Monday, May 17, 2010

The Other Secularism

There is a very interesting post on CathBlog about how Jesus was not the big "pro-family" booster that later Christian "family values" rhetoric (which seems to have reached a fever pitch recently) would paint Him as.

The article emphasizes how it was not the family, but rather the Kingdom of God, which was central to Christ's message, and that this requires a radical individual response that often may contradict family ties:
This inconvenient truth is that the Gospels do not hold the family up as central to the mission of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus did not proclaim the family, nor did he exhort marriage as the means to discipleship. Matthew 10:34-39 expresses a Jesus as figure of dissension in the family, a bringer of a sword to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother, and that whoever loves their child or their parent more than they love Jesus is not worthy of him. Familial obligations are dissolved by the demands of discipleship. This is shown clearly in Luke 9:59-62 in which death obligations, last minute farewells, and related familial ties are dismissed. The Gospels are peppered with similar demands of discipleship, and of the relinquishing of those mundane ties which in fact are obstacles to both the acceptance and embrace of Jesus. More importantly though, the clinging onto a range of mundane ties; those of comfort, those of wealth, those of structural, moral, societal, and familial bonds, all of the myriad norms and means by which we in fact declare our self sufficiency from God, are what cripple our turning towards the one thing key to the life of Jesus of Nazareth: the acceptance of the Kingdom of God.

It is another inconvenient truth that so much of the apocalyptic imperative of the Good News was jettisoned very early from the life and tradition of the Church. Christianity came to be, on the one hand, within a Hellenistic culture which celebrated reason, equilibrium, society, and family; alternatively, that of the Roman Empire, an empire that valued order and familial obligation above all else. The worlds of mind and of order were those to which Paul and the subsequent Church Fathers conformed the Good News, to show that Christians were good and reliable citizens of empire, and that Christianity was the product of reasonable revelation.


