On unity, Cyprian, lapsed, penance, persecution, and Chesterton
Po 21 března 2016
(linked on A History of Christian Theology Facebook page)
I have just finished backlistening to whole podcast A History of Christian Theology and I really liked it. However, the last episode on the Saint Cyprian hit couple of pet peeves of mine, so I feel I really need to respond.
Yes, I know, G. K. Chesterton is not “a serious theologian”, but I have to admit some of his insights made bigger impact on my religious life than most serious theologians. So, one example for many is a short story about the Father Brown “The chief mourner of Marne”, where the spectators first accuse Father Brown of cruelty for pushing somebody into desperation for the sin he committed, and later (when truly ugly character of the crime is revealed) they completely reject him. Father Brown then explains they were not merciful on the criminal out of their mercy but because they did not consider his behavior to be really bad. However, now when they do consider his behavior bad, they have no mercy for him. The point is that the true mercy starts with accepting the sin. Forgive me if I indulge myself with too long quotation from the story:
“[…] that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness to- day; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don't really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don't regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn't anything to be forgiven.”
“But, hang it all,” cried Mallow, “you don't expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?”
“No,” said the priest; “but we have to be able to pardon it.”
He stood up abruptly and looked round at them.
“We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction,” he said. “We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came.”
I am afraid most American Protestants have no personal experience with the true old fashioned betrayal, with Christians denying their Christ. The worst which could happen in America today for a Christian revealing himself is that he will be perhaps somewhere considered a fool, and even that most people will not dare to reveal to his face out of politeness. I was born 1971 in then socialist Czechoslovakia. No, I haven’t been a Christian until the fall of the Communism in 1989 (in 1991, to be exact), but I remember clearly the situation when the betrayal was obviously the most rational solution and faithfulness to principles hopelessly idealistic. What I want to say is that betrayal in persecution is a big deal, and it should not be treated lightly. I would certainly not agree with Novatianists (or Donatists), because every personal history is specific and needs to be considered in its own context, and certainly everybody should have some path back to the full membership, but that path should not necessarily be easy. And yes, insufficient dealing with failures of Christians under the Communism is probably one of the roots of the unfortunate state of the Central and East European Church right now.
There was another art work which I was thinking about when listening to the podcast. Talking about the socialist Czechoslovakia, one of the most unexpected movies I was able to see in the cinemas there was “The Mission”. I still cannot understand how it was possible that our censors let this obviously religious movie to be permitted to run in our cinemas (perhaps for displaying terrible fate of poor Indians?) and I still consider it to be one of the best movies I have ever seen. Particularly for this episode of podcast I was thinking about the person of Rodrigo Mendoza. Former mercenary and slave catcher, kills out of jealousy his younger brother, and is completely crippled by the guilt of it. Legally he is innocent (it was a duel), but he ends half-crazy as a prisoner in a monastery. The main person of the movie, Father Gabriel, leads him to repentance and to Christ, but (with his approval) gives him horrendously heavy penance. I remember when I viewed the movie again, then already as a young passionate freshly converted Protestant, I was appalled by the penance and was thinking how the God’s mercy is and must be free-only. I believe, I was wrong. Of course, God’s forgiveness is always free and only “to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly” is their faith credited as righteousness (Romans 4:5 NIV). However, it is now obvious to me that for psychological reasons penance could be really helpful (not mentioning James 5:16 which seems to be constantly ignored by most sola Scriptura Protestants).
The last thought is on denominations. Obviously I do not have a good solution, but just let me note that one of the biggest problems of ecumenism is IMHO that there is also hopelessly little on the defining ideal solution. I guess not many Christians (aside from the fringe extremists of particular denominations and Eastern Orthodox) expect the solution would be that everybody discarded their own denomination and finally join the one truly holy denomination (of whatever kind). So, what remains? “You’ll worship the Virgin Mary a bit and we give up the infallibility of pope”? Or what? It seems to me that the only way how to get ahead is to accept a plurality of denominations. First of all we can start with an observation that there was not an unified Church (either organizationally or ideologically) since 1. Corinthians 1:22. What followed since then (Jewish, Greek, Irish, Roman etc. traditions, Church of the East all the way to the Nestorian Stele) seems to me like impossible to be described as an organizationally or ideologically unified body by any means. Perhaps if we accept plurality and idea that there are some things which we just has not find an agreement yet (e.g., padeobaptism), we may start to make some progress. And no, I don’t like those 300 Baptist denominations either, or perhaps even 45,000 denominations in total. The ideal number is quite certainly lower than that, but I do not think it is one.