much to be blamed for this “colonial” behavior. We moan like wind in the rigging about the appearance of foreign language and foreign custom in our ecclesial activities, and like peckish harpies we blame improprieties on the presence of hierarchy and Tradition, and demand a modernization of order.

Meanwhile, our very embarrassments may become our salvation, for that slavish particularity often disqualifies us from the homogenizing siren call of Leviathan — we are left shipless on the dock, while the more attractive and sortable sorts – the Mad Men and Desperate Housewives of less demanding denominations—are ushered into the Titanic. The very agents of our chafing — about which we complain most (like administrative and jurisdictional chaos; inefficient coordination; the panic of suburbanites who have no bulletin with which to follow a Liturgy they cannot understand — may become at the end the very means for our escape from this present lawless temptation … the temptation of Leviathan to become inexorably the same – consumers on their way to diminishing levels of ecstasy, becoming more and more part of a homogenous dehumanized matrix of the Beast.

The heart of America is further than you think, if you think it is somewhere else or some other time. The heart of America is your backyard, your town, your block, your parish with all its foibles and warts and pirohi, and men and women about whom you sometimes complain, but to whom you will bow one day in the vicinity of theosis.

What America received of Christianity before Orthodoxy was a truncated vision … an abbreviation, at best, of the Gospel.

But what America needs now is the full-fledged Wisdom that apprehends Natural Law, and the Apostolic theoria that proclaims Jesus Christ and His present millennial Kingdom.

But in every American there is still the native land and a hope for the old Republic, with the beautiful spacious skies like a starry roof over the home of the brave. You can still see this in your own people, as they pray together, work and laugh together, comfort each other in their mutual sadness and play softball on the summer diamond.

Not all Americans are Gnostics, especially ones who are old enough and reflective enough to look closely at Time and Space. Many of them, even without really knowing, are walking down the sawdust trail, coming forward because they are looking for a deeper dream than riches, and a beauty and wisdom that explains the heartbreaking sunsets of September, the smell of new mown hay and the secret joy of baseball and barbecue. They are coming forward for they have sensed something eternal in the particularities of America, and they have figured out that there is a Creator God Who is Good.

They are coming forward down the old sawdust trail. And this time, it is not the old brown church in the vale.

It is the church of two Thessalonicans, which has finally arrived in the heartland: it has finally understood the language of the call of the Macedonian, who looked strangely like John Wayne. That church, now understanding, has finally arrived.

Whew.  That’s still a lot of text.  But, I hope you still thought it was worth the read, whether you agree with it or not.  So, what do you think?  Does your experience of American Evangelicalism line up with the Good Father’s?  Speak your mind in the comment box!



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