Thursday, December 07, 2006

Orthodoxy Blues

There's this little problem with the whole idea of starting something. Actually, there are a thousand little problems, but then there's this one about orthodoxy: I've never known what to do with it.

Back in my university days, I used to go to Varsity Christian things with some of my friends, just to see what it was like. The people were very nice, and a few of them had very interesting minds. But a lot of the time I had to spend silently telling myself shut up shut up shut up so that I wouldn't say anything. It was hard. I wasn't Quaker at the time and having left Catholicism (which will turn orthodoxy into Buckley's Mixture for anyone), I was alone spiritually. An exile, in a way. I found my choices were either Reason or Religion, but not both. And the voice in my head was committed to Reason.

Truth to me has always been a verb, not a noun. I have no experience of it any other way. I can't decide to believe in something or not believe in something. When people talk about believing something as if it were an act of will, I don't understand what they mean.

But if you're going to start something, then you have to have something to say. People don't start something unless they have some message or some spiritual product that lights a fire under their derrieres. An experimental, undefined thing doesn't cut it. Moreover, what you start needs some kind of structure and anchor. If there's not enough, it will drift aimlessly. I think this may have been what happened in some parts of liberal quakerism: refugees from orthodox religions sought shelter there and gradually pressed it into new directions. (However, the same could be said for the Wesleyan movement causing other forms of quakerism to drift...)

Anyway, I dusted off some old university books today to take another look at orthodoxy. The first book featured six figures: Augustine, Pascal, beloved well-thumbed Blake, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Tolstoy. And reading snippets from each, one after the other, I could hear the trumpets and timpani. Yes, here was orthodoxy, arguably some of the best of it.

Yet as I did my little romp through orthodoxy, something occurred to me that had never occurred before – that each was not orthodox in his time, but only after; and that each was breaking from the preceding orthodoxy in some significant way.

Augustine wrapped the fledgling religion into an ark and tossed it out in to the ocean of the Dark Ages, just as the Roman Empire caved literally around his feet. He hooked it to Platonism and bound it with the twine of harsh scriptural interpretation so that it would survive. I guess we can thank him for that, otherwise Christianity would have died with the Roman Empire, but without forgetting that his simplistic orthodoxy seeded the inquisitions, crusades, and power priesthoods.

Then flip ahead to Pascal, rebelling against the Age of Reason, but by using reason. He questioned, peeled off the twine of Augustine and Aquinas, and set a new orthodoxy that could survive philosophy. All the while, he lived under the threat of excommunication.

Then flip to Blake, rebelling against the Steam Engine, but by using the imagination and senses. The church nearly consigned him to an asylum for madness.

Then Kierkegaard, the mystic schizophrenic outcast. Bonhoeffer, the executed. Tolstoy, the excommunicated. And the others, the ones I haven't read.

We could back up further to the Old Testament prophets, who rebelled against the tribal violence that was proto-judaic orthodoxy and organized religion into rules and principles. And then Jesus, tearing down the pharisaic orthodoxy of rules and principles to replace it with the principle of compassion.

And what of the orthodox people of their time? Do we ever quote the French Church that persecuted Pascal, the English clergy that shunned Blake, the Danish theologians that publicly ridiculed Kierkegaard? Do we even know their names?

What we call orthodoxy appears to me right now to be a conglomeration of heretic rebellions against previous orthodoxies. By the time something becomes orthodoxy, it is already old orthodoxy. There is always someone reaching ahead to a new vision of Jesus' teachings that will work with the changing age.

Were these men all insane? I can't rule that out. I don't like most of what I read in their writings, especially the common theme of blaming women for men's failings. Or rejecting ordinary life as something perverted. Or the logic embroidery they did to knit their experiences to Christian doctrines.

Yet despite this, I have deep respect for them. They must have heard something or sensed something that called them deeper. They took spiritual risks, went out on a limb, climbed into the New Nothing because they were called into it.

As I read what these men wrote, I realize I don't have any inclination to believe what they wrote, even if I could make myself. I just want to be like them. I want to do what they did, not say what they said. The New Nothing interests me far more than the old orthodoxy, even if it doesn't have a name.

And there's the rub. For no matter how much it compels me,what kind of a new thing can be built out of a New Nothing?


At 11:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Danish theologians that criticized Kierkegaard were J.L. Heiberg and Hans Lassen Martensen.

At 12:18 AM, Blogger Robin M. said...

A bunch of somewhat random reactions:

Well, here you are at a good place. A place of knowing what you don't know. Does it feel like a solid bottom or does the well go deeper?

Isn't one of the points of postmodernism that Truth does not equal either Reason nor Religion, but rather both and neither?

A seed starts by falling freely and then breaking open before it puts out anchors or sails...

I love your description of Augustine.

The Seekers in the 1650's were just sitting and waiting, right? They didn't know quite what to do, they just knew that what they had been offered heretofore was not good enough. George Fox himself wandered a good bit before he realized that Christ was going to speak to him directly.

Can you name three things that do bring you into the Presence of the Divine? Can you list three things that you do believe, without knowing why you believe them? Can you name one of each? Can you start with that? Do you know anyone else who is similarly seeking who would be willing to practice or wait with you?

Perhaps the wilderness beckons

Perhaps the Quakers near you would let you sit with them while you figure it out, even if they're not ready to join you on your quest

Maybe I should just hold this post in my heart and ponder it

At 7:22 AM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Thanks, Robin.

At 11:20 PM, Blogger URfriend, Dean Johnson said...

Hi Nancy,

I appreciated your comment on my Blog. I love hearing from other Canadian Quaker Bloggers.

I have added a link to your Blog on a page called: Blogs by Canadian Friends

In Unlimited Love,


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