Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Fiery Furnace

It is requir’d
You do awake your faith. Then all stand still;

The very best way to discern whether one belongs in a particular Christian organization is to determine whether the organization’s image of Christ is compatible with your own. “What think ye of Christ?” is indeed the question of these wars. When the dialectal approach to religion rules as it currently does in the organized churches, it becomes very hard not to choose the lesser of two evils because two false evil images of Christ are the only images presented. I found that I was not in sympathy with the liberal Catholics or with the traditionalist Catholics. The liberals claim Christ is like Mr. Softie (of ice cream fame), and the traditionalists claim he is like Mr. Murdstone of David Copperfield. But is He with either of these groups?

The liberals would have Him be soft on sexual license, soft on non-believers, and soft on them. But they do make one exception: when people do not accept their vision of a ‘Mr. Softie’ Christ, the liberals demand that ‘Mr. Softie’ hurl the non-believers into outer darkness.

The problem with the ‘Mr. Softie’ Christ is that He ends up not being strong enough to raise Himself or His followers from the dead. He becomes a kind of Great Gatsby: the nicest man in the world, but a hopeless, powerless figure. This type of Christ suits the liberals’ purposes until they are faced with a situation, such as their own death, or the desired condemnation of a conservative creed, at which time they are left out in the cold by their image of Christ.

What the liberals fail to see is that there are occasions when Christ must be tough in order to protect the soft. Those who are soft in their faith must be protected from aggressive Jews, Muslims, neo-pagans, secularists, etc. Hence the ecumenism of a John Paul II-type is a base betrayal of the flock. The physically soft, such as babies in the womb, must also be protected. To fail to be tough in order to protect their softness would run counter to the true image of Christ. He would be tough in their defense. But the liberal Christian will not accept toughness (except when dealing with those with conservative creeds) from their ‘Mr. Softie’ Christ.

The traditionalists commit a grave error on the other side of the spectrum. Their God is certainly tough. He doesn’t take any stuff and nonsense from anyone. And they, in imitation of their God, are tough guys too. They are not ‘nice guys’ – in fact their lack of ‘niceness’ is their badge of honor. But just as niceness without doctrinal firmness makes the liberal Christ a ‘softie’, so does firmness without charity make the traditionalist Christ an anti-Christ, because what the traditionalists fail to comprehend is that Christ was tough for a soft reason.

The liberals are partly right: Christ is merciful, He is forgiving. He did come to save and not to condemn. And yes, the traditionalist is right about Christ’s toughness: He did come to define, condemn, and judge. The traditionalist doesn’t err because he claims those tough attributes belong to Christ, he errs when he designates the softer qualities as liberal and therefore not part of Christianity.

Is it so difficult to comprehend that the Man-God is tough and strong because he is meek and mild? Yes, it is too difficult, I have noticed, so long as one clings to the dialectic: If A=B, and B=C, then C=A. To the dialectician, bent over his computer, toughness and softness do not compute. Either God is tough with all the attributes of toughness, or He is soft with all the attributes of softness.

But in real life, as distinct from the dialectic, it is quite easy to comprehend a tough God who is soft. We can comprehend such a God by examining our own striving for the heroic ideal. Melville, in his magnificent novel, Pierre, has his hero, who is about to be married, exert himself in various manly exercises, imagining as he does so, that he might be called upon in the future to protect his meek and mild bride-to-be.

Once more, the sweet unconditional thought of Lucy slid wholly into his soul, dislodging thence all such phantom occupants. Once more he rode, he walked, he swam, he vaulted; and with new zest threw himself into the glowing practice of all those manly exercises, he so dearly loved. It almost seemed in him, that ere promising forever to protect, as well as eternally to love, his Lucy, he must first completely invigorate and embrawn himself into the possession of such a noble muscular manliness, that he might champion Lucy against the whole physical world.
One can see that Pierre is trying to become tough for gentle reasons.

Chesterton tells us in one of his works that on his wedding day he went out and purchased a revolver. What an excellent instinct! Like Pierre, Chesterton had the desire to be tough in order to protect softness.

What the liberal Catholic and the traditionalist both try to do is banish all decent Christian feelings from our hearts and souls so that they may plant their new religions in our minds. The liberal Catholic tries to convince us that our nobler instincts to fight for and protect the soft are base, un-ecumenical, and pagan, while the traditionalist tries to tell us that all those Pickwickian instincts of love and charity have nothing to do with Christianity. We must work, we are told, to squash such instincts and cultivate the toughness of a ‘tough guy’ God. (Although I must note that the traditionalists, like the liberals, permit one exemption from their creed. The traditionalists prefer a tough God until they need mercy and forgiveness, and then, they too want ‘Mr. Softie’.)

