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Between the Monastic and the Transformative

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Here are excerpts from a reflection I  recently gave to a strategic planning meeting of a Christian microfinance organization where I sit as a member of the Board of Trustees:

benedict-sanctusIn a world of brokenness brought about by sin, the task of Christians who desire to serve the King in the various fields in which He had place them, is to embrace a certain realism about what they can do to transform or redeem broken structures and relationships in society.

From a biblical mandate, this means proceeding with the work from the fusion of two traditions that the Neo-Thomist philosopher Alisdaire McIyntre on the one hand, and the Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff on the other, represent; that is, the monastic and the reformative or transformative.

Indeed, we must learn to draw from the wisdom of a wide variety of Christian resources, to see how faith communities of the past grappled with their own issues and what we can learn from them, as the Catholic theologian Werner Jeanrond would put it. The vision of the monastic is that of the Kingdom of God lived in the midst of a turbulent world: a new community of the redeemed, the preaching of judgment, service to the poor, and liturgy.

This was the otherworldly world of the monasteries, which saw tremendous growth at the turn of the first millennia, just as the Roman Empire was breaking up for good. For a long time, beginning with the reign of the Emperor Constantine, the Christians had identified Christianity with the Roman Empire. Civilization and hope and faith were in the hands of the empire. But soon, the empire was no more.

The coming of the monastic otherworldliness had a tremendous impact on society, for “it established a spiritual order of values and beliefs without which any change in the social order of the kind [the reformative impulse intended] is inconceivable.”

The monastic broke ties with the as the center of life; in the onslaught of darkness, the empire no longer stood as the symbol of what life should be, or of the ideal community where human existence can be lived meaningfully. Yet while monasticism had its strengths, it also had its weakness, especially its unhealthy stress on the afterlife and its neglect of what can be done in the present, and its emphasis on penitence and good works, which ultimately led to the rejection of the grace God made available to us in Christ.

The Protestant Reformation brought in a necessary corrective and transformative element. The Reformative vision is aided by its reflection on what creation was at the beginning, as it works towards a new creation; here it recognizes order as God-given and related to meaning, an order that humans experience at a personal level. The Reformative vision is also transformative in its recognition that “God’s order is not complete unless it is recognized…God’s meaningful order is not complete unless man rules in a way that reflects the character of God as expressed in his commandments.”

The subversive element in the work of the church is precisely that – as a sort of an advance party establishing the presence of the Kingdom in the enemy’s territory.

Some Christian thinkers argue that today, here a common ground for morality and ethics has become impossibility, what is needed is the construction of new forms of community — local forms — within which the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages, which are already upon us. But what should these forms of community bring with it? We must learn from each other’s spiritual traditions in building these new forms of community where the monastic element combines with the transformative.

These combined elements – the monastic and the transformative – ought to direct the work of Christian expectation with the understanding that while the subversive work of the church aims for change in society, it is not for a total one but for a radical one. We are to consider the reality of evil manifested in brokenness and to relate it to creational intents; we are also to find out how such intents may help the Christian bring redemption, no matter how limited, to the present.

Thus, the Christian should not only see the present world in the light of what is to come, but should also see the perspective of what it was meant to be from the beginning. Evil is never total; creational norms are never totally extinguished.

The Christian has no illusions about what he can do. He knows that he cannot bring the full realization of the Kingdom of God down to earth with the work of his hands. His is but an anticipation of the world to come; he recognizes the double aspect of the Christian anticipation, that is, of eternity breaking into the present yet awaiting full consummation in the future: the “already but not yet” motif of the Kingdom of God.

In that anticipation, his work must show the fine details that befit the service due a Heavenly King to whom he is personally related. Yet Kingdom work, as we all know, is not at all glamorous. In fact, most of the time, it is work full of drudgery.

Most of the time, we will labor under abject conditions, away from the glare of media; more often than not, our task will be a thank-less one, a mere echo lost in the dark corners of forgotten deeds; and sometimes, we will feel that our life is bone-dry, empty of the excitement that always seems to grip the very depths of the lives of others. We will begin to ask ourselves why is it that it is always the others who seem to bask in the rapture of high spiritual experience. We will long for the ecstasy of God’s presence but fail to find it.

Even poets suffer this impatient intransigence for the sublime, for that “weight of glory,” as C.S. Lewis put it in a famous sermon of his. “One can even imagine a poet who experiences the sublime and demand a high style to express it,” writes the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski in Another Beauty, “but precisely because this is a rare event that requires patient waiting, in daily life he becomes one of poetry’s ironic prosecutors.”

