NOVEMBER 18 2017
CAN WE STILL DO IT?
It is beyond any doubt that we live in a world totally at war against Creation, the ultimate work of art which God called good after each phase, and very good once it was completed.
It is now deteriorating at a clip unique in the millions of years of its gradual evolution. Its pace of degeneration has culminated in a state where today in Bonn, Germany the nations of the world are meeting to assess the damage and devise ways to stop our earth from choking on its own excrement and are unable to do so. After 23 meetings solely concerned with Climate issues, the poisons are still rising.
Of course, the church knew the outcome all along even though it now ignores it. In my youth every Sunday one sermon of the two was on the Heidelberg Catechism. In it the preacher drilled into my sub-consciousness that I was a ‘born sinner, corrupt from conception on’. Oh my….
So, following that logic, this stern command made sense: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues.”
CAN WE STILL DO IT?
That’s the question I struggle with.
The rich see the writing on the wall, and have bought their retreats. Some, like the Amish, never became part of modernity, while the poor in Asia and Africa never did have the chance to indulge in Western culture because, thanks to us they have droughts and floods, degraded soils and overpopulation which will prevent the basically innocent African and Asian population from becoming self-sufficient again.
CAN WE STILL DO IT?
The poet T.S. Eliot predicted that, after the disintegration of Western society, civilization would be conserved and restored by a new monastic movement. He wrote this almost 100 years ago when the world was still underpopulated by today’s standards, and basically pristine.
Eliot knew his history and being acquainted with the events at the end of the fifth century, knew how in Benedict’s day, the once-great Roman Empire had collapsed into chaos. He knew how, through economic disaster, famine, plague, moral decadence and political corruption, the society was on edge and vulnerable, as Barbarians invaded Rome from the north and east, sensing lucrative spoils to be had. So Benedict of Nursia, experiencing the decay of the Empire, established small communities of men and women dedicated to prayer, work and study.
Fine, that was 1500 years ago, when the Western World still could retreat into fortified settlements, exist on local produce, and people had high regard for the Clergy who had sold themselves as The People of God with answers people believed to be true. The GADFAEL series written by Ellis Peters, set in the 12th Century in England, portrayed a society that was sustainable where the religious retreats were an integral part of society and all people adhered to one faith.
Today a BENEDICT movement is becoming popular fueled by a book on that topic. My question is whether something similar can be undertaken today, a time somewhat resembling the Fall of Rome.
Actually the situation is far worse because today the natural elements also are in uproar, with hurricanes inflicting major damage, with droughts and floods and earthquakes increasingly molesting minds and mortar. Can the nations – now gathering in Bonn, Germany, COP 23 – prevent an increase in CO2 emissions, as the Gods of our Age demand more and more goods and greater and greater luxuries?
Will there be popular movements to halt ‘progress’? Will people, the many millions who know the score, band together and vouch to cut consumption, live within the means of nature and so preserve creation?
Well, I’ll tell you right now: it ain’t gonna to happen. We will continue our destructive ways till the very end.
We have advanced 1500 years beyond the collapse of Rome, which brought on what the history books call THE DARK AGES. Then, indeed, monasteries and convents were instrumental in preserving civilizations and slowly prepared the populace for the MIDDLE AGES.
The designation “Middle Ages” tells a story: it resembles the normal life cycle: Birth, Youth, Middle Age, Old Age, Death. Our civilization has seen birth, experienced Middle Age and now is dying and in the throngs of Death.
Not too long ago Pope Benedict XVI – who retired to make place for the present Pope Francis – predicted:
“From today’s crisis will emerge a Church that has lost a great deal. … It will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity. The reduction in the number of faithful will lead to it losing an important part of its social privileges. It will start off with small groups and movements and a minority that will make faith central to experience again. It will be a more spiritual Church and will not claim a political mandate flirting with the right one minute and the left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute.”
Surely a somber message from the man who was Pope just a few years ago.
Another Roman Catholic priest predicted that,
“A “Benedict Option” would undermine clericalism in a positive and creative way. There would be natural renewal of worship, religious education and service based on the needs of the local community rather than top-down “good ideas” by diocesan bureaucrats.”
That’s realistic talk in our days of growing estrangement from religion, at the very time when, paradoxically, the only hope is religion, of the all-encompassing kind. Fact is that the Church of Rome, and all denominations, sees the future strictly in religious terms. There’s no creational aspect to what the clergy sees as the future, that biblical notion so beautifully expressed in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness there of”, has not become a truth for the church in general.
That something is astir, however, was strikingly featured in the NEW YORK TIMES a few weeks ago. The headline said:
Are Christians Supposed to Be Communists?
I know that Communists have a bad name. A long time ago, in my schooldays I was told that the difference between a Christian and a Communist is that a Christian believes that All That is Mine is Yours while a Communist says All that is Yours is Mine.
