The Future of Protestantism: Further Reflections

A note from the editor: We’ve been running a little low here at EO, but don’t fear. We’ll be back up to speed at some point in the relatively near future. Apologies to Nick Dalbey, who sent in the below article long enough ago that I had to adjust the first sentence to make it time appropriate. -J.F. Arnold

It’s been well over a month since the Future of Protestantism discussion, and Protestantism is alive and well. I’ve been encouraged by the discussion and the articles that have followed in the wake of the event not because everyone is agreed and divisions healed, but because the posterity of Protestantism is secure so long as these discussions continue.

Despite their obvious disagreements, and the backdrop of what Leithart calls protestant tribalism, the Future of Protestantism event illuminated the best kind of unity protestants can hope for: dialectic community. A dialectic community is framed by discussion, not debate; here, participants are friends, and a vision of the Truth is their only prize.

Unlike a debate, discussions don’t have winners and losers; no one is awarded a prize for the best argument; no one advances to the next round in a tournament bracket. All of the interlocutors in a discussion are friends in pursuit of a common goal: Truth. By means of argument, everyone rallies to whoever strikes a clearer path on the journey towards that goal.

As the pursuit of Truth, a good discussion will also inspire the interlocutors to virtue. Participation in a discussion requires rigorous discipline of the intellect and passions; it also requires that you desire the good for your friends as much as you desire it for yourself. It is by the help of your friends that you’ll discover whether your argument is the path toward Truth; and it is only with friends that you’ll ward off loneliness and the temptation to quit.

Disagreement, then, is essential to a dialectic community because it keeps people honest about what they think and, when done in friendship, spurs them on to virtue and to Truth.

John Calvin himself, in a similar vein, argues for this kind of accountability when inquiring into any area of theology.

In his Institutes, Calvin argues that personal virtue should not be separated from knowledge. Especially in theology where God is the subject of our search, Calvin argues that “…our knowledge should serve first to teach us fear and reverence.” Knowledge implies a particular kind of relationship between the knower and the known. In contrast to the popular phrase “knowledge is power”, Calvin suggests the opposite. Fear and reverence are a humble access point by which we can recognize God when we see Him. Similarly, these feelings of fear and reverence will naturally arise, as we better understand our sinfulness in light of God’s holiness.

Later, in the same passage, Calvin takes this thought one step further: “…the pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God. And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself…It thus recognizes God because it knows that he governs all things; and trusts that he is its guide and protector, therefore giving itself over completely to trust in him.”

Piety is the recognition of God as the fountainhead of all goodness, and it is the mark of a pious soul that clings to God out of gratitude and trust. As a result, the reward for the pious mind is not the accolades of winning an argument, or proving itself superior, but the knowledge of God Himself.

Fear, reverence, and piety are the building blocks for the Protestant Church’s way forward in the years to come. Discussions, not debates, I think will be our greatest asset in this endeavor for unity in the midst of disagreements. Arguments will come and go, but for posterity’s sake, it’s not enough to be “right,” we have to be good too. Scripture itself, exhorts us to nothing less:

“Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)

In the future, I hope to see Catholic and Orthodox Christians represented in such discussions. Diversity will only serve the dialectic community in its pursuits, and perhaps bring about a glimpse of the kind of unity we will experience in heaven.

 

Links of FoP Reviews

Sanders: http://scriptoriumdaily.com/prescriptions-protestants/
Jenson: http://scriptoriumdaily.com/whither-protestantism/
Escalante: http://calvinistinternational.com/2014/06/02/nature-future-protestantism/
Leithart: http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/05/staying-put
LittleJohn: http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/05/the-uncertain-future-of-protestantism

Blessed are the Unsuccessful

Whenever I can, I like to begin my 10th grade English classes like this: “Someday, you are going to die and no one is going to remember you. Whether you graduated from Harvard, became a successful businessperson, or worked as a janitor, the chances of the history books actually remembering you are slim to none. So what’s the point?”

My school prides itself on its accomplishments. The school mission statement encourages students to pursue excellence in all of their activities. As a result, our students have sent satellites into space, travelled to Scotland for theatrical performances, marched in the Rose Bowl Parade, and have won state championships in athletics. Our students are headed for the Ivy Leagues because they have learned the art of pursuing excellence.

