Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Christendom and Christianity, Part II

There is certainly a sense in which execution might be done [1]; we might turn vengeance into sacrifice. It is dangerous, but it could be done. … We should say, in effect: ‘We have no right to punish you for what you have done in the past. But we are determined that we shall make it dangerous for men to do as you have done; we shall make it a matter of death. We shall sacrifice you to that new thing …’ The shedding of that blood would be a pronunciation of sentence against us and our children if we denied or disobeyed the law we had newly made. ‘It is good,’ said Caiaphas, and spoke a truth all civil governments have been compelled to maintain—and ecclesiastical also; why else were heretics condemned?—‘that one man should die for the people.’ … Whether it is conceded outside the Church is another matter. But she herself must not tamper with it. Those who sincerely reject the Single Sacrifice may perhaps be driven back on the many types of it, even if—no, because the centrality of all the types is unacknowledged. But belief in the Single must refuse the multiplicity.

—Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins

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It may sound oxymoronic to assert that Christian principles are necessarily in tension with any society built upon Christian principles. But then, the very word oxymoron literally means ‘a sharp foolishness’—as in something that seems stupid at first glance but is actually quite practical or profound. For instance: tungsten has one of the highest melting points of any element, and due to this very little is known about liquid tungsten, for the terribly silly-sounding reason that nobody’s figured out how to make a container to hold it in.

Building a society on Christian principles is, I expect, possible, as it’s probably possible in principle to make a container that will hold liquid tungsten. [2] But history and theory alike suggest that both operations are insanely difficult, and apt to result in a lot of people getting burnt.

I do want to do full justice to Christendom. Our forefathers from Constantine to Chesterton were trying to build, maintain, and defend something that they were deeply convinced was good and right; and not a few among them were saints and heroes, some displaying the kind of grace that puts modern liberals like myself to shame. If they failed—or even if they succeeded and yet it would have been better otherwise—it was not for want of sincere goodwill. I make no secret of the fact that I, personally, think that the attempt to construct Christendom was a fatal mistake; but it was a very natural, plausible, persuasive mistake to make, and it did good as well as harm.

This paradox of Christendom-against-Christianity springs from what society, as such, consists in. Civil society is built on the persons, families, conventions, laws, and governments of the commonwealth in question. Its ‘economy’ is primarily the economy of justice: obligations are distinguished from liberties by enforcement—e.g., paying one’s taxes is an obligation, whereas making charitable donations (even those that may be relevant to taxes) is not. And where obligations end, the state’s power of enforcement ends. Cultural expectations, personal convictions, or individual relationships, may introduce other kinds of pressure, but law and the enforcement of law are ultimately synonymous. [3]

This is quite pointedly not the economy of the Church operates on. She accepts its existence, obviously, as she continues to accept the existence of gravity when celebrating the Ascension; indeed, the economy she does operate on is comprehensible only when the economy of justice has first been grasped, as the Ascension can only be recognized as something remarkable once we’ve noticed gravity. But the essential character of the Church is the economy of grace; of gift; of that which transcends, eludes, and defies obligation. Grace—that is, being filled with the life of God—is not only far past the just deserts of such selfish and flawed beings as ourselves, it’s past what any creature, however, good, could deserve from its creator. We could no more merit grace than a perfect sculpture could merit a sincere proposal of marriage from the sculpture; but our God has proposed to be not only Pygmalion, but Aphrodite to our Galatea.

This is part of which the relationship between St John the Baptist and Christ was, and remains, so important. Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. All the virtues of the ancient world were becoming parodies of themselves, from the stubborn piety of the Jews to the vigilant equity of the Romans. The re√ęstablishment of the visible ideal of justice was necessary, if the grace that transcends justice was to be seen for what it was by anybody. But when once that ideal of justice had been re-manifested, it was promptly transcended by the gospel. Where the Baptist commanded tax farmers not to defraud anyone, Christ told his listeners to chase after those who had requisitioned their property in order to give the thieves more; where the Baptist forbade soldiers to bully and harass the populace, Christ told those who were humiliatingly struck to peaceably invite a fresh blow. Free, wild, irresponsible self-gift, not to fellow Christians but to fellow men as such, friend or foe or stranger, is the ethic of the gospel.

And it is probably pretty obvious why you cannot build a civil society on that sort of principle. Generosity and forgiveness and pacifism and mercy—in a word, grace—can be lived out within a society built on justice. But you cannot build an economy of justice out of the elements of grace. The attempt to do so corrupts both: either justice will be treated as a gift, as though we did not owe it to our fellow man to respect his humanity by not murdering him or robbing him or lying to him; or grace will be treated as an obligation, not only in supernatural but in civil terms, and things that ought to be accepted as gifts will be demanded as payment.

I think, however, that the difference here is that all exclusion from the economy of grace is self-exclusion. Refusal to forgive is not punished by refusal of forgiveness, in the sense that refusal to pay a debt is punished by imprisonment. [4] Rather, refusal to forgive inevitably entails a rejection of the economy of grace, in the sense that refusal to eat and drink inevitably entails death. The refusal of grace places us squarely back in the economy of justice—where everything must be earned if we are to obtain it. And, considering that we depend on God to sustain every aspect of our existence, dealing with him in the economy of justice is a Sisyphean prospect.

Hence, no matter how good the intentions of those who wish to build Christendom, and even no matter how good their results, I think the project of building it is flawed as a matter of first premises. I don’t believe there can be any kingdom of heaven except the kingdom of heaven; I don’t believe that we can erect any Christian society except that which is in fact ruled by Christ. And that will come—but when it does, it’s the end of the world. Nonetheless there are other problems I have with Christendom, which I propose to go into in my next.

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[1] Williams wrote this during the Second World War, and was addressing what was to be done with, or to, or about Germany by the Allies.

[2] I mean, one that will hold it and not immediately melt and/or catch fire.
[3] This is, in my opinion, substantially the same as what Dante wrote in On Monarchy, that non enim jus extenditur ultra posse (‘law does not extend beyond power,’ i.e. you can only really have laws as far as you can enforce them).
[4] At least, I think this analogy is misleading, in our specific cultural context; but I could be wrong even about that, and whether I am or not, it is an analogy that our Lord did not hesitate to use in his cultural context.

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