Monthly Archives: May 2009

The little way

“We all wish for recognition of one kind or another. But it is mass action people think of these days. They lose sight of the sacrament of the present moment — of the little way. [. . .] As St. Paul says, it is by little and by little that we are saved — or that we fall. We are living in this world and must make choices now, choices which may mean the sacrifice of our lives, in the future, but for now our goods, our reputations even. Our work is called futile, our stand of little worth or significance, having no influence, winning no converts, ineffective if not a form a treason. Or it is termed defeatism, appeasement, escapism.

“What a paradox it is, this natural life and this supernatural life. We must give up our lives to gain them; we must die to live; we must be pruned to bear fruit. Ah yes, when we are being called appeasers, defeatists, we are being deprived of our dearest goods — our reputation, honor, the esteem of men — and we are truly on the way to becoming the despised of the earth. We are beginning perhaps to be truly poor.

“We are trying to spread the gospel of peace, to persuade others to extend the peace movement, to build up a mighty army of conscientious objectors. And in doing this we are accounted fools, and it is the folly of the Cross in the eyes of an unbelieving world” (pp. 104-105).

— Dorothy Day, Selected Writings: By Little and By Little


The Life of St. Martin

The early church historian and theologian Sulpitius Severus (c. 363 – c. 425) is perhaps best known for his short exposition On the Life of St. Martin in which he chronicles early life, conversion, ministry, and teachings of Martin, Bishop of Tours (c. 316 – c. 397). In this book, Severus describes a formative moment in Martin’s life that acts as a kind of enacted exegetical parable, casting profound insights regarding the manifestation of the risen Christ in the merciful care for “the least of these” (Matt. 25.31-46). Severus’ account reads as follows:

Saint Martin of Tours“Accordingly, at a certain period, when [Martin] had nothing except his arms and his simple military dress, in the middle of winter, a winter which had shown itself more severe than ordinary, so that the extreme cold was proving fatal to many, he happened to meet at the gate of the city of Amiens a poor man destitute of clothing. He was entreating those that passed by to have compassion upon him, but all passed the wretched man without notice, when Martin, that man full of God, recognized that a being to whom others showed no pity, was, in that respect, left to him. Yet, what should he do? He had nothing except the cloak in which he was clad, for he had already parted with the rest of his garments for similar purposes. Taking, therefore, his sword with which he was girt, he divided his cloak into two equal parts, and gave one part to the poor man, while he again clothed himself with the remainder. Upon this, some of the by-standers laughed, because he was now an unsightly object, and stood out as but partly dressed. Many, however, who were of sounder understanding, groaned deeply because they themselves had done nothing similar. They especially felt this, because, being possessed of more than Martin, they could have clothed the poor man without reducing themselves to nakedness.

“In the following night, when Martin had resigned himself to sleep, he had a vision of Christ arrayed in that part of his cloak with which he had clothed the poor man. He contemplated the Lord with the greatest attention, and was told to own as his the robe which he had given. Ere long, he heard Jesus saying with a clear voice to the multitude of angels standing round — ‘Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.’ The Lord, truly mindful of his own words (who had said when on earth — ‘Inasmuch as ye have done these things to one of the least of these, ye have done them unto me’), declared that he himself had been clothed in that poor man; and to confirm the testimony he bore to so good a deed, he condescended to show him himself in that very dress which the poor man had received. After this vision the sainted man was not puffed up with human glory, but, acknowledging the goodness of God in what had been done, and being now of the age of twenty years, he hastened to receive baptism” (chapter 3).


Bearing wrongs willingly

“Until God ordains otherwise, a man ought to bear patiently whatever he cannot correct in himself and in others. Consider it better thus — perhaps to try your patience and to test you, for without such patience and trial your merits are of little account. Nevertheless, under such difficulties you should pray that God will consent to help you bear them calmly (Matt. 6.13).