Now the devil would like us to choose between traditionalist (always distinct from traditional) and liberal Christianity because both versions of Christianity present a distorted view of Christ that serves the devil’s purposes. He preys on spiritually sick individuals who have no blood faith and hence no touchstone of reality. He is like an evil conman hanging around the lonely hearts' clubs hoping to bilk lonely women out of their savings. And it is quite lonely without a church, without community. But if one’s church and community is without Christ, won’t our loneliness in such a church and such a community be all the more acute?

Loneliness is now the permanent condition of an incarnational Christian in the modern world. There is no remedy for it. But the Christian’s loneliness can be lessened if he stays connected to the traditional, nonsectarian faith of the European people. The reason the traditionalist and liberal churches cannot support a Christian is because they have abandoned tradition. The traditionalists think tradition consists of Church documents and the works of older theologians. And they cite those documents and those theologians against the liberals’ new documents and new theologians. But tradition means so much more than one theologian’s ideas or one set of documents. Tradition is the faith of a people in its entirety.

The people’s art, their loves, their social structures all express how they feel about God. If a modern Christian finds the older European tradition to be in line with his faith, he should cling to that tradition and reject the Christ-less faith of liberal Christianity and modern traditionalist Christianity. He will still feel lonely, but he will no longer feel God-forsaken. And in traditional European Christianity, there is no Mr. Softie or Mr. Tough Guy. There is only Jesus, true God and true man. His power and his mercy are indivisible and infinite.

I think that the distorted portraits of Christ painted by the modern liberals and the modern traditionalists are the end result of a change in the soul of the European. The focus in a healthy, functioning, Christian soul is on the God-Man, but in a sick, unhealthy soul the focus is on oneself, particularly on those aspects of one’s life that shows one to be of the elect. The modern Christian is constantly checking the list to make sure he is fit, tanned, and chosen, because a man who has been dialectically severed from the inner life of God has only outward signs to convince him that he lives in the light. The only difference between the various denominations is with what they choose to verify their elect status.

Thus liberal Catholics are very concerned with having correct opinions on the subject of Negroes and women’s rights, but they are very little concerned with adultery and abortion. The conservative Catholics are very concerned about obedience to the Pope, but they are not in the last concerned about the rights of Christ the King or the defense of kith and kin. And the traditionalists are very concerned about the rite of the Mass, but they are not in the least concerned about their inhumane, Christ-insulting creed. It is the feeling of election which has become paramount, and not a respect and love for the living God.

But if modern Christians would look to the older European culture, they would find a remedy for their sick souls. In the traditions of maidenly virtue and hierarchically structured institutions, the liberals would find an answer to their problems of gender and race. In the chivalric traditions of Europe, the conservatives would see how one can be martial yet gentle. And in the daily lives of the European folk, the traditionalists would find a burning light of charity to ward off the dark Nestorian night.

The European people, in structuring a society around the idea of the God-Man, put their faith to the test in the furnace of reality. When their faith came out unscathed, it gave us a touchstone of reality that we avoid at our peril.

True Europeans are in line with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego:

Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the mouth of the burning furnace, and spake, and said, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ye servants of the most high God come forth, and come hither. Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, came forth of the midst of the fire.
What is the unique feature in that account? Is it the fact that the three men were willing to face fire for their God? No, that is a rare thing but not unique. The heathen have courageous men among their ranks who will face fire for their gods. The unique feature in the account is, of course, that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not burn. Their faith withstood the test of fire. This so impressed Nebuchadnezzar (apparently he was more easily impressed than modern churchmen) that he proclaimed:

Therefore I make a decree. That every people, nation, and language, which speak anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other god that can deliver after this sort.
Well said, Mr. Nebuchadnezzar. He has punctuated a point that is overlooked by modern Christians: One’s faith must be based on reality. Feel-good slogans geared to convince us of our elect status won’t cut it. Nebuchadnezzar used to run around with banners about the sun god’s warmth and beneficence, but after witnessing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s astonishing survival, he became a raging, un-ecumenical convert to the true faith.

Existence is a fiery furnace. We can put our faith to the test during our lives here on earth, like our European forefathers, or we can ‘Skip to the Lou’ and hide from reality with feel-good slogans. But at the hour of our deaths we will still have to face the fire we avoided our entire lives. King Lear, after living a life based on the wisdom of Hallmark greeting cards, had to face the fire:

You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave—Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound, Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears do scald like molten lead.

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