Christianity, virtue, and wholeness

In my reflection piece the other day on Andrew Bacevich’s piece, one of the things I wrote was that Christianity as a “belief system” was more important than Christianity an “organizing principle.”

This was in response to Bacevich writing on another author of Christianity “as project—reference point, narrative, and source of authority—[which] imparted to history a semblance of cohesion and purposefulness.”

What I was trying to get at was that the question, “Is Christ who he said he was?” has always been distinct and incomparably more important than the social impact of Christian institutions, but in thinking this way I probably responding to something that really wasn’t contested. Aside from getting my understanding of “organizing principle” exactly backward, my friend Ben Novak wrote to me in what became a back-and-forth correspondence on the direct of Christian faith generally. There are two questions in particular that I posed and to which he responded, and that we wanted to share:

Question 1: “Can you explain what you believe the early organizing principle(s) Christians defeated was/were?”

All of the ancient religions (except the Greeks) worshipped power. Power was the essence of divinity, especially great wealth and power over people. The ancient gods of the East were gods of power. Whoever had power had a touch of divinity about him that could not be questioned–power was divine. Wealth was the sign of power. Power as evidenced by wealth and command was the first and highest attribute of power. This is why we refer to Eastern “Potentates” (definition: one who has power over others, ruler, sovereign).

Thus the first attribute of God in all semitic religions (Muslim, Jewish, and even Christianity) is “omnipotence,” or “almighty.” (First line of the Apostles’ Creed: “Credo in unum Deum, patrem omnipotentem”–I believe in God the Father Almighty.)

Power was the paradigm of all society and religion, and all of society was designed and organized in terms of the flow of power. The emperor or king had absolute power over other men, and other men had power only insofar as it came from him.

Now, imagine what the simple story of Christ meant to this paradigm. The first element was that when the son of God chose to become a man, but did not choose to have power over men. Absolute reversal. Suddenly, divinity was not found in power or wealth, but in something else—the example of Christ, who was a poor man, born in a stable, raised the son of a carpenter, who had nowhere even to lay his head to sleep, and had no elaborate funeral upon his death, but was crucified among common criminals.

This overturned the entire basis not only of society but of personal life. It meant that one did not have to have or to seek power to reach the divine. Divinity to a poor man could be sought someplace else. It also changed the relation of the individual to those with power–they no longer participated in divinity solely by the power they had, but based on their virtue–and even poor men could have virtue. Only the fact of the son of God being born poor was necessary for this organizing principle to be established. From this fact alone, divinity could no longer be associated solely with power.

The underling for the first time had a basis on which to judge those above him other than their possession of power. Whereas before, divinity was associated only with power, now even the slave could judge his master as lacking in divinity based on the story of the son of God, who in the desert even turned down the devil’s offer of power over all the earth.

This story of Christ changed the organizing principle of both personal and societal life. Men suddenly could organize their lives on a principle other than seeking or worshipping power or wealth. It changed the organizing principles of society because it meant that those in power could be judged as lacking in the attributes of divinity as displayed in Christ.

The simple fact of the story of Christ was simply that power was not divinity. This is why, for example, even today people have a warmer feeling toward Christmas than Easter and we celebrate the former much more. It is because it is the story of the son of God choosing not to be born in a palace of power, but in a manger in a barn. God chose to become a man born not to power but among the poorest of the poor and the most powerless. Even the most abject slave could see that the path to God–and a share of divinity—was as open to him as much as to the Emperor on his throne. Even today, the story of the child in the manger resonates more than Christ’s ascension to power and glory.

The story of the resurrection is also a new organizing principle, for no longer did power and wealth in this world matter, but even the poorest and most miserable could look to happiness in the next, while the power of the most powerful men was no longer absolute and unconditional, but subject to being judged after death.

Now slaves could look in judgment on their masters, and the poor no longer had to envy wealth. What a totally different basis of society and personal life! Now power was subject to judgement that even the poor could see and understand.

The story of the crucifixion is also important here, for at the crucifixion, in crucifying the son of God, power had executed its own divinity—God himself. What those in power did to the son of God meant that power could never be seen in the same way again.

It is in this sense that the story of Christ in its barest bones, as the earliest Christians probably heard it, introduced an entirely new organizing principle into the world and changed the basis of both personal and societal life.

They only had to believe that Jesus was the son of God, and everything else flowed from that. A new organizing principle, by which every man, even the poorest, could re-organize his life and reorient it had come into the world with the story of Christ.

So, to specifically answer your first question (“Can you explain what you believe the early organizing principle/s Christians defeated was/were?”) the answer is: the organizing principle that the story of Christ defeated was that power is the essence of divinity.

Question 2. “What is the organizing principle confronting Christianity today? Is it what animated Communism and other ideologies; slogans like ‘everything is economics,’ ‘the personal is the political,’ etc. Is it something else?”

The issue is that the story of Christ has been co-opted. Socialism and Marxism as well as democracy furnished new and alternative theories to justify the poor judging the rich and powerful. If one believes in any of these, one no longer needs the story of Christ to empower the poor.

The organizing principle that is confronting the Church, however, is that these organizing principles are denuded of divinity. In the story of Christ, divinity was relocated from power to virtue and innocence. But in the modern world, these heresies have re-enthroned power, and merely shifted the argument to where power should be located: in the few or the many?

Thus, in another article by Bacevich (which I can’t find right now), he notes that modernists can march for the poor and against the rich without any need to be personally good; it doesn’t matter if they are adulterers or delinquent dads or druggies or sinners at all. All they need to be socially moral is to hate those with power and wealth and to demand it for themselves. Virtue and innocence mean nothing to them, social justice is everything.

How shall the Church (or the son of God) re-enthrone virtue and innocence—as well as the ability to achieve virtue and innocence again even after sinning, by forgiveness and repentance and mercy? That demands wholeness and integrity.

So, to specifically answer your question, my answer is this:

No, it is not by opposing beliefs with beliefs. Admit that after 1,800 years the social sciences figured out another way to decouple power from divinity. But that does not have to result (as Marx would have it) in destroying all divinity in the world, it only succeeded in one separation—the total identification of God as power. Now the Church must insist that virtue, rather than simply social justice, is still divine. At the same time, it must teach that while power is not the sole essence of the divine, it is also part of the divine, but only with innocence, humility, and all the other virtues. Therefore, the new organizing principle that the Church must offer is wholeness and integrity, rather than parts.

That is why, for example, I once argued at one of the conferences we attended together that truth is the issue, for truth to me means integrity which means wholeness.

Here I am speculating:

I think that the reason God had allowed the horrible scandals in the Church is to teach us that proclaiming virtue and innocence is not enough without humility and forgiveness and mercy for sinners. As a result, the Church has first had to relearn humility.

So, it’s no longer a single issue of decoupling power and divinity, but re-coupling a whole panoply of issues including humility, virtue, innocence, forgiveness, mercy, etc., all at once.

Frankly, I welcome this, for it pits the “whole man” against the partial man—a heck of a challenge in a technological world that favors specialization! Just as finding wisdom in a world drowning in information and knowledge is hard enough, today’s Catholic must argue for wholeness in a world that divides and dissects everything into parts.

We’re not sharing this because we think it’s necessarily right, but because it might be a helpful exchange for anyone trying to think through these issues.

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