“If, after being admonished once or twice, a person does not amend, do not argue with him but commit the whole matter to God that His will and honor may be furthered in all His servants (Matt. 6.10), for God knows well how to turn evil to good. Try to bear patiently with the defects and infirmities of others, whatever they may be, because you also have many a fault which others must endure (I Thess. 5.15; Gal. 6.1).

“If you cannot make yourself what you would wish to be, how can you bend others to your will? We want them to be perfect, yet we do not correct our own faults. We wish them to be severely corrected, yet we will not correct ourselves. Their great liberty displeases us, yet we would not be denied what we ask. We would have them bound by laws, yet we will allow ourselves to be restrained in nothing. Hence, it is clear how seldom we think of others as we do of ourselves.

“If all were perfect, what should we have to suffer from others for God’s sake? But God has so ordained, that we may learn to bear with one another’s burdens (Gal. 6.2), for there is no man without fault, no man without burden, no man sufficient to himself nor wise enough. Hence we must support one another, console one another, mutually help, counsel, and advise (I Cor. 12.25; I Thess. 5.14), for the measure of every man’s virtue is best revealed in time of adversity — adversity that does not weaken a man but rather shows what he is.”

— Thomas À. Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, chapter 16


Charity as conversation: Beyond the bounds of calculated exchange

“We could say that charity here also has to do with conversation — an activity that need not be productive, that presupposes mutual recognition, an activity in which ‘success’ is measured simply by the maintenance of the activity itself. Charity becomes visible where it is clear that bonds are treated as already established, not as always to be established; where it is assumed that the basic human position is not that of individuals uneasily making treaties with each other, but of exchanges of recognition, acknowledgements that within or alongside or against the world of calcuated cooperation — and calculated non-cooperation — is a realm where the possibility and reality of exchange and common concern are agreed or given beforehand” (pp. 71-72).

“In one sense, of course, charity celebrates a state that exists supremely in its own right, a state of pure converse on conversation, a social joy. But precisely as such, it exists beyond history and beyond what we can know, think or say about civil society and political society. It is ‘mythical’, though not in the sense of being some kind of pure projection or aspiration. The institution/ritual of charity tells us that to have a language to negotiate or quarrel in is already to presuppose the social miracle, the fact of linguistic sharing. Charity unconvers the bedrock of speech: sheer converse, the exchange of sounds in codified patterns and the peculiar exhilaration that attaches just to that. It affirms what it is in language that is ‘there’ before and after argument and context — which is not self-expression (a meaningless idea outside the frame of converse) but the possibility of recognition” (pp. 87-88).

— Rowan Wiliams, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement


The Myth of Religous Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

The Myth of Religous Violence - Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

After a long period of research, public debate, and several highly insightful article publications, William Cavanaugh is finally putting to print his work on the mythos of religious violence and the agressive rise of the nation-state. For over 15 years, Cavanaugh has written on and off on this topic. Perhaps most well known remain: ‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the StateKilling for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good, and Sins of Omission: What ‘Religion and Violence’ Arguments Ignore. According to Amazon, Cavanaugh’s new book is currently scheduled to be released this September.

It appears that Cavanaugh will be presenting a more nuanced engagement with the various themes raised by these (and other) earlier interventions. Put briefly, in his essay for the Radical Orthodoxy reader, Cavanaugh argues that “The soteriology of the modern state is incomprehensible [. . .] apart from the notion that the Church is perhaps the primary thing from which the modern state is meant to save us.” The so-called ‘Wars of Religion’ of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe acted as a key epoch in the larger mythos that gave rise to the creation of the state itself.

According to this standard narrative account:

“When the religious consensus of civil society was shattered by the Reformation, the passions excited by religion as such were loosed, and Catholics and the newly minted Protestants began killing each other in the name of doctrinal loyalties. [. . .] The modern secular state and the privatizations of religion were necessary, therefore, to keep the peace among warring religious factions” (“The City”, p. 188).

