Thursday, May 17, 2012

Orthodoxy

Continuing to read Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Again from his Prologue, he describes much of what C.S. Lewis called "mere Christianity":
This consensus includes the basic dogmas of the faith: Christ's incarnation and atonement, the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of everlasting life. It includes a belief in the divine inspiration and authority of a particular set of sacred scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, with no additional revelations added on and nothing papered over or rejected. It includes an adherence to the moral vision encoded in the Ten Commandments and expanded and deepened in the New Testament: a rejection of violence and cruelty, a deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power, and a heavy stress on chastity. It includes a commitment to the creeds of the ancient world—Nicene, Apostolic, Athanasian—and to the idea that a church, however organized and governed, should guarantee and promulgate them. And it includes the idea of orthodoxy—the belief that there exists "a faith once delivered to the saints," and that the core of Christianity is an inheritance from the first apostles, rather than being something that every believer can and should develop for himself.

What defines this consensus, above all—what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta—is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes all our understanding.

Thus orthodox Christians insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil. They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and yet somehow also essentially good, with the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew. They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical to the New Testament's God of love and mercy. They claim that this same God sets impossible moral standards and yet forgives every sin. They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead. And they propose a vision of holiness that finds room in God's Kingdom for all the extremes of human life—fecund families and single-minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.

Time and again, in the early centuries Anno Domini, the councils of the Church had the opportunity to resolve the dilemmas and shore up the fragile syntheses—to streamline Christianity, rationalize it, minimize the paradoxes and the difficulties, make it more consistent and less mysterious. They could have joined the movement that we call Gnosticism in attempting to minimize the problem of theodicy—of how a good God can allow evil to endure—by simply declaring this pain-filled world the work of a foolish or wicked demigod, and portraying Jesus as an emissary from a more perfect deity than the one who made our wounded earth. They could have fallen in line behind the second-century theologian Marcion's perfectly reasonable attempt to resolve the tensions between the Gospels and the Hebrew scriptures by abandoning Christianity's Jewish roots entirely. They could have listened to the earnest British moralist Pelagius instead of to Saint Augustine, and replaced the mysteries of grace and original sin with the more commonsensical vision of a God whose commandments can be obeyed through straightforward exertion.

In each instance, and in many more as well, they chose the way of mystery instead—or else they were bullied and arm-twisted into it, by mobs and emperors and polemicizing intellectuals. The process seemed haphazard at the time, but in hindsight it looks providential. In the choices they made and the arguments they rejected, the Fathers of the Church forged a faith whose doctrines speak to the intuition, nearly universal among human beings, that the true nature of the world will always remain just beyond our grasp. But they accomplished this without surrendering to an unintelligible mysticism or a crude anti-intellectualism. Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest Christian paradox of all—that the world's most paradoxical religion has cultivated rationalism and scientific rigor more diligently than any of its rivals....
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, 2012.