Working with such motivated students, however, has reacquainted me with a problem, one that infects every area of our lives. We mistake excellence for education, muddling together appearances with reality.

Excellence is predicated on comparison by performance. Instead of attending to the proper formation of our souls, we are more concerned whether others find us impressive, attractive, or enjoyable. We work so hard at our excellent performances that we’ve become accustomed to a mode of existential exhaustion. Then, like my students, when we’re reminded that someday we’ll die and be forgotten by history, we’re left with a distressing question: “What’s the point?”

In his book Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard addresses a similar problem. In an attempt to distinguish Christian love from worldly love, he drives a wedge between love itself and the performance of love. “For,” he says, “one is not to work in order that love becomes known by its fruits but to work to make love capable of being recognized by its fruits. In this endeavor one must watch himself so that this, the recognition of love, does not become more important to him than the one important thing: that it has fruits and therefore can be known.”

The desire for “recognition” is the desire for the appearance of love at the expense of love itself. In the same way, my students sometimes struggle for a perfect GPA at the expense of their education. As a result, grades don’t accurately reflect a student’s intellectual development; instead, they reflect a student’s ingenuity in manipulating the educational system.

For Kierkegaard, the only safeguard against the desire for recognition is obedience, a direct response to Christ’s command “Thou shall love…”

Obedience, unlike excellence, depends on my willingness to obey. Any other motivation encourages pride, which is itself a symptom of excellence. Pride, like excellence, needs comparison, because “it is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” Without the comparison, excellence cannot assert itself as excellent.

Obedience, on the other hand, is a private act of the will independent of popular opinion. Obedience cares nothing for appearances because it’s primary concern is to be in proper relationship to the command. Every obstacle of excellence pales in comparison to the immediacy of obedience. It liberates us from the changing demands of comparison and ushers us into communion with God “in Whose service is perfect freedom” (BCP 1928).

Education, I try to tell my students, is the difficult process of learning to be good, conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God. The point is not that they earn an A in my class and go to a fancy college. The point is to become liberated, happy human beings.

The Art of Self-Knowledge

I’m my own worse critic. I don’t mean to say that I see every flaw in my writing; I mean I only see the flaws in my writing. The difference may be slight, but it is like the difference between deciding to sit down and practice the piano, and deciding to push the piano out of a 10 story building, light all of the copies of music on fire, and yell “to hell with it!”

So when Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to a class of high school students surfaced in my news feed this past week, I felt convicted:

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

He reminds me that the practice of any art is more like exploration and less like decoration–it is about the soul of the artist. My worse criticism of my own writing stems from this confusion. Instead of asking myself, “What does this blog, poem, or essay say about my soul?” I ask whether it compares well to the writing of my peers or my favorite authors.

The same principle applies to the way I consume art. Instead of worrying whether I like the right movies or books, I could inquire about how my response to particular stories reveals some new aspect of my soul.

In an interview from 1968, Ray Bradbury describes human beings as “tension collecting animals.” In other words, we sometimes suppress violence, grief, and joy because those impulses are not always appropriate to the situation we find ourselves in. These tensions, however, accumulate over time and need to be exercised.

Often, we don’t know what tensions we’ve accumulated. Sometimes, we just feel feelings without a clear understanding of where they’ve come from or why we’re feeling them. So, as Bradbury says, the artist will come along and help us discover what they are and allow us to exercise them. Too often, the cathartic experience is a neglected avenue for self-knowledge.

Whether creating or consuming art, we should learn to posture ourselves for inquiry. We don’t always know what tensions we need to exercise on a particular day and so we need to go exploring. Because of my own propensity to care more about art as decoration instead of exploration, I’ve set up some guidelines to follow:

1. Follow Vonnegut’s advice: “…starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives…Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”

2. Don’t overwhelm yourself with art. Instead, allow yourself the space to get to know one painting, sculpture, poem, or song. Inquire about your experience by asking “what tensions am I feeling? What tensions is the artist representing?”