In response, Cavanaugh suggests

“The ‘Wars of Religion’ were not the events which necessitated the birth of the modern State; they were in fact themselves the birth-pangs of the State. These wars were not simply a matter of conflict between ‘Protestantism’ and ‘Catholicism,’ but were fought largely for the aggrandizement of the emerging State over the decaying remnants of the medieval ecclesial order” (“A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House”, p. 398).  

Therefore, in justifying the existence of the state based on this mythology, the social contract theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) fully endorsed and perpetuated the notion that it is necessary to (1) restore humanity to individuality, and (2) protect the individual from the violence of intolerant religion, personified concretely in the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, the state is supposed to save us from a violence that resulted from the process of its own formation.

Cavanaugh contends that the privatization of Christian practice was already well underway in the invention of the modern category of “religion” itself. In the Christian tradition of the Medieval Ages, religio was viewed not as a system of beliefs, but as virtue, one which  directs a person to God through the ethical and liturgical formation of members into the Church. However, in modernity religio was bifurcated from its ecclesial context and was slowly redefined: first as an internal universal impulse common to all, second as a propositional system of beliefs, third as demonstrable moral truths absent any particular theological, social, or ecclesial formation, and fourth, having been reduced from any material context other than the private conscience of the individual, religion was converted into a tool of state power. As Cavanaugh concludes,

“The concept of religion being born here is one of domesticated belief systems which are, insofar as it is possible, to be manipulated by the sovereign for the benefit of the State. Religion is no longer a matter of certain bodily practices within the Body of Christ, but is limited to the realm of the ‘soul,’ and the body is handed over to the State.”

In this way, “the creation of religion, and thus the privatization of the church, is correlative to the rise of the State” (“A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House”, p. 405).

Within many academic theological circles, this hypothesis has become somewhat of given presupposition. Of course, Cavanaugh’s project has not been without critics as well. However, to be fair while his articles have been powerful and compelling, they lack the space to fully ground the argument in the degree of historical specificity necessary to persuade those more expert in the field. Since he is going after a bedrock dogma surrounding the presumed origins of our contemporary western social imaginary, such a project demands a bit more attention to details.

In this light, Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence will very likely prove to be an extremely important book. Oxford University Press‘ descriptive blurb provides a clean summary of what we have to look forward to.

“The idea that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underlies many of our institutions and policies, from limits on the public role of religion to efforts to promote liberal democracy in the Middle East. William T. Cavanaugh challenges this conventional wisdom by examining how the twin categories of religion and the secular are constructed. A growing body of scholarly work explores how the category ‘religion’ has been constructed in the modern West and in colonial contexts according to specific configurations of political power. Cavanaugh draws on this scholarship to examine how timeless and transcultural categories of ‘religion and ‘the secular’ are used in arguments that religion causes violence. He argues three points: (1) There is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of political configurations of power; (2) Such a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion as non-rational and prone to violence is one of the foundational legitimating myths of Western society; (3) This myth can be and is used to legitimate neo-colonial violence against non-Western others, particularly the Muslim world.”


The eucharistic liturgy of Hippolytus

“We give thanks to you God, through your beloved child Jesus Christ, whom, in the last times, you sent to us as savior and redeemer and angel of your will, who is your inseparable Word through whom you made all things and who was well pleasing to you. You sent him from heaven into the womb of a virgin, and he was conceived and made flesh in the womb and shown to be your Son, born of the Holy Spirit and the virgin. He fulfilled your will and won for you a holy people, opened wide his hands when he suffered that he might set free from suffering those who believed in you. When he was handed over to voluntary suffering, in order to dissolve death and break the chains of the devil and harrow hell and illuminate the just and fix a boundary and manifest the resurrection, he took bread and giving thanks to you he said: take, eat, this is my body which will be broken for you. Likewise with the cup saying: this is my blood which is poured out for you. Whenever you do this, you perform my commemoration.

“Remembering therefore his death and resurrection, we offer you bread and cup, giving thanks to you because you have held us worthy to stand before you and minister to you as priest.