Alas, there is the “painful world” they have to deal with, where the craft of that finely-tuned phrase is a daily and frustrating struggle. It doesn’t help that they must live through the commonplace, all the while longing for the dry bones to quicken and then to die, and then to live again, with a sensitivity to the tiniest ripple of emotions in the space of the personal: “To wake and fall asleep, drowse off and waken, to pass through seasons of doubt, melancholy dark as lead, indifference, boredom, and then the spells of vitality, clarity, hard and happy work, contentment, gaiety, to remember and forget and recollect again, that an eternal fire burns beside us, a God with an unknown name, whom we will never reach.”

It is the painful world we will have to deal with, where sometimes, even the God we serve will seem all too unknown to us.

After all, we’ve been cast out of Eden – what did we expect? Indeed, how do we deal with it? Lest we forget our vocation is a ministry of the greatest “glad tidings”; As people of faith, we must learn “to make sense of what takes place” from that proclamation of the Good News that Jesus is Lord, and that He is Lord of “what takes place” in the present time, as well as of the future.

In his exegesis of Chapter 13 of the Book of Romans, the German New Testament scholar Ernest Kasseman talks of the hidden-ness of Christ. He disputes with Karl Barth’s interpretation of the same text, which proceeds from the view of Christ as Lord of all life. He does not think that a Christological view is appropriate to explain the engagement of the church with the world. In that he is very Lutheran and I do not share Kasseman’s view.Calvin

He is really being inconsistent because what he says in his works, he contradicts with his own practice. We know how he himself was put to prison by the Nazis for calling Hitler an anti-Christ and for working for the mine workers in his parish. But I appropriate his term the hidden-ness of Christ. There is something hidden in the Kingdom of God and in the work of Christ. Think of his birth – in the book of Luke, chapter 2, we read that Joseph and Mary were called back by a census made under the auspices of Augustus Caesar to Bethlehem.

The gospel writer’s reference to Roman authorities places this event in a real place and a real time. But It also reminds us that the great world empire was able to pull people around as it wanted. It was the great power. And yet, behind the scenes, it was only doing what God wanted in the first place.

The census called by a pagan emperor brought the First Family to Bethlehem, in fulfillment of a prophecy made a long, long time ago! Then, at Palm Sunday, we see Jesus riding a donkey; for the world that does not know him, this is an absurdity. Someone who claims to be a King, a messiah, and he can’t even get for himself a proper war-horse? For the Jews of Jesus day, Jesus could have been the Messiah but he didn’t turn out the way they expected. The truth is, the Kingdom of God advances without the world noticing it.

The triumphal entry was a triumph because it marked the fulfillment of the prophecy about Jesus, though the people did not see it that way, and yes, even if his very own disciples did not fully realize what it the fuss in Jerusalem that day was all about. This should be great comfort for us who labor in situations that for most people, are hopeless.

We participate in the “creative process” that is the transformation of people’s lives, and of people’s communities, with the life-giving power of the Spirit. It is a work in the present, with eternal consequences. But what takes place is an offering to Him by whom our very own lives have a purpose greater than ourselves.

His story becomes our story; this literature of faith is woven into the narrative of our individual lives so that ours becomes a demonstration of the transforming power of the greatest story ever told – our greatest impulse for truth-telling. In all this, we must learn the value of sacrifice as its own blessing and reward; ours becomes a sacrificial witness to the truth of the Gospel, because we know that everything else is rubbish compared to glory he has chosen to reveal to us whom he calls by name;

When we gather as a community to enact our baptism in Christ through faith, we confront the world with a different set of values; this set of values was “foolishness” to the Greeks of Paul’s day –indeed, for the intellectuals of his day, a crucified God who now calls his followers to bear their own crosses was incomprehensible; it is the same today.

Ours is a world that mocks the path of holiness; it prefers the pursuit of pleasure with wild abandon; in other words, the glorification of the self and all its excesses, rather than a life lived in service, self-discipline and humility. It prefers self-interest rather than the interest of others. It is a world dazzled by fame, success, comfort, wealth.

The path of Christ, meanwhile, calls us to a discipleship of restraint, simplicity, humility and poverty of spirit. For we are called, to borrow from that nihilist in Nietzsche, to a long obedience in the same direction. It is an impossible message, but only if we depend on our own wisdom and strength. We must take to heart the promise that to ours belong not the spirit of timidity but of power when we proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

Karl Barth once said that it is not enough to be orthodox in our doctrine; he meant to say that we can have all the correct doctrines there is about God, but if we do not witness to the truth of these doctrines through the way we live as members of the body of Christ – indeed, as a church – our doctrines are of no moment.

The correctness of our doctrines we affirm by our practices as a community of faith. Indeed, with St. Francis of Assisi, we can only intone: “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” In the end, the only diminution we cling on to is the diminution of the self, so that He who is the “Stronger One” becomes preeminent in our lives, and in our communal life.

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Written by Romel

October 19, 2015 at 3:16 am

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