Ironically, the Church had become well and truly secularised, so profoundly so that cultural norms of empire, those of citizenship, stability, honour, familial obligation and ties, became the ethos of Church, and the motifs by which morality and religiosity were infused. How odd it is that many of today's proponents of 'orthodoxy', and the inveighers against 'relativism', are perhaps the unwitting spruikers for what is actually the victory of a secularism that long ago permeated our Church.
In our brave new world of familial morality and spirituality, the Kingdom of God is but a distant memory, too rude and overwhelming to ever really have expected to retain the central place within a Church one time hungry for acceptance and struggling to survive. Such a sacrifice has been the price of success. But now at a time when the Church is buffeted by new forces of perceived opposition and threat, how certain can it be that past icons of surety and respectability can achieve success? Old and trusted icons are peddled out to meet very new and misunderstood challenges.
The comments section, as is often the case, is even more interesting, however. As it contrasts the knee-jerk reactions of many of the "conservative" readers, with the nuanced and level-headed point Mark Johnson was trying to make. Some of the more interesting ones:
Family is always transient. It is of value for some time, but it is, without other fundament, nothing but feeding bellies and living on seductive instincts. Family stands only at the beginning of the news Jesus had to tell. What is the origin of famine and war? It's the notion of giving importance to my own life (my genes) more than to others.
What I think the article simply proposes (using my paraphrases) is that the focus and rhetoric on family ties and nurturing that features large in much theological and pastoral Christian-speak is not especially Christian, but rather common to diverse, natural, even pagan, values. What the article then asks us to consider, in my view, is that Jesus' kingdom of heaven message was really much more counter-cultural and deeply radical in its call for an individual response. I don't think the article is saying we should cease the positive nourishment of either nuclear or extended family; rather just to recognise its less central place in the scheme of Jesus' mission.
Though Christian discourse focusing on family may articulate ideals and reflect instinctive aspirations, such discourse may also be seen as supportive of an ethos which depends on and preserves all sorts of status quo which might be intolerable or oppressive. A society and morality based on family considerations for example might be seen to contribute directly to greed, enmity and structural inequity. (This is why some religious people turn to communalist models). In the Gospels Jesus on several occasions says things which suggest familial obligations – at least purely formal or sentimental ones - are subordinate to or even irrelevant to discipleship. We can call to mind surely situations where people have had to follow their conscience rather than show loyalty to family. I'll conclude by asking, does common Christian discourse on family facilitate that?
For reasons that I will pursue later, 'family' has become a vehicle for a very particular moral code, and has been so co-opted deliberately and cynically, relegating 'family' as Christian vocation to a secondary issue. But I'll write more on that later. I wonder though if we should nuance the issue even further? The need for this is to avoid the very problem we have just discussed. 'Family' as moral vehicle has become synonymous with the lay state, that lay people only have presence within the Church insofar as they are married, insofar as they are 'family', insofar as they too are reconstructed as the moral code utilising 'family'. Instead lay people, who as part of families, should be present within/as Church simply as those too responding to the Kingdom of God. Lay people are not just 'family' people. We are all the People of God, all asked for the metanoia demanded by the Kingdom. Not just 'family', not just lay, not just cleric or religious. Such prioritisations may serve particular ideologies, but are far from that Kingdom which upturns strict religious demarcations and exclusions, exposes the fraudulence of those who are held up as the paragons of accepted religiosity (they have had their reward), in which the first will be last, and reveals that it is God alone that knows what is within our hearts.
And I do need to ask you again (as you in fact have not answered elsewhere): was Jesus of Nazareth an Aristotelian? A Thomist? Did he preach the 'natural law'? Did he embrace the varieties of Hellenistic thought that you adhere to? If not, what instead did he proclaim? If he did, or if he is in conformity with these pagan systems then please show how?...There's no need to be so self-critical with your stance defending Jesus' adherence to the 'natural Law'. I do understand where you are coming from. But in regards to your further claims, you will need to show me how Jesus confirmed the 'natural Law', I actually wasnt aware that he was savvy with such Hellenistic inspired thinking. Who knew that Jesus the Aramiac speaking Jew was actually proclaiming Hellenistic categories and not the Kingdom of God? Who knew that he suffered died and was buried all for Hellenism?
And best of all, these two:
All that you say of Jesus is derived from nothing more than the long heritage of Greek thought. The Logos (and its later understanding as Word), as you must surely well know, has a heritage beginning (at the very least) with Heraclitus. The early Church Apologists utilised the predominant paradigm so to convey an understanding of Christ which could resonate in many ways with what was already culturally and intellectually familiar and, most importantly, intellectually respectable. Do we still need to speak in such categories? And in fact has not the Gospel been radically transformed by such a syncretistic accommodation? Far from being 'Protestant' (whatever you mean by that) are we Catholics to mindlessly adhere to past paradigms as if they are to be worshipped? To worship the mere paradigmatic means as if end? Frankly, you fail to understand what Tradition is if you so needfully cling to past rigid paradigms. You make a serious error in confusing the means of proclamation with that to be proclaimed. Rather we need now ask why, and what interests are served by, such clinging? Why not look at the very paradigms with which Jesus of Nazareth utilsed to proclaim the Kingdom? Why is Logos theology preferable to Apocalyptic? Taste? unquestioning adherence to comforting and historically burdened forms? More neat and ordered? Does the God of Jesus of Nazareth prove to be too unwieldly to worship? If so elusive then the God of Greek philosophical ontology (or of a particular ontology), the God of the meta-system (and God as meta-system) is more readily definable. Rather than what has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the question actually is: does Galilee still need Athens and Rome?
What a touchy point this is with so many! Try to suggest - around Mother's Day - that much religious rhetoric about 'family' encourages the perpetuation of thinking along grooves that, from pre-Christian times, emphasise or aimed at property accumulation, tribal competitiveness and division, and that instead, actually, Jesus' kingdom of heaven sought to overturn or rise above such barriers to universal love, peace and virtue, through individual conversion, and immediately almost everyone rushes to either protect their Saturday Evening Post suburban family icon, or protect the hierarchical structure of the Church! It does explain though why politicians always endeavour to use code words like 'family' (and 'children' etc) when introducing policies that either have nothing to do with it or will hurt the most vulnerable. This is surely the point: family is not the bedrock of the kingdom as Jesus preached it, nor is any particular church model. Blood/social family relations are, in the scheme of things, not intrinsically morally good relations - indeed they may in many cases be the vehicle for abuse and oppression, equally as the vehicle for nurture and affirmation. If the kingdom of heaven can exist here on earth, it is constituted by each person starting the beatitudes and parables within his or her own heart. Surely the challenge the article poses for us is to realise that undue theological attachment to either family or church model(s) is to mistake means for the end and to indeed worship false idols.
This was interesting too:
The Jewish people understood themselves as 'chosen,' were the Covenant people, and heirs to the promises of Yahweh to Abraham insofar as the they were realised in history, and generationally so, hence the requirement to be 'fruitful', for the promises and fidelity of Yahweh are realised in a generational relationship. The coming of the Kingdom of God changes this relationship. The 'lineal' relationship of 'salvation history' becomes vertical with the direct eruption of God into history. This is why Jesus of Nazareth could not possibly have held 'family' as central because the underlying reason for 'family' in the schema of 'salvation history' is utterly contradicted by the eruption of the Kingdom of God into history. God is present amongst his people, in the now and not yet fulfilment of history, upturning all of the calcified legalites and definitions that have held people in slavery. Any Christian who holds 'family' as somehow central to being a Christian, let alone central to Jesus of Nazareth, simply does not understand the ground of their own faith, and certainly has no understanding of the significance of Jesus of Nazareth's revelation of the Kingdom. One can only question what really is the motivation of those who hold 'family' as somehow intimately expressive of God, and of salvation. Sure, it has social significance, but is meanigless for salvation, and irrelevent to Jesus of Nazareth.

