Which is the “Christian Nation” Now?

10 Comments

() - Emblems of belief available for placement...

() – Emblems of belief available for placement on USVA headstones and markers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the great ironies of recent history is that Russia, the quintessential atheistic society when it was the largest part of the Soviet Union, is returning to Eastern Orthodoxy. While much of its population retains its atheism, the government of Vladamir Putin strongly supports the Orthodox Church and has increasingly supported a traditionally Christian society. Like the African churches (outside of South Africa), the Russian Orthodox Church is theologically and morally conservative, much more so than mainline American churches.

Although the United States was originally more deist and agnostic than religious, after the Second Great Awakening in the late 1700s it, in effect, became a Protestant Christian nation. There was a general understanding held by the vast majority of Americans, including Roman Catholics and Jews, that a fairly conservative traditional morality was to be followed. This morality included opposition to abortion (abortion, over time, was made illegal in most states during the nineteenth century), opposition to premarital sex, adultery, and homosexual activity, and support of a traditional conception of male and female roles in the family. Going to church (or synagogue) was considered a commendable thing to do. Prayer and Bible lessons took place in both private–and public–schools. Although many people violated the common morality, even the violators, for the most part, believed they were committing morally wrong acts. Church attendance remained high. The last religious revival in the United States continued through 1965.

There were precursors to the destruction of the Protestant consensus before the 1960s, but it was after the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, that social change rapidly occurred. The intellectual classes, already quite liberal, did not have the intellectual nor the cultural resources to halt the tide of radical activism. David Horowitz, who participated in much of the activism, was a red diaper baby, a crusading Communist, and he points out that despite the claims of those reacting against the late Senator McCarthy, the radicals behind the 1960s revolution were openly Communist. As such, they were atheists who also opposed the Protestant consensus that included a common morality. The advent of artificial contraception was used as an excuse to defend “free love,” a movement that began as early as the Kennedy years. The late 1960s saw the apex of the debate over the morality of abortion that led to the January 1973 “Roe v. Wade” Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion. With marriage effectively separated for childbirth combined with easy divorce (which had been a staple of some states since the late nineteenth century), marriage was seen as a way for someone to become happy rather than as a sacrament and a permanent commitment. Once marriage became separated from the right to have sexual intercourse, it became more and more a civil arrangement–and it was a small step to support same-sex marriage. Given that climate, one wonders how long it will take before American society supports incestuous marriage or pedophilic marriage. Once the foundations of a social order are destroyed, the house quickly follows.

Many of the Christian Churches, especially the mainline Protestant denominations, have more or less yielded completely to the new social norms. The Evangelicals, tied up for years in gimmicks rather than in Biblical teaching, development of Christian character, and the beauty of traditional worship, are rapidly given ground on traditional moral positions regarding sexual ethics. American Roman Catholics remain deeply divided after radical priests and bishops fundamentally changed many churches during the late 1960s and 1970s. The Fundamentalists remain faithful to traditional theology and morals, but too often focus on minutia rather than on the cultural war that they have, in effect, already lost. Stating traditional Christian positions, already a crime in the UK and in much of Western Europe, is becoming socially unacceptable in many American circles. Eventually, stating traditional positions on sexual morality or defending the exclusive nature of Christian claims will become hate crimes in the United States if current trends continue.

The United States is no longer a Christian nation. To claim that is is denies the obvious transvaluation of values that has taken place during the last 50 years. Russia is the last major superpower that can claim, at least at the level of government policy, to be a Christian nation. If the common people of Russian embrace the Orthodox faith again, it will be Russia that will be a shining light to the world, with the United States a decadent shell of its former self.

As a Traditional Anglican Catholic Christian, What do I Believe?

4 Comments

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most ven...

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most venerated of Orthodox Christian icons of the Virgin Mary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The American philosopher William James, in his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience,  pointed out that a belief has to be a “live option” for a person in order for that person to seriously consider that belief. Other beliefs are closed options–and everyone, whether or not they are willing to admit it, have closed some options to serious consideration. As a traditional Anglican Christian, a member of the Anglican Catholic Church, there are certain beliefs I have about the nature of reality that close off other beliefs:

I believe in one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three persons in one substances. He is a personal God, both transcendent of the universe and immanent in it, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, all-loving. He is the personal ground of all existence and the source of all value.

I believe that God created the universe and thus that the universe is contingent.These two beliefs rule out pantheism. I will not consider it as a live option–period. I am open to versions of panentheism that preserve Christian orthodoxy if such could be found.

I believe that Jesus Christ is fully God, fully man, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made, being of one substances (homoousias) with the Father.” Jesus is qualitative different from the Buddha and the great Hindu teachers. Although non-Christian religions can and do contain truth and Christians can learn from them, ultimately Christianity has the fullness of the truth. Although non-Christians can be saved, everyone who is saved is saved through Jesus Christ.

I believe that Jesus came to earth as “very God of very God,” yet fully human as well. I believe that he taught in Palestine in the 30s of the so-called “Common Era,” that he was crucified, died, and was buried, and “on the third day rose again.” That is, I believe Jesus’ body was really dead, cold, dead by any standard, and had been dead for three days–then he was raised from the dead–literally. No Bultmann or Tillich or Crosson game playing allowed. I believe the literal bodily resurrection of Christ.

