Monday, October 17, 2005

What is Christian Liberty For?

Over the summer I was reminded of how central "Christian freedom" is to cultural praxis among Christians today and how carefully this intensely powerful doctrine must be used, by the notorious cremation wars on Bunnie Diehl’s weblog (see posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, all with long comment strings), and an article (now only available for pay) in Leadership discussed by the iMonk. I was reading Nick Lane’s Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World and I was struck by his refrain that oxygen as a molecule is simultaneously the most powerful energy source for life, yet also in untreated form a ferocious toxin. Handling, buffering, transporting, and yet finally releasing the awesome energy bound up in oxygen’s electron-grabbing power is what life is, chemically, almost all about. The same is true for liberty in the Christian life.

The first question is, what is Christian liberty for? Let’s go back to Paul. Paul’s teaching of Christian liberty, as enunciated in his famous chapters in Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Colossians, is primarily occasioned by the need to integrate two different cultures in one church: Jewish and Gentile. (This is not to say that cultural integration within one church is the only possible use of Christian liberty, but that was the occasion for its scriptural enunciation.) These two cultures differed in their calendar (Jews observed lunar months and sabbaths [i.e. Saturday], while Gentiles had only the Roman solar calendar and pagan festivals), eating habits (Jews had access to kosher butchers and could eat meat, but Gentile Christians had access only to pagan butchers who dedicated their victims to the pagan gods and hence found meat-eating problematic), and bodily care (Jews circumcised, Gentiles didn’t).

Paul attacks at length the most obvious wrong "solution" to this bicultural church: take the customs of the older brothers in the faith and make them normative for the new Gentile Christians as well. This is the Judaizing trend. This is where Paul does most of his theological heavy lifting. Food, drink, calendars, rituals such as circumcision - - all of these items which together make up what anthropologists define as culture - - are declared irrelevant to righteousness. Culture is excluded not just from justification (even common human morality, known to all, is excluded from that) but also to sanctification, in which the commandments of God are central.

At the same time, however, Paul explicitly rejects the other posssible solution: impose the freer, less ritualistic cultural pattern of the majority culture on the over-scrupulous minority. He thus explicitly allows the continued observance of Jewish cultural practices by Jewish Christians: circumcision, and observance of Saturday sabbath in addition to the Sunday church meetings. But Paul’s approval is conditioned on 1) relativizing these rituals as a part of Jewish religious culture, not absolutizing it as a moral commandment, and 2) on it being practiced only by those for whom it was communally appropriate; i.e. Jewish Christians.

Thus Paul divides religion into three elements: 1) faith in Christ which is beyond culture and absolute, and which alone is involved in justification; 2) the law or works, which is likewise beyond culture, determined by the intent, not the outward act, but which is involved only in sanctification, not justification; and finally 3) religious culture. This category (a.k.a. adiaphoron in Lutheran theological debates), involves outward acts of eating or not eating meat, drinking or not drinking liquor, resting or not resting on Saturday, or circumcising or not circumcising one’s boys. Religious culture is relative to particular Christian subgroups (as defined by ethnicity), and is not part of the commandments but is - - and this is the part too often missed - - a mode of expressing in one’s bodily works the commandments of God. Thus one man may eat to the Lord, giving thanks, or abstain, giving thanks as well. Contrary to popular interpretation, Paul is not hostile to religious culture as such. Uncircumcision is no more holy than circumcision, but neither is anything in sanctification.

Since, however, each culture expresses in its religious culture these commandments in somewhat different ways, Paul had to warn against "short circuits" in which an act meant one way in one cultural context, is wrongly interpreted by other Christians according to another cultural context, and so seems to violate or misunderstand the commandments of God. Paul’s path for the bicultural church thus demanded for its working an explicit consciousness of culture as culture, as something separate from religion and the commands of God. Gentile Christians had to be aware that their Jewish brothers observing a sabbath were doing so not as an observance of the sabbath-keeping commandment, but in observance of Jewish culture (otherwise Jewish culture will be imposed on Gentile culture). Jewish Christians likewise had to be aware that Christ’s abrogation of the sabbath as a type of His rest did not mean that sabbath-keeping was inherently wrong (otherwise Gentile culture will be imposed on Jewish culture). Paul’s prime concern was not the preservation of culture for its own sake (although he certainly was a proud and patriotic Jew), but the preservation of the distinction between culture and what he calls the law of Christ or the commandments of God. Practically, a right understanding of what the Law is or isn’t required early Christians to preserve the bi-cultural nature of the Christian community.

