Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Christian Otherworldliness

A common critique of Christians and Christianity by secular critics today is that the Christian focus on the significance of another world -- a spiritual world and/or future world, fundamentally 'apart' from this reality -- causes Christians to withdraw from the world; to disdain the world; to -- if not celebrate -- at least downplay the significance of decay, destruction, and death; to defer responsibility and actions in the troubled world around them. The critique finds its most robust, vibrant articulation in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, and he isn't entirely wrong. There are certainly some bitter fruits associated with just such a Christian Otherworldliness, to the extent that it exists. The question becomes whether it in fact exists and to what extent, and whether it is a particularly Christian Otherworldliness that is really at issue, or otherworldliness as such which just happens to have a Christian variant.

Re-visiting David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite, this passage stuck out to me, in which Hart addresses the issue, and traces the true genesis of this otherworldliness to pre-Christian sources, which in turn infected elements of Christianity, but which was never proper to its essence.

[H]owever just [Nietzsche's] condemnation of pious otherworldliness  may be -- and the church has seen no end of it -- it is the unambiguous renunciation of gnosticism, and not the paradoxical renunciation of classical Christianity, that would correspond most nearly to his account. Indeed, no one familiar with late antiquity and the world in which the gospel was first preached can be unaware that a prevailing spirit of otherworldliness had long been moving inexorably through the empire: not only gnosticism, but every variety of etherealizing devotion, mystery religions, Eastern esoterica, mystical Platonisms, and the occult; the contempt for the flesh expressed by Valentinus, Ammonias Saccas, Plotinus, the Mithraic mysteries, or even the sanctimoniously ungroomed Emperor Julian was more bitterly world-weary than any of the exorbitant expressions of spirituality to which the church fell prey.

One may agree with Nietzsche that this atmosphere of acosmic and incorporeal religiosity defames the world, and one may acknowledge that it infected every institution and spiritual aspiration of its age, including those of the church; but one should also recognize it as first and foremost a pagan phenomenon. [...] Christianity suffered from this contagion in some considerable measure. [...] But it was also into this crepuscular world of transcendental longings, of a pagan order grown weary of the burden of itself, that the Christian faith came as an evangel promising newness of life, and that in all abundance, preaching creation, divine incarnation, resurrection of the flesh, and the ultimate restoration of heavens and earth; a faith, moreover, whose symbols were not occult sigils, or bull's blood, or the brackish water and coarse fare of the ascetic age, but the cardinal signs of fellowship, feasting, and joy: bread and wine.

And surely there is something almost tediously wrong in asserting Christ's crucifixion has ever figured in Christian tradition as a repudiation, rather than ultimately an affirmation, of the fleshly life Christ was forced to relinquish (pp. 106-107)

The Christian faith, uniquely, provides the resources for "renarrating the cosmos from the ground up", and affirming the goodness of creation -- in all of its glorious materiality -- while also providing a metaphysical account of evil. Hart continues:

The orthodox doctrine of creation out of nothingness, and its attendant doctrine of the goodness of creation, led the church (more radically than even Neoplatonism) to deny evil any ascription of true being, to define it not as an essence or positive force but as mere negation, reaction, a privation of the good, a perversity of the will, an appetite for nonbeing -- but no thing among things: all things had to be affirmed, with an equal emphasis, as God's good creation. (pp. 106-107)

One take-away from all this, on a meta level, is that we need to avoid being so reactionary that we immediately reject everything critics of the faith have to say out of hand; we need to recognize the nuggets of truth that may be contained therein, but to shed the full light of truth on them, separating the wheat from the chaff. In this case, Nietzsche and his modern ideological descendents are right to be wary of otherworldliness, but the solution is not to turn away from Christ and the orthodox Christian tradition, but toward them.

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