“And we ask that you should send your Holy Spirit on the presbytery of the holy church. Gathering us into one, may you grant to all the saints who receive for the fullness of the Holy Spirit, for the confirmation of their faith in truth, that we may praise and glorify you through your child Jesus Christ, through whom be glory and honor to you, with the Holy Spirit in your holy church both now and to the ages of the ages. Amen.”

– Hippolytus, On the Apostolic Tradition 4.4-13


Hippolytus, baptism, and good works

In On the Apostolic Tradition (an ancient manual exploring the daily life of the church), Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-c. 236) writes at some length about Christian baptism. He begins his account noting the length and seriousness of the preparation necessary for entry into church membership: “Catechumens should hear the word for three years. But if a man is keen and perseveres well in the matter, the length of time should not be considered but his manner alone should be considered” (17.1-2). During this period, the candidates for baptism are expected to be instructed and trained in virtue and godliness through the ministry of Scripture, gathering together with the saints, the life of prayer, and the performance of charity through good works.

At the moment, I’m less concerned here with the theological points raised regarding baptism, prayer, or catechisms in general. However, what I do find particularly fascinating about Hippolytus’ account is the central place afforded to the works of mercy. Of those catechumens to be baptized, Hippolytus writes, “When those who are to receive baptism are chosen their lives should be examined; whether they lived uprightly as catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited the sick, whether they were thorough in performing good works; and if those who brought them bear witness that they have acted thus, so they should hear the Gospel” (20.1-2). This passage can function as a helpful commentary on where to place the question of mercy in the context of liturgy and the Christian life. Beneath the surface rests a certain interrogation: What constitutes a righteous life? What kind of habits rightly follow from a faithful willingness to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and King? What practices flow forth from a radical encounter with the living God of whom Scripture testifies and bears witness? For Hippolytus caring for widows and orphans, the homeless and the sick, the aged and the forgotten, even “the very least of these,” makes the candidate suitable for membership into Christ’s body precisely because such an ethic is literally woven into the very fabric of the church’s being. These practices are not anomalies, supplements, or garnishes to the life of faith. They define its tangibility. They are simply what one does if one is to receive the name Christian. One might even go so far as to say that, viewed in this light, Hauerwas might be right: the church is (rather than has) a social ethic.

Describing the movement (or enfolding) of persons into the church, Hippolytus turns his attention onto the baptismal rite. Having renounced evil, received the gifts of baptism by water and the Eucharist itself, the catechumens are sent Hippolytusforth from the font with the following charge: “And when these things are done, let each hurry to do good works, to please God and to live properly, being devoted to the church, putting into action what he has learnt and progressing in piety” (21.38). Herein, Hippolytus identifies the work of the faithful with the practice of mercy. These acts in preparation for baptism are now to be carried forward as manifestations of the newness of life made possible through the power of the Spirit and to the eternal glory of the Father. Likewise, the liturgical context of “good works” is made more explicit. These works are not simply random acts of kindness nor instants of a disinterested material philanthropy, but a performative extension of grace – received from God and offered back to God through our mutual participation in divine charity. By dying with Christ in the water and being raised to newness of life through the vivifying indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the catechumens able to offer their very bodies to God as “living sacrifices” and “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 12.1, 6.13). As the work of the people (i.e. liturgy), such bodily practices of grace are inseparable from the transformed life of worshipful devotion to the Triune God. An ethic of faith is nothing short of an ethic of action; both of these belong to the order of worship.

As a final comment, it is worth noting that the agency of grace alone grounds our worth and invokes from us a responsive thankfulness. We do not declare ourselves worthy of such things; we are always made worthy through the bountiful gifts of God. Hippolytus writes, “Lord God, you have made them worthy to deserve the remission of sins through the laver of regeneration: make them worthy to be filled with the Holy Spirit, send your grace upon them that they may serve you in accordance with your will; for to you is glory, to the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit in the holy church both now and to the ages of the ages. Amen” (21.21).