Unfortunately by around AD 400, this sophisticated theory of culture and morality had been largely abandoned. In place of the bi-cultural model of Christian religious life that separated religious culture from the commandments of God, a new enculturated form of the commandments of God was made obligatory on all Christians. This time, however, the community doing the imposing was the Gentile Christians. The clearest sign of this new monoculture was that circumcision and Saturday sabbath-keeping were declared un-Christian. Jerome’s commentaries on Paul’s epistles codified the new reading in which Paul had really been making only temporary concessions to Jewish Christians, and that the law of Christ really meant the compulsory adoption of Gentile Christian religious culture. This religious culture, precisely because it was a religious monoculture could not longer be distinguished from the commandments of God. Since all Christians had the same ways in food, drink, time regulation, and treatment of the body, none of these things, which together make up culture, could be easily distinguished any more from God’s universal morality. Paul’s teaching of Christian freedom essentially disappeared, because in a monocultural Christian world, its original function had become obsolete.

By the late Middle Ages, however, the teaching of Christian freedom came up again, but in a new context. Here, it was the distinction between those things commanded on the authority of God and those commanded on the authority of the church, particularly the Pope. Late medieval theologians were virtually unanimous is saying that while the Pope could make rules of good order (contempt of which was a sin), he could not actually make new divine commandments (see more on this topic here). To violate what the Pope commanded was not inherently sinful in the way that violating a divine command was (such as blaspheming or stealing). The moral sin in violating the commands of the Pope was simply despising the Church as a moral authority. Despite this seeming clarity, however, the late medieval church was seeing a vast upsurge in knowledge of church history which rendered it unclear on what basis any given prohibition was based. Communion in one kind, priestly celibacy, marriage as a sacrament, the distinction of bishops and priests: papal prohibition or apostolic command? Arguments on both sides raged in the fifteenth century.

Luther’s assertion of Christian liberty thus had four primary points. First, it was part of his recovery of the Gospel to reemphasize that neither law nor religious culture had any role in justification. This well-known first step in the dethroning of religious praxis from one’s standing before God did not directly involve any distinction between the commandments of God and religious culture.

Secondly, Luther used the on-going recovery of church history and his own reading of Scripture to argue persuasively that on virtually all the disputed church issues, the party arguing for a post-apostolic innovation were correct.

Thirdly, Luther used Paul’s concept of religious culture before his excommunication to relativize papal commands and develop a way for evangelicals to live within the Catholic Church. Before 1521, he treated communion in one kind, for example, on the analogy of Paul’s treatment of circumcision: some may do it as their tradition, but it is in itself an indifferent matter. While the Hussites should be allowed to take the cup because that has become their own Czech tradition, German evangelicals should accept that they will be deprived of it. Observing or not observing such traditions was not part of God’s commandments but instead part of the religious culture in which they had grown up and as such morally indifferent. While Luther treated such observances as something to be tolerated, he saw positive church legislation on the question to be illegitimate and an usurpation of power. After his excommunication, Luther revised his opinion on some aspects of religious culture, shifting communion in two kinds, for example, into the divine command category. But the concept of religious culture (what at the time was called adiaphoron) was still relevant: Sunday rest, the liturgy, religious art all fell into this category.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, Luther explicitly repudiated Jerome’s reading of Paul, rejecting his assertion that circumcision for Messianic Jews had become unlawful under the New Covenant. Essential to Luther’s claim that the law which Paul had criticized as death-dealing was exactly the moral law, this avowal that the practice of Jewish customs as customs was licit in the New Covenant, was unfortunately not followed up. For historical reasons, Christian religious culture remained largely a mono-culture, to which new converts, Jewish, American Indian, or African, were expected to convert. But the doctrine of adiaphora and Christian freedom established, however theoretically, a difference between religious culture and the commandments of God, and a reestablishment of the principle that the church may recommend, but not command, the former.

Scrolling forward to the late twentieth century, one would think we are now experiencing a new birth of Christian freedom. Cultural differences and cultural preservation are being validated as an inherent good as never before. Consciousness about cultural differences and cultural relativism is at a high level. Messianic Judaism as a movement that self-consciously refuses any more to blend into the Gentile Christian mainstream has made the issues Paul raised in his letters salient once more. Yet ironically, the teaching of Christian freedom that is deployed supposedly to validate cultural diversity I contend has the practical effect of destroy cultural specificities and establish a world-wide Christian mono-culture: informal, egalitarian, democratic, and unfilial, prizing "authenticity" and "sincerity" above all. To follow the analogy I started with, something has gone wrong in our cellular chemistry, a chemical chain has been broken and the powerful yet lethal free radicals have been cut loose from their chemical holding pens and are now rampaging around inside the cell, turning long-standing cultural DNA into un-decipherable junk.