David Bentley Hart in his NYT article maintained that the early Christians lived a common life and voluntarily enjoyed a community of possessions.
There`s no doubt that Acts 2 tells us that in Jerusalem the first converts to the proclamation of the risen Christ affirmed their new faith by living in a single dwelling, selling their fixed holdings, redistributing their wealth “as each needed” and owning all possessions communally. This was, after all, a pattern Jesus himself had established: “Each of you who does not give up all he possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
Jesus lived that ideal. When Jesus came to earth, forever to retain the status of both God and Human, he could have been a human being of any description, stature, degree and condition; and yet he chose to be poor. The English poet Christopher Harvey said of him in the seventeenth century:
It was Thy Choice, whilst Thou on Earth didst stay, And hadst not whereupon Thy Head to lay.
David Bentley Hart wrote: “Down the centuries, Christian culture has largely ignored the more provocative features of the early church or siphoned off their lingering residues in small special communities (such as monasteries and convents). Even when those features have been acknowledged, they have typically been treated as somehow incidental to the Gospel’s message — a prudent marshaling of resources against a hostile world for a brief season, but nothing essential to the faith, and certainly nothing amounting to a political philosophy.”
Hart struggled with the Greek words that contained the word “koinon,” or “common,” and most especially the texts’ distinctive emphasis on “koinonia,” a word usually rendered blandly as “fellowship” or “sharing” or (slightly better) “communion.” “But, he wondered,” is that all it implies? After all, the New Testament’s condemnations of personal wealth are fairly unremitting and remarkably stark: Matthew 6:19-20, for instance (“Do not store up treasures for yourself on the earth”), or Luke 6:24-25 (“But alas for you who are rich, for you have your comfort”) or James 5:1-6 (“Come now, you who are rich, weep, howling out at the miseries that are coming for you”). While there are always clergy members and theologians swift to assure us that the New Testament condemns not wealth but its abuse, not a single verse (unless subjected to absurdly forced readings) confirms the claim.
Hart came to the conclusion that koinonia often refers to a precise set of practices within the early Christian communities, a special social arrangement — the very one described in Acts — that was integral to the new life in Christ.
Hart also wrote, “When, for instance, the Letter to the Hebrews instructs believers not to neglect koinonia, or the First Letter to Timothy exhorts them to become koinonikoi, this is no mere recommendation of personal generosity, but an invocation of a very specific form of communal life. As best we can tell, local churches in the Roman world of the apostolic age were essentially small communes, self-sustaining but also able to share resources with one another when need dictated. This delicate web of communes constituted a kind of counter-empire within the empire, one founded upon charity rather than force — or, better, a kingdom not of this world but present within the world nonetheless, encompassing a radically different understanding of society and property.”
The early Christians were different, totally different. All around them Paganism prevailed. Then Christians expected Christ to return any minute, so their notion of possessions was different: they saw themselves as transient tenants of a rapidly vanishing world, refugees passing lightly through a history not their own.
Hart writes, “Well into the second century, the pagan satirist Lucian of Samosata reported that Christians viewed possessions with contempt and owned all property communally. And the Christian writers of Lucian’s day largely confirm that picture: Justin Martyr, Tertullian and the anonymous treatise known as the Didache all claim that Christians must own everything in common, renounce private property and give their wealth to the poor. Even Clement of Alexandria, the first significant theologian to argue that the wealthy could be saved if they cultivated “spiritual poverty,” still insisted that ideally all goods should be held in common.”
“As late as the fourth and fifth centuries, bishops and theologians as eminent as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria felt free to denounce private wealth as a form of theft and stored riches as plunder seized from the poor. The great John Chrysostom frequently issued pronouncements on wealth and poverty that make Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin sound like timid conservatives. According to him, there is but one human estate, belonging to all, and those who keep any more of it for themselves than barest necessity dictates are brigands and apostates from the true Christian enterprise of charity. And he said much of this while installed as Archbishop of Constantinople.”
That was then: a sharp difference between Christianity and paganism.
Today whatever is left of Christianity is basically indistinguishable from society at large. Actually the majority of church people have no earthly expectations anymore as heaven is the goal. Care for the earth is seen as New Age, a sort of modern paganism. Christ’s return to earth as THE ESSENCE OF HUMANITY, has been replaced with RAPTURE, a miraculous fetching up to heaven to leave the sinful earth to its deserved destruction.
CAN WE STILL DO IT?
What is the tiny remnant to do in these last days? Those who look forward to Christ’s coming and his New Creation, the Kingdom to come for which he gave his life?
Can we still choose the BENEDICT option? Can we still form religious communities, holding all things in common, at a time when we are so individualistic, so rich, so spoiled, so enraptured and en-captured by technology?