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Renovating the Cathedral of Christian Orthodoxy: part two

For I testify on their behalf that they have zeal for God, but one not according to knowledge.

—Romans 10—

In Part I: The Cathedral of Christian Orthodoxy, I described the dilemma faced by contemporary Christians as they navigate a world increasingly torn between two cultural poles. On one hand, they can opt for the reduced option of the Progressive: Tear away the inconveniences of historic Christianity until you’re left with a few generic ethical principles. As I argued, this option has little appeal if you have much interest in continuity with the Christianity of the last two millennia. This leaves us with what I call the “Cathedral” option: We can take shelter in a massive, beautiful, complex structure of belief built with the stones of time-tested Tradition. Between these two models of Christianity, it seems most sincere Christians have usually taken some form of the latter, attracted by its various amenities. Many treasure their Cathedral and fervently guard its every component with equal fervor. Many would feel lost if any part of their Cathedral ever changed.

There is a problem, however. Clutter in the Cathedral’s basement—some of it very old—has become part of the permanent art and architecture of the space, assuming its own sacrality in the process. As a result, Christians often find themselves fighting ferociously over matters peripheral at best to their Christianity. Because of such brittle thinking, we feel compelled to lock men and women into firmly prepackaged roles at home and in their calling to conform to our social instincts; any and all contraception becomes a flagrant crime against natural law; we come to view Islam, Communism, or even NBC as the great existential threat to our way of life; we regard science with a hostile suspicion; we find ourselves worshiping awkwardly yet rather slavishly at the altar of our chosen politicians “who brought us up out of Egypt.” The catch with the Cathedral’s design is that if one part goes, the whole structure might just come down with it, so you’d best not touch anything, thank you very much.

Jesus Faced the Same Dichotomy

In reality, there is nothing new about the dichotomy of the Progressive’s stripped-down, abstract ideal versus the grand Cathedral of Orthodoxy. The historian need not squint much to see that Jesus himself repeatedly faced the same basic issues in the Judaism of his day. These camps of course had different labels in the first century. Similar to the Progressive Christian, the Jewish Sadducee, the Herodian, and others like them felt Judaism in its historic entirety was a little too disruptive and inconvenient. After all, participating as elite members of the Hellenistic-Roman world had its definite advantages. If that meant that their Judaism was stripped-down, tailored, and modified, so be it. Not exactly an inspiring example of strict religious devotion, but their self-interested pragmatism usually did its job.

Jesus and John the Baptist had plenty of criticism for the “Progressive” groups, and it contributed to both of their deaths. (In Jesus’ case, it was mainly the denunciation of the Sadducean chief priests and the Temple establishment. For John, it was his vociferous condemnation of Herod and Herodias.) Yet surprisingly, if the Gospel accounts are any indication, Jesus clashed just as frequently, if not more so, with the Pharisees, with whom he was much more akin theologically.

What’s Not to Like about the Pharisees?

What wasn’t to like about the Pharisees? They were the conservatives, after all. There was no boiling down of their Judaism. They held the Scriptures in high regard. They fiercely devoted themselves to keeping the covenantal requirements set before Israel by Yahweh, so much so that they had built a “fence” of protective regulations around the obligations of the Torah. (“If we don’t break these additional rules and traditions,” so the thinking went, “then we won’t come anywhere close to violating the Torah.”) Nevertheless, it is well documented that Jesus cared little for the Pharisean blueprint.

Besides the blatant hypocrisy that contaminated every part of their behavior, Jesus faulted the Pharisees for having the wrong priorities. Their “righteousness” revolved around checking boxes, managing minutia, and maintaining the bigger system they had constructed. Like many Christians today, the Pharisees had built their own Cathedral. Too often, this system became a sacrosanct end in itself. To their frustration and indignation, Jesus showed no qualms in demolishing and pronouncing God’s judgment upon the structure that served as the platform for their righteousness. As it turns out, God’s kingdom doesn’t work that way: “For I’m telling you, unless your righteousness well surpasses the scribes and Pharisees, you’re definitely not getting into the kingdom of heaven.”

No Ideology Should Be Idolized

How do we move past the Pharisean righteousness in our thinking? First, we must develop a greater cognizance of the fallible models, ideological assumptions, and systems of thought (i.e. the mental furniture) that we have inherited from the outside. Such mental furniture can be useful, but Christians of all people need to be willing to alter or even discard that furniture in the interest of truth. No ideology should become sacrosanct unto itself. As C. S. Lewis advised in the epilogue to The Discarded Image, “I am only suggesting considerations that may induce us to regard all Models in the right way, respecting each and idolising none.” The subject of this important but lesser-known book by Lewis was the great Medieval conception of the universe. This model was the ultimate version of our aforementioned Cathedral—beautiful, ordered, intricately detailed, and rife with hierarchy and teleology—yet it turned out to be faulty in many of its central assumptions.

Second, theologically and socially conservative Christians—I count myself among these—need to cultivate a more robust sense of adiaphora: issues that may be important, but not dogmatically essential to our Christianity. Said another way, we need to hold some of our positions with a humbler, looser grip. Lest I be tarred as a latitudinarian Progressive, this is not to say that there are no essential truths in Christianity, nor that we should avoid having and defending convictions. On the contrary, real discipleship demands that we love God with our minds. Communally and individually, we should be thinking hard about politics, economics, culture, social justice, and the ancillary doctrines that flesh out our belief system. At the same time, Christians ought not feel compelled to battle to the death for every sub-article of their worldview.

Authentic Orthodoxy

Finally and perhaps most importantly, we are obligated to resist the ever-present temptation to view ourselves as a fortress whose purpose is to keep the outsiders at bay. This aggressively defensive posture tends to operate based on categories of “us versus them.” This attitude is destructive enough when “they” are outside the church, but often that label is even applied to other Christians. The healthier self-image that runs through much of the Scriptural tapestry is that of a people through whom God seeks to bless the rest of the world, bringing about reconciliation and new creation. In the words of Psalm 67, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.” God favors and strengthens us above all that his goodness and power would be better known and instantiated throughout the rest of the world. It is not for our own sakes, nor so that we can better hold down his fort against the chaos outside.

These suggestions require stepping out of the comfort of the grand old Cathedral of Orthodoxy to do renovations—in some cases, even to check that we have built on the right foundation in the first place. Like Saul the Pharisee, we may have learned many good and true things at the feet of our own Gamaliels, and we may be zealous for those lessons. Yet we must ask ourselves whether this zeal is always based on knowledge and familiarity with God—or something else. Then we can arrange our priorities rightly. To our surprise, the Messiah may challenge us to move beyond safe, hermetically-sealed structures of thought that tell us exactly what to believe and how to act in every situation toward something much better: an internalized wisdom, prudence, and essential character that he desires in his followers—authentic orthodoxy.

Author: Andrew Koperski

Andrew Koperski is a master's student at Ohio University where he studies ancient and medieval history. He takes particular interest in issues concerning Christianity, politics, and culture--both in the past and in the present. When he's not reading, he enjoys weightlifting, basketball, fishing, and otherwise spending time with his wife, Caroline.

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