If you read the articles I linked to above, you will notice that both turn centrally on a type of issue which did not concern Luther or Paul: what happens when people within a culture (as defined by ethnicity/ancestry) begin to challenge that culture’s symbolic meanings (not church ordinances). One involved the issue of baseball caps in church: some boys, with their parents’ support, wanted to wear them into church after sports practice. The pastor assented, citing "Christian liberty", the other church members objected, the pastor eventually asked the boys to make peace by complying, and the boys’ family left the church in a huff. The other involved cremation vs. inhumation (burial) and turned on whether there was or was not some inherent link between the symbolism of inhumation and the doctrine of the resurrection. In both of these conflicts, we have a symbolic action which has traditionally been strongly linked to a belief in Christian European culture (doffing the hat signals respect, burying the body signifies "sleep until the resurrection"). We also have a party, however, who reject that symbolic equation and insist that the symbolic action does not actually have any definite meaning at all. Wearing a baseball hat in church means . . . exactly nothing. It may mean disrespect to you, but it doesn’t to me, and Christian freedom means you should not impose your scrupulous interpretation of it on me.

The practical result of this reasoning is to make cultural difference illegitimate. How so? We need to remember first that culture is inherited symbolic meanings and classifications. For examples, in American culture dogs are pets, pigs are farm animals, and pets are not eaten, while farm animals are. In Korean culture, dogs and steers are both farm animals, and farm animals are eaten, and so both are eaten. Despite what Americans think, there is no rational basis on which the allocation of the dog to the pet category can be defended. Roughly speaking, dogs and cattle are equally intelligent, social, sensitive to pain, and so on. If you ask, why can’t we eat dog meat, no answer can be given, except the we just don’t do that answer. And this appeal is essentially an appeal to antiquity understood as authority: we haven’t done it that way. In other words, a particular culture is preserved only if the younger generation can be persuaded or compelled to adopt the symbolic meanings and classifications given by the older generation.

At this point the first conclusion is clear: while Paul’s version of Christian freedom was intended specifically to allow Jewish and Gentile elders in the church to enculturate their juniors while maintaining unity as Christians, the contemporary version of Christian culture is intended to prevent elders in the church (of any culture) from enculturating their juniors, and hence preserving, their religious culture. This block on enculturation is held to be necessary for Christian unity. (Elder here is used not in any specific church office sense, but simply in the literal sense.)

Now one might think that if no culture is imposed, then won’t cultural diversity increase? But to think so would be unpardonably naive. Let’s go back to the dog and steer comparison. Recently Korean youth have begun to classify dogs as house pets and find eating dog meat repulsive. Americans have not yet, however, come to feel that steers are pets and that eating them is repulsive. One might wonder why this is so - - is it confirmation that dogs are inherently less edible than steers (in all but brute size)? Hardly: it is confirmation that the United States is bigger, richer, and has more cultural "gravity" than Korea.

This is the missing factor in the cremation and ball-cap debate. Contrary to the "play dumb" attitude of those playing the "Christian freedom" card in these cases, nobody just ups one day and says, "I see no logical reason why wearing hats equals respect; it is arbitrary and therefore it is contrary to Christian freedom for me to follow such regulations." Rather culturally significant decisions are made for reasons. Some people wear ball caps in church to project a particularly look (or to put it differently, to identify with a set of symbolic attributes associated with attractive forms of power and respect.) Some people adopt cremation because they want to show the world they don’t believe in the resurrection. Others wear ball caps because otherwise their hair would look unattractive. Others adopt cremation because burial is more expensive. For whatever reason, the fact is cultural signs are negated, dogs are treated as pets, kids wear ball caps in church, people ask to have their bodies cremated for reasons, reasons in which the assymetrical power relationship between communities (such as powerful and wealthy celebrities vs. odd, slightly goofy church people) play a key role. The cultural playing field is tilted, and to prevent the elder generation from enculturating the juniors is to ensure the domination of the wealthier, more self-confident of the cultures available. Ironically the result of this new deployment of "Christian freedom" is to create exactly the kind of Christian monoculture which Paul’s deployment of Christian freedom was intended to prevent. Whether the small culture is Lutheran liturgical worship adrift in a sea of megachurches with guitars, or Omahas trying to interest their children in their language, the cultural race will inevitably be to the strong if "Christian freedom" is deployed to abrogate any right of elders to expect their youth to conform.
So what are the lessons?

1) Christian freedom is first and foremost a freedom to conform, to conform to the powers that be in your bodies without conforming in your soul.

2) Ethnocentrism is indeed a problem—identifying one’s assimilated religious culture with the commandments of God—but not the most fundamental one: the most fundamental one is to assume that "divinely commanded" and "entirely arbitrary" are the only two possibilities. If that’s true, then the alternative to ethnocentrism is a nihilistic skepticism about cultural practice, which in turn offers no check toward gravitation to the lifestyles of the advantaged, whether by wealth, by knowledge, or by freedom. This in turn leads to the monoculture that ironically feeds a new ethnocentrism.

3) Hence, the proper deployment of Christian freedom demands awareness of culture, and especially of religious culture, as something that is not a divine command, and yet is capable of being an expression of ethical action. That cultural reflexivity is difficult, if not impossible, to nurture in the absence of multiple cultures coexisting within the Christian church.

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