Though calling Jesus "anti-family" may be a hyperbole (something Jesus Himself certainly used)...the more interesting point is about how Christ did not teach any of the Greco-Roman philosophy or civic values that later came as accretions to the Christian message. Not that they're wrong, in context, but that they aren't of the essence and that they were mainly to make Christianity palatable to the Hellenistic world. He finds it odd, then, and I mainly agree...that Christians living in postmodern America, cling to these categories that were specific to a certain time and place.

The family comes back into this not that it was a bad thing, but that it was certainly not central to Christ's message of conversion in the same way it was central to Mediterranean society (and all secular societies throughout history, based ultimately only on a Darwinian materialism). Emphasizing "family values" was actually, in transitioning Christianity, a form of secularization, of appeasing the world by emphasizing the things it prioritized: the building blocks of imperial social stability, even when they could often be the tools of oppression or maintaining the socio-political status quo, as invariably the family (and, by extension, social class) has been throughout history (patria potestas anyone?)

I personally am inclined, actually, to sympathize with a sort of social trinitarianism (which Arturo Vasquez seems to dismiss in his blog post discussing the same article), but certainly I'd agree to identify Christ's message or the Kingdom of God with the "iconization of the family" as faulty as the conservative alliance many seem to make between Christianity and nationalism, "patriotism," democracy, monarchism, capitalism, or numerous other social institutions throughout history. Conservative in the very real sense of serving only to reinforce (ie, conserve) the current social or political status quo.

The family certainly has a place in the Christian dispensation, in fact God Himself is portrayed as Father, and both parental and marital imagery are used by Jesus, who lived in His own Holy Family. But at the same time, Christianity is radically subversive of The World; "family values" (too often just a codeword for mere bourgeois respectability) is certainly not the central feature of Christ's proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and those who portray it that way have a very specific, and ironically very secular (ie, focused on the socio-political structure of this World), "conservative" agenda that does nothing for those outside such structures of worldly respectability. If Christ had a message of "family," it is that we are all the children of God our "abba," it is that a new family was being forged based not on blood but on spirit.

(And that worldly respect, I will add as an afterthought, is one of the main things conservative celibate priests seem to be afraid they'll lose if married priests are allowed; as then their celibacy will no longer be "explained" by respectable institutional requirement. Then, to the World and its perverse logic, they will be outside the bounds of those institutionalized "family values," like unmarried women in the past who did not enter nunneries or the Vestal Virgins, etc; suspect of subversiveness of the established Order, as really all Christians should be).


ZuluFan said...

You should read 16th-19th century Chinese/Korean Neo-Confucian anti-Catholic discourses. They accuse Catholics (like Buddhists) of being anti-family.

A Sinner said...

And I'm sure Christianity did undermine the patriarchal clan-based social order in East Asia.

Yet why we've remained so hostile to Confucianism and so insistent upon not compromising with that social order...even though we so blatantly co-opted the language of the Hellenistic world and accepted assimilation to its established social order and civic something of a double standard.

Certainly, it makes no sense to try to force Greek philosophical categories on the Asians when the message we're trying to spread is that of Jesus of Nazareth, Aramaic speaking Jew.

sortacatholic said...

Both Jesus and deutero-Paul exhibited ambivalence and even outright tension with Roman-Hellenistic family models.

Remember that neither Greek nor Latin have words that directly correspond with family. The Latin familia refers to the hierarchy of power within a family, while the word domus refers to the complex lattice-work of obligations and relations between the family, freedpersons, and slaves within the domestic economy. The Greek oikia is an almost-synonym for domus.

Luke 16:1-8a demonstrates an ambivalence about relationships within the oikia. Did the dishonest steward actually swindle his subordinates, or did he act "shrewdly" because he fulfilled the expectations of his master? What are the implications of this household interaction? The author of Luke does not provide a satisfactory answer. Certainly, Luke 16 does not depict a "family values" situation but rather a question of situational morality and even, gasp!, perhaps some level of "moral relativism" as the word is popularly understood.

Also consider the contrast between 1st Peter 2:9 and the "universal priesthood" versus the male/female distinctions inherent in 1st Peter 3. The author of 1st Peter contrasts the universal dignity of all people versus the "subordination" of women in the Hellenistic oikia.

Nether of these examples reflect the nuclear family "family values" fantasy of Christian lobbies. The moral decisions and outcomes in the Hellenistic family often challenge and contradict our expectations.

ZuluFan said...

In East Asia, the same criticism by Confucian on Buddhists were applied to Catholics. Like Buddhist monks, Catholic clergy were celibate. In the eyes of the Confucian, this was equivocated to the rejection of the family. Furthermore, they abhorred the concept of the Christian God for He was placed above their "heavenly" emperor, and thus a threat to the social order.