3. Pay attention to your preferences and start there. If you’re wondering what counts as good art, then you’re thinking about this backwards. If you do not find Van Gogh intellectually or emotionally engaging, then don’t try to force yourself to like him just because everyone else does. Exploring art isn’t a competition, and it doesn’t require a refined taste. Like the things you like and ask yourself “why do I like this?” Only when you start reflecting on your own experience, will you eventually begin to see what makes an artist like Van Gogh great.

4. Be aware of how much art you are consuming and how much you are creating. Inevitably, you’ll always consume more art than you create. It takes several years to create a movie, but only an hour and half to watch it. If, however, you find that you haven’t created anything in a long time (paintings, poems, music, photography etc.), then consider making time for your own art. Creating art often has the effect of not only revealing something new about your soul to yourself, but of helping you to better appreciate good art when you see it.

5. Finally, follow Vonnegut’s last instruction: don’t show your art to anyone because “you will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded…You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.” For a host of obviously bad reasons, this is a hard rule to follow. I like it when people like the things I create, and without fail, this desire eclipses the real rewards of making art. Art as self-expression is the act of exploration. Who knows what knew thing I’ll discover about myself or about the world through the crappy poem I wrote today? My job is only to be interested; the rest is not my business.

Our Plesant Evils: On Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil”

In his commencement address to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon college, David Foster Wallace pointed out to students that the most “obvious, important realities” are the most difficult to talk about. They’re the ones in which and by which we live our daily lives. They are the rituals, traditions, pleasantries, and belief systems without which the world as we know it would crumble. Wallace likens the difficulty we face talking about these realities to fish having a conversation about being wet.

Conversations about reality are difficult not because we are out of touch with it, but because we are immersed in it. For example, Wallace says that our “self-centered” interpretation of the world is a reality no one remembers to think about:

…there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor.

Constructive conversations about the realities we’ve forgotten often require a good story. Stories, like reality, are immersive, but they immerse us in a different reality with different rules and different modes of living. Then, like a mirror, they become a way for us to compare and see the things in our own lives that go unnoticed.

Most Recently, I’ve discovered Shirley Jackson, who, in her short story “The Possibility of Evil,” explores the evils perpetuated by our sense of pleasantness—a reality by which we live but no longer examine.

To my shame, I didn’t know anything about Shirley Jackson until I taught her short story to a class of twenty-seven high school sophomores. My first read did not garner much enthusiasm from me because I didn’t “get it.” It seemed too obvious. Miss Strangeworth of Pleasant Street is both strange and pleasant with a weird obsession: scouring her town of possible evil. No secret illicit teenage romance will go unnoticed, or a new mother’s secret worry that her child might be retarded. Without hesitation, Miss Strangeworth sends anonymous handwritten letters to the ignorant related parties warning them of the danger just under their noses. Jackson, however, does not settle for the obvious analogies and ironies.

Throughout the story, Jackson forces the reader to keep asking the question, “what makes Miss Strangeworth strange?” If nothing else, Miss Strangeworth is a jumble of contradictions. She both takes pleasure in the letters she sends, but never wants her name to be associated with their purported suspicion. Miss Strangeworth also believes that cleanliness is next to godliness and that “a clean heart is a scoured heart,” but she herself is a soft, dainty, and fragile old lady who could never withstand her own scouring. The recurring contradictions are strange, yes, but not unheard of.

Instead, it’s the pleasantness of Strangeworth that makes her strange. I asked my students at the beginning of class whether they thought Miss Strangeworth is evil, and I received a resounding “NO!” Their argument was that despite the evil incurred by her letters (insulting children, sabotaging marriages, and frightening people of physicians), Strangeworth has good intentions–she wants the town to be clean of evil. But herein lies the problem: the evil caused by Miss Strangeworth’s letters are not ameliorated by her good intentions. By the end of the story, Miss Strangeworth’s activities are discovered and she receives a fitting punishment.

Jackson’s insight into the nature of evil can be difficult to stomach because it pokes through the facade we all like to maintain: pleasantness and good intentions. In fact, I don’t think Miss Strangeworth is aware of her own evil. Her obsession with her own pleasant way of life has become a blind spot for her as much as it was to my students and me.

