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Virtue and the Church Today

January 9, 2015

This is an introductory post in my series on virtue and ecclesiastical history. If you have not already done so, please read yesterday’s post ‘After Virtue’ before proceeding. Thank you!

Let me put forth two posts I read recently that inspired me to read recently, and a part of a blogger who liked a previous post of mine’s religious based post recently. I note that all the emphasis is mine, and that some of the claims in the first post I don’t agree with wholeheartedly:

I think that there are a number of methodological similarities between evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, and some fascist regimes of the 20th century. The greatest tragedy here is the fact that Christianity has, for those people, become as political as it has become anti-intellectual -which puts religion diametrically at odds with mainstream society. Positioning the church (where “the church” refers to the people who actually subscribe to evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, and not the actual buildings that people worship in) at odds with the rest of society is a pretty stupid thing to do, but the fact that the church “is” at odds with modern society is pretty meaningful in terms of what it says about the church’s (and religion’s generally) place in our culture.

Basically, the church is on the defensive and it’s conscious of its being on the defensive. There is this perception that you can’t both believe in modern science and believe in God (which is dumb, because science can’t tell us about God), and there are two rivaling camps on that issue: the new atheists who believe that science can at least justify weak atheism (which is nonsense), and the fundamentalists who reject modern science because they have “bought in” to the new atheist position that science can justify at least weak atheism. So, weak atheism has defined itself against Christianity (or religion, generally), and then fundamentalist Christianity defined itself against weak atheism.

The reason that’s totally stupid is because it makes religion (something not of man, or at least theoretically “over and above” man) subservient to science (something of man), in an effort to reclaim its legitimacy. The searing irony of that in its effort to reestablish its legitimacy, religion in that way becomes subservient to science and then in that way subservient to man. Religion, is no more than “on par” with man in that regime, and that means that the new atheists of this world have already “won” the battle between science and religion because if religion is no more than some fiction of the human mind there is no reason to buy into it at all. Religion has, in that way, been “debased” and it’s not going to get its status back.

That’s very sad, because religion is what holds the fabric of our society together. Even if people don’t practice a religion, the basic values that most people hold come from religion. [here, we see a controversial claim!] Charity, empathy, justice, morality, etc. These are all “religious,” and they were religious before they were ever secular -but the problem is that the church now isn’t acting very charitable, empathetic, just or moral. Instead, the church has gone on this zealously political tirade about how government trying to facilitate access to health care and taking measures to ameliorate poverty are not only unacceptable but wrong, how gay people will burn in hell, how birth control is immoral, etc. All of those things are fundamentally and visibly stupid.

But the fact that they’re fundamentally and visibly stupid is what makes them (all the stuff I just talked about) dangerous to the church. People who are not Christians see people who call themselves Christians talking about how god hates gay people, or how Obama is the devil, or any number of other monumentally idiotic things that poor, angry, ignorant white people have claimed comes from “the bible” and they make certain assessments of Christianity “as a faith” on that basis.

Sure, it’s not fair to judge an entire faith on the basis of the faith, but people do. Fundamentalists turn rational people away from Christianity. When the church starts talking about politicized dogma, they stop talking about helping the needy, giving money to the poor, etc. and that change is the “death knell” to the Church’s legitimacy in our culture. The irony, of course, is that the only reason that the church became so politically defensive is because it felt “under attack” in the first place…

Make no mistake, while Christianity is not “under attack” from the outside, it is nevertheless very much at a point in time where if something doesn’t change fast the Church’s relevance in society will dissipate…

Our 2nd post:

“The Catholic Church has ‘modernized’ plenty of times in the path. It has a pretty rich history of a reforming movement, which actually saved the church following certain chaotic times. The alliance between Constantine and the Papacy against the Lombards, Gregory the VII’s ecclesiastical reforms, Leo IX’s reformation of the Church, Aquinas reconciliation of Aristotle and the Western Christian tradition, leading to the advent of Scholasticism, Erasmus’s humanism, the Avignon Papacy and Western Schism, ultimately resolved by the Council of Constance, and the Counter-Reformation lead by St. Ignatius. Hell, if the church had been capable of reforming itself and extracting it’s interest from Italian power politics during the onset of the Reformation, it could have held on to its Northern holdings and prevented the excision of the Church from public life. Pope Adrian VI, if he had lived, may have been able to accomplish these reforms in a moderate, gradual manner and preserved the unity of the Church. All of these movements were opposed by Conservative critics, and had those critics been heeded then the Church would have long ago faded into irrelevance. The man who ‘stands athwart history, yelling stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so’, is the man who dooms his cause to suicide should it heed him”

We will touch on a fair bit of that ecclesiastical history raised above in a later post! For now, our third post comes from this article. FYI, the article lists 5 challenges to the Church today:

“3. Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Rom 8:5-6 ESV”

—–.

In case it isn’t obvious, the reason I bolded various passages was because they were particularly poignant.

The modern Church is today fighting a losing rearguard action on socio-political issues. Abortion, gay marriage, celibacy, no sex before marriage. The Church launches moral edicts on high from the palaces of self-righteousness in Rome.  They stand athwart shouting for time to stop as the gears of time grind ever faster in an increasingly globalised world. But their voice resonates from their tower, and they can be heard. Every time the cry of political doctrine is sung, it is heard.

But every time that song rings through the air is a time the Church is not talking about love, kindness, virtue and social action. And when this song of love is not heard, the spiritual relevance of the Church declines. When instead of giving money to the poor and needy the Church issues rigid and cold declarations of social morays, the Church shuns the warmth and love that it should be propagating.

Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” I quoted earlier. And so it is. So when the Church descends from the higher calling of spirituality and morality and the mind of the Spirit, and falls into (losing) political battles, its relevance declines.

And as the Church becomes mired in politics and doctrine, its claim to spiritual superiority declines. Tales of paedophilia, corruption and more destroy any semblance of authority the Church has. And then the followers leave, and religion totally fades from public life. And this is tragic, for the thousands year old core messages of love, peace and kindness are wiped from the social fabric. Now, it is quite possible for any institution to develop such a message, but any ideology develops over time. The Church has had 2000 years to moderate itself. Other ideologies have not. Fascism and communism were but decades old when they contributed to WWII. We shall never eliminate people’s desire to follow something. Is it so good a thing that they follow political ideologies instead of a message of love and peace?

Here the Church is in a situation highly reminiscent of the Late Middle Ages. A fading focus on morality destroying the Church’s moral authority… while the Church increasingly tries to exercise political power as other powers rise. The Papacy was eclipsed in the Late Middle Ages, and rightly so. The Papacy had become merely a morally questionable player in the game of Italian power politics.

There is no reward for guessing the Church’s failure to modernise led it to lose its relevance in the Late Middle Ages. The question is, what will the Church do today? Will it end up following the history of the Late Middle Ages?

To explore the relevance of the Late Middle Ages to today, I’ll be tracing a (very) broad outline of ecclesiastical history from about 500 – 1500 AD this coming month. For now though, if anybody is interested in exploring the notion of a Church that has become cold and forgetful of the ‘true’ message of Christianity, I cannot recommend enough Jospeh Girzone’s works “Joshua” and his autobiographical “Never Alone”. I quote a discourse from the novel “Joshua”, emphasis mine:

“[It was never] intended that religion become what it is today. Jesus came to earth to try to free people from that kind of regimented religion where people are threatened if they don’t obey rules and rituals invented by the clergy. Jesus came to teach people that they are God’s children and, as God’s children, they are free, free to grow as human beings, to become beautiful people as God intended [our protagonist is deeply religious FYI]. That can’t be legislated. Jesus gave the apostles and the community as a support to provide help and guidance and consolation. Jesus did not envision bosses in the worldly sense. He wanted his apostles to guide and serve, not to dictate and legislate like those who govern this world. Unfortunately, religious leaders model themselves after civil government and treat people accordingly. In doing this they fall into the same trap that the scribes and Pharisees fell into, making religion a tangible set of measurable religious observances, which is legalistic and superficial. In doing this they become the focus of religious observance, rather than God, and it is their endless rules and their rituals rather than love of God and concern for others that occupy people’s attention

Takeaways for You

This post we’ve talked a fair bit about this great, imposing and grand institution that is the Church, and the profound trends affecting it in the modern day, as it seems to slip into irrelevancy, as if the 1400s had marched into the present All this seems like an interesting, perhaps entertaining tale… of absolutely no relevance to you, today.

That’s not the case. There are lessons for you:

  1. If you stand athwart as time marches, you shall crumble to dust. Act. Modernise.
  2. If your mind is forever on concerns like finance, forever shall your life plateau at ‘finance’. To reach a higher form of happiness, there must be loftier thoughts (that doesn’t necessarily mean religion, it could be Romanticist ideals, dreams you set etc.)
  3. As a leader or person, your power corresponds with your character – your word, your integrity, your ability to inspire. If your morality fades, so too will your power, just like the Church in the 1400s.
  4. It is living virtuously doing good, and not in prognosticating on theological technicalities, that you can make a difference.

Take these lessons, go forth, and create happiness, value and love for others. That’s your challenge for today.

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From → Foundations

3 Comments
  1. Although you say that the idea that science justifies weak atheism is stupid, I have a slightly different viewpoint, based off a simple scientific assumption – that the universe is governed by a set of laws. These laws can be expressed using maths, even if we do not know them all.

    Based off this assumption, I find it impossible to believe that should there be a god (I don’t necessarily dispute that there is a god, although I see no reason that there is one), due to the fundamental rules of the universe, no action I take such as prayer, going to church, or even believing in god, will change anything.

    • Matt,

      I saw your comment on my blog! Its seems like somebody is still reading all the stuff I post! Lets get to it:

      The main point I wish to stress is that those writers I quoted didn’t necessarily reflect *my* views, even if they raised some good points. The whole weak atheism point probably wasn’t explained well by me (as the poster I copied was originally dealing with *fundamentalist* Christian sects… context rears its head!) , but the point was more that many see theology and religion at odds, and that if the Church wishes to put itself as a mere scientific question, then it’ll never succeed, for the very reasons you list.

      A more technical point, but I think that actions like prayer and going to Church are not necessarily ‘useless’ *irrespective* of the existence of a God. Once might forge social connections at Church, Church could bring a community together, prayer might serve as a dialogue which calms a person… I’ve seen research slowly coming out showing that a lot of these old customs and rituals often have benefits (thats why they developed).

      Overall though, valid points Matt, and I’m nitpicking. I hope you enjoyed the other parts of the article, which were more the keystone of my writing!

      If you have any queries, I’m here to answer.

      • I completely agree with what you’re saying here on your points. If prayer is your meditation, or whatever, great, be religious and pray. If you want to forge social connections and you think going to church is the best way to do that, great (though I personally prefer playing board games :P)

        The only problems I really have with religion are illustrated here (I love the oatmeal). Obviously, it exaggerates some points slightly, though.
        http://theoatmeal.com/comics/religion

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