I believe that Jesus “ascended into Heaven,” though I do not fully understand what that means. I accept it through faith. He remains fully man and fully God, and is literally present in the Eucharist (the Mass or the Lord’s Supper) in both His human and divine natures. This takes place in a church in the apostolic succession that holds to catholic and orthodox teachings. What God does with other churches’ Eucharists is up to God, but His real presence is guaranteed in the Catholic Church (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, some Old Catholic groups, and the Anglican Catholic Church and some continuing Anglican groups).

I believe that we are born with the capacity to sin, a capacity that will inevitably be actualized once someone is of the age of accountability (which will vary from person to person). “Original sin,” the capacity to sin, is a reasonable concept. “Original Guilt,” Augustine, Luther, and Calvin’s idea, is not.

I belief in salvation through Christ that is normally given at the point of baptism.

I believe that one day we will be raised in physical, bodily form, from the dead–but with glorified bodies, physical bodies under the complete control of the spirit.

I believe in Purgatory as a place of continued sanctification after death, in Heaven as an actual place of eternal life in the presence of God, and in Hell as a possibility, praying that if possible God might save everyone, but realizing this may not happen.

I believe in the traditional moral teachings of the Catholic Church, including:

The duty to perform corporeal works of mercy.

The sinfulness of hatred, wrath, jealousy, and envy.

The sinfulness of adultery and of premarital sex.

The sinfulness of abortion at any stage of pregnancy.

The sinfulness of practicing homosexual activity.

The sinfulness of most wars.

The sinfulness of ALL torture.

The need to hate sin for its destructive power but still loving the sinner.

I am a Christian, certainly not a good one, whatever that means. Lord knows I have violated some of the Ten Commandments, but that is where God’s grace comes in. Grace is not a totally private matter but is mediated through the Catholic Church; Protestants may receive grace as well because their church is imperfectly in fellowship with the Catholic Church and retains the sacrament of baptism. If anyone asks why I try to put other systems of belief in a Christian framework, it is because I think there is something to those beliefs, and I am trying to find a niche for them in Christian orthodoxy. Any belief that is not able to be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church is a false belief, period. Am I closed-minded to some options? You betcha. So is any reader of this blog.

Mysticism and Christianity

6 Comments

Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany

Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to a common stereotype, mystical thought has always played a role in the development of Christian thought, just as it has in other religious traditions. While eschewing Gnosticism, Neoplatonist pagans such as Plotinus were used by Christian writers, and the Pseudo-Dionysius’ writings could be called mystical works from a Christian perspective. The Eastern Orthodox Church has emphasized contemplation, and this trend became dominant during the late states of the Eastern Roman Empire just before Constantinople was taken by the Turks in 1453. In the Western Church, St. John of the Cross, St Julian of Norwich, and St. Theresa of Avila were only a few of the great mystics. The Church has taken care regarding mysticism, not in order to make life difficult for the mystics, but to make sure that the teachings of the mystics were in line with Christian teaching. St. Theresa of Avila gladly submitted to that rule and did not begrudge it–anyone with doubts should read her writings. There were a few exceptions, but this was not due to the authors’ mysticism. The problem was the teachings of certain mystics seemed to conflict with the teachings of Christianity. I am not sure if Scotus Erigena was a mystic, but he was clearly a pantheist, and while not formally condemned, his position was stronger than the alleged panentheism of Meister Eckhart–Erigena clearly identified God with the universe in his dynamic pantheistic system. Meister Eckhart, on the other hand, believed, as far as I can follow his thought, that the was a good Thomist–if every contingent thing that exists is radically dependent on God, then without God all contingent things are literally no-things. Thus God is all in all. Eckhart’s teachings could be a form of panentheism, and one could even interpret them in terms of classical theism. In my judgment, Eckhart’s heresy trial was based on a misunderstanding of his teachings.Mystics tend to emphasize the untiy of all things in the One, and sometimes they seem to subsume creation into God so that God is the only reality and contingent things are unreal. R. C. Zaehner has argued that Christian mysticism always kept the God-world distinction in the background while Eastern mysticism did not. That is a widely disputed point; many writers would claim there is a strong cross-religious and cross-cultural commonality to religious experience. Huston Smith has argued that within a religious tradition that approves their use, psychedelic drugs may be a way to reach the transcendent. From a very different perspective, Stanislav Grof has argued that high doses of LSD can put some persons in contact with transcendent reality. Even the majority of mystics who do not use drugs use fasting, chants, and other methods to focus the mind. However, as William James notes in his Varieties of Religious Experience, there is a passivity to mystical experience–ultimately it is a gift of grace. James is also correct in noting the ineffable quality of mystical experiences. It is not that mystics cannot communicate anything about their experience–otherwise, why would they write books about mysticism–but that language does a poor job in communicating the experience. In December 1273, St. Thomas Aquinas told his secretary that he had a mystical experience of God of such power that everything he had written before was “straw.” He died shortly afterward in March 1274.

Mystics also have a sense, as James noted, of certainty that the experience they had was real. The experience itself does not last long; James is probably not far off the mark when he states that most experiences last less than half an hour. These special gifts of grace are the height of the contemplative (Mary-type) life as opposed to the more practical Martha-type life. The church requires both.

Christian mystics should always keep in mind the fact of the incarnation (as did St. Theresa of Avila). Matter is good and redeemed by God through Christ. Any mystical experience that denies the goodness of matter is heretical from a Christian perspective. What mystical experience tells Christians, among other things, is how small we human beings are in comparison with God. Even the Beatific Vision will not result in anything close to a complete knowledge of God. It is good for humans, who have a tendency toward pride and arrogance, to realize their smallness, their nothingness, in the face of Existence Itself.