In her writing, Jackson is pointing her finger at an obvious, important reality and saying, “See this? It’s causing evil.” So, as one of my students rightly pointed out, if we conclude that Miss Strangeworth is the evil character in the story, then we will have to extend the same judgment to ourselves. With phrases like, “It’s the thought that counts,” we excuse people of misdeeds because we think their intentions are good. Shirley Jackson, on the other hand, suggests that this kind of behavior is a license for evil to run rampant.

After 3 hours of discussion, I left my students with this question: how has our own pleasantness and obsession with appearances blinded us to the evil in our own lives?

It’s the kind of question that can always be asked anew; because we are so soaked in reality, new areas for questioning will always arise. Historically, most of the important social changes occurred when people noticed societal constructs that had gone unexamined. Changes in racial and gender equality are two of the most recent and easiest examples to point to. These changes, however, were (and still are) turbulent because nobody likes to question the things that make life pleasant.

Jackson’s stories are shocking not just because they often end unexpectedly and sometimes brutally, but because they make us see the reality that soaks us. We are not innocent of the reality we’ve forgotten to think about, and Jackson is all too aware of the implications of the ways evil can thrive when we leave it unattended. For further evidence of her awareness, you only need to read her most (in)famous story “The Lottery.”

The process of becoming aware of reality is painful and shocking. When we realize that the pleasant lives we lead are implicated in evil, we must change. Until we realize it, however, we must practice self-reflection—we must read stories and ask questions. “The trick,” as Wallace points out, “is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” Shirley Jackson helps us through this process; she awakens our awareness of reality by constantly repeating to us, like Wallace, “This is water. This is water.”

Reconciliation

The Corinthian hill where the ancient temple of Venus stands.Geography is important to any city. By looking at the placement of houses, entertainment and work places, one can slowly piece together both the citizens’ character and philosophy. Temples and important public buildings not only dictated where people socialized but provided people with a way of life. For ancient Roman and Greek cities, temple location was important. For this reason, Paul worked in the cities because the city determined a person’s religious and philosophical beliefs.

When Paul arrived in the ancient city of Corinth, there were two dominant temples. The temple to Venus, goddess of love, stood at the top of a hill. At the bottom, closer to the sea, stood the temple to Apollo, god of power. Their placement was not accidental. The power of Apollo is backdropped by the ocean – the greatest, untamed power in the world. Venus’ temple is atop a hill because love draws a person upwards to the gods.

Walking through the city, Paul would have seen prostitutes worshiping Venus and city rulers worshiping Apollo. The city revolved around these pagan gods. They represented the ideas and morality with which the people defined their lives and beliefs. It would seem reasonable that Paul’s first order of business would be to destroy the temples that caused such sin.

However, Paul did not destroy these temples. In a city dominated by perverted desires for power and eroticism, Paul lived for eighteen months making tents to earn a day’s wages. He lived with the Corinthians and sought to reconcile them to God by demonstrating Christ’s power and love. He did not destroy their temples, but rather, used temples to show them Christ. Through their false gods, Paul directs them to the true God.

In 2 Corinthians 5:18, Paul wrote, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” The ministry of Christians, according to Paul, is to reconcile the world to God just as Christ reconciled us to God. That is, to put humanity back into proper relationship with God.

Instead of physically destroying the temple to Venus, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians 13, one of the most famous odes to love. In that chapter, through positive description and exhortation, Paul pointed to the fulfilling love of Christ. He overcame the eroticism of the city, not by destroying their passion, but by correcting it.

Similarly, Paul shows that God demonstrates his power in human weakness. Throughout 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, Paul gave numerous examples that demonstrated his own frailness in comparison to the power of Christ. He said in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” In direct opposition to the power of Apollo, Paul pointed to the power of Christ which demonstrates itself not in human power but human weakness.

The two temples still stand in Corinth today. Although they are ruins, their presence still emanates the sin they each represent. Eroticism still grips the world and the lust for power is no less prevalent. Our public places (television, sport centers, internet etc.) are driven by power and eroticism and, therefore, direct most people’s lives. By restoring what has been perverted and rebuilding what has been destroyed, the source of true joy—Christian desires—can be revealed.