On The Way

“What perhaps did impress itself upon me with an entirely unexpected force was a new sense of the utter strangeness of the Christian vision of life in its first dawning—by which I mean, precisely, its strangeness in respect to the Christianity of later centuries. When one truly ventures into the world of the first Christians, one enters a company of “radicals” (for want of a better word), an association of men and women guided by faith in a world-altering revelation, and hence in values almost absolutely inverse to the recognized social, political, economic, and religious truths not only of their own age, but of almost every age of human culture. The first Christians certainly bore very little resemblance to the faithful of our day, or to any generation of Christians that has felt quite at home in the world, securely sheltered within the available social stations of its time, complacently comfortable with material possessions and national loyalties and civic conventions. In truth, I suspect that very few of us, in even our wildest imaginings, could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ. And I do not mean merely that most of us would find the moral requirements laid out in Christian scripture a little onerous—though of course we do. Therein lies the perennial appeal of the venerable early modern theological fantasy that the Apostle Paul inveighed against something called “works-righteousness” in favor of a purely extrinsic “justification” by grace—which, alas, he did not. He rejected only the notion that one might be “shown righteous” by “works” of the Mosaic Law—that is, ritual “observances” like circumcision or keeping kosher—but he also quite clearly insisted, as did Christ, that all will be judged in the end according to their deeds (Romans 2:1–16 and 4:10–12; 1 Corinthians 3:12–15; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Philippians 2:16; and so on). Rather, I mean that most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent. Or, if not that, we would at least be bemused by the sheer, unembellished, unremitting otherworldliness of their understanding of the gospel. We are quite accustomed, after all, to thinking of Christianity as a fairly commonsensical creed as regards the practicalities of life. On the matter of wealth, for instance, we take it as given that, while the New Testament enjoins generosity to the poor, it otherwise allows the wealthy to enjoy the fruits of their industry or fair fortune with a clean conscience. Common sense instructs us that it is not wealth as such that the New Testament condemns, but only a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it—the idolatry of riches, wealth misused, wealth immorally gained; riches in and of themselves, we assume, are neither good nor bad. But, in fact, one thing in startlingly short supply in the New Testament is common sense, and the commonsensical view of the early church is invariably the wrong one. For instance, the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil.

Actually, the biblical texts are so unambiguous on this matter that it requires an almost heroic defiance of the obvious to fail to grasp their import. Admittedly, many translations down the centuries have had an emollient effect on a few of the New Testament’s severer pronouncements. But this is an old story. The great theologian Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215 CE) may have been the first—back when the faith had just begun spreading among the more comfortably situated classes in the empire—to apply a reassuring gloss to the raw rhetoric of scripture on wealth and poverty. He drew a distinction between the poverty that matters (humility, renunciation, spiritual purity, generosity) and the poverty that does not (actual material indigence), and assured propertied Christians that, so long as they cultivated the former, they need never submit to the latter. And throughout Christian history, even among the few who bothered to consult scripture on the matter, this has generally been the tacit interpretation of Christ’s (and Paul’s and James’s) condemnations of the wealthy and acquisitive. In the early modern period, moreover, for obvious reasons, forms of Christianity took shape that were especially well suited to the needs of an emerging prosperous middle class, and to the spiritual complacency that a culture of increasing material security dearly required of its religion. For this vision of the gospel, all moral anxiety became a kind of spiritual pathology, the heresy of “works-righteousness,” sheer Pelagianism. Grace had set humanity free not only from works of the Law, but also from the spiritual agony of seeking to become holy by moral deeds. In a sense, the good news announced by scripture was that Christ had come to save humanity from the burden of Christianity.

Or so, at any rate, “our” version of Christianity might have seemed in the eyes of the very first Christians. None of which is to deny the cultural genius of, say, early modern Christianity’s sanctification of the ordinary or the countless ways in which it allows for an appreciation of the moral heroism of the everyday. But if, as may be the case, such a vision of Christian life is a genuine unfolding of some logic implicit in the gospel, it was nonetheless a logic largely invisible to those who wrote the Christian scriptures. Again, the New Testament knows very little of common sense. The Gospels, the epistles, Acts, Revelation—all of them are relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism: commands to become as perfect as God in his heaven and to live as insouciantly as the lilies in their field; condemnations of a roving eye as equivalent to adultery and of evil thoughts toward another as equivalent to murder; injunctions to sell all one’s possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor, and demands that one hate one’s parents for the Kingdom’s sake and leave the dead to bury the dead. This extremism is not merely an occasional hyperbolic presence in the texts or an infrequent intonation sounded only in their most urgent moments; it is their entire cultural and spiritual atmosphere. The New Testament emerges from a cosmos ruled by malign celestial principalities (conquered by Christ but powerful to the end) and torn between spirit and flesh (the one, according to Paul, longing for God, the other opposing him utterly). There are no comfortable medians in these latitudes, no areas of shade. Everything is cast in the harsh light of a final judgment that is both absolute and terrifyingly imminent. In regard to all these texts, the qualified, moderate, commonsense interpretation is always false.”

There is quite a bit more of this particular section that I did not copy. The entire thing is worth a read, a reread and another read. David Bentley Hart’s translation of The New Testament has been refreshing.

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