In a recent column about the now-finished synod on the family, Damon Linker over at The Week makes this general description of the Catholic Church — and it’s a description I think applies to the entire Church in the West, and quite possibly the whole world:
The reformers view the church as a community of believers founded by Jesus Christ on a message of universal inclusion, hope, love, and mercy. … This helps explain why the reformers favor loosening the strictures against divorced Catholics receiving communion: because it’s a gesture of inclusion, healing, acceptance. Just as Jesus consorted with the outcasts of his time, so his church should offer welcoming arms to any and all who want to receive the message of mercy and love and become active members of the People of God.
Those who oppose reform take a very different view. The church, for them, is primarily a rigorously consistent intellectual system that teaches a vision of the right way to live. Christ rejected divorce. Over the centuries, the church has developed a rich set of intellectually satisfying principles and procedures in response to this divine decree. A marriage can only be dissolved through annulment. Civil remarriage without an annulment is adulterous. Adultery is a grave sin. Communion is withheld from those living in a state of persistent grave sin. Therefore and with no possible exceptions, a Catholic who is civilly remarried cannot receive communion.
It really is that simple. Remove any of those steps and the whole edifice falls into incoherence. You can see Douthat making that point against Fr. Martin in a blog post written in response to the latter’s Time column: The church simply has to uphold the traditional rules and procedures — not primarily because they’re traditional but because they’re systematic.
Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative more or less agrees, though he says Linker’s description of religious conservatives (at least in the Catholic camp) is not entirely fair because “[d]octrine is not about right order alone, but primarily about Truth. It is far from loving and merciful to tell someone that a lie is actually the truth, only so that they can feel good about themselves, and affirmed. This, at best, is what the conservatives stand for — not mindless rule-following.”
I am much closer to the progressive camp Linker describes (accurately) here. I admire Dreher immensely, but honestly, I’ve seen little love come out of rule, order, and truth concerned conservatives. Mostly I’ve seen judgement and condemnation without any prospect of redemption, and the strange expectation of the conservative that, in a well and properly ordered world, some people will be marginalized and subjugated and because it is good and orderly, they should willingly and gladly acquiesce (and the violence it entails) because it is “the natural order of things.”
I take issue with the very systematic nature of the conservative understanding. And with the very idea that faith in God is to believe in some kind of inherent and discernible moral order to the world. That’s not biblical, not so far as I can tell, because the biblical story — which is what counts here — is hardly systematic itself, and doesn’t concern itself much with the good order of the world, but rather with a people called Israel, and their encounter with God. Revelation, not reason, is what matters.
Scripture also doesn’t deal in abstractions. It doesn’t talk about “war” in any generic sense, but human beings engaged in very specific conflicts with very specific causes and very specific outcomes. It doesn’t talk about “marriage,” or “divorce,” but rather gives us human beings who are married, and shows as a great many ways (mostly bad) that those marriages work (with no examples of divorce). It doesn’t talk about some abstract idea of “salvation,” but rather, the redemption of Israel, with hints that means the world will be redeemed too.
I will go so far as to say the very construction of the systematic edifice of theology is somehow an act of faithlessness on our part. Inevitable and inescapable, probably, but an act that leaves the actual story in God’s people Israel in the dust as it plays with concepts and ideas and thinks about God in wholly irrelevant ways — ways that have nothing to do with the encounter of Israel/Church with a redeeming God.
This said, I have tremendous problems with religious progressivism. It isn’t really biblical. The message of the liberal and progressive church is basically the promise of modernity — freedom, equality, and liberation. The liberal church is basically the church of the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s how it understands exclusion. The marginalized have done nothing to deserve their marginalization except to be born the wrong kind of people in terms of social position and power. They have not sinned. And so the Jesus of the liberal church invites the unjustly excluded to the table, bringing them into full communion with the powerful and the privileged. And he does so not because they have been forgiven anything, but because he breaks down barriers and crosses boundaries — all of which have been arbitrarily created and imposed. There is nothing wrong with this, but it isn’t redemption. The redemption of the liberal church is largely a redemption for those who have not sinned.
And because of this, the liberal church cannot even begin talk about sin in any meaningful way. Not being able to talk about sin, the liberal church cannot think straight about repentance, redemption, and forgiveness. The only thing the liberal church knows to do with real sinners is … exclude and marginalize them.
Not very Christ-like, that. Because Jesus supped with sinners, who knew their own sinfulness, who understood the redeeming forgiveness of God. Whether they changed their lives is another matter entirely. But those sinners met God, were judged, forgiven, and invited to follow.
As I have come to understand it, the controlling narrative of scripture — the key to understanding the entire story that unfolds from Genesis through Revelation — lies in Nehemiah 9 and 10. Nehemiah 9 is Israel’s telling its story and confessing its sin in the wake of resettling of the land after the end of exile. It is a confession of Israel’s constant sinfulness and God’s unremitting redeeming grace. “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” Israel confesses. (Nehemiah 9:17) Again and again, as Israel sins, God gives Israel over to enemies as the consequence of Israel’s idolatry, and then redeems Israel when Israel cries out. Again and again.
The main actor here is God, who called a people, made promises, redeems and delivers that people, over and over again. “Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” (Nehemiah 9:31)
This is the meaning of the entire Old Testament story. In fact, it is the meaning of the entire biblical story.
But Nehemiah 9 doesn’t sit by itself. After Israel confesses its sins, Israel vows to act in Nehemiah 10 — to keep the law, to rest on the sabbath, to keep their daughters to themselves, and to support the temple. This is no small thing. Israel promises to clean up its act in response to its confession of sin and its understanding of its utter and complete reliance upon God. And for a time, I suspect Israel does.
We know, however, the story doesn’t end there. Because Israel cannot maintain this. Because daughters are given in marriage and business done on Saturday. Because the slavery Israel laments at the end of Nehemiah 9 is never really lifted. This is the tension that we must live in — we cannot get it right, which is why we confess a God who does not abandon us. We sin, and we bear the consequences of our sinfulness. As do our children. And theirs. And theirs.
I get the sense both the conservative and the progressive are deeply modern — they dislike the tension and want it abolished. The conservative, for all his alleged understanding of the tragic nature of human existence, seems to believe the law can actually be adhered to (we are not, after all, Israel) and thus the consequences of sin (and the tragic) avoided altogether. For its part, the whole progressive program believes in the abolition of consequences, and so sin itself ceases to exist except as some systemic abstraction which all must repent of but no one can really point to or change.
Lost to both are the likes of Samson and David — clear and obvious sinners chosen by God, who pay the price for their sinfulness but are still loved by God and, in their very sinfulness, called by God to do God’s work in the world.