Sunday, September 24, 2017

1 Corinthians 13 (Cont.)

     In 1966, the evangelical community closed ranks, built fortifications, and prepared to sally forth against the forces of the Great Satan, cleverly disguised as a feisty, opinionated Episcopal priest, Joseph Fletcher. It was perhaps the most unifying evangelical moment since the second Great Awakening. What he did was to write a best-seller, Situation Ethics1. Being a nosy and curious sort in those days, I took myself to the college bookstore and snatched up a copy to see what the fuss was about.
     I read quickly (English majors either learn to scan fast or switch to pre-med or something else easy), noted a handful of rather common sense notions, and abandoned the project as just another case of the stick-in-the-muds getting their undershorts in a bunch over nothing. Of course, I was a theological neophyte and not interested in going near the nonentities who populated our religion department, anyway. This was the background with which I dug out an ancient copy of Fletcher this week and took on the project of finding out whether his work belonged in the postmodern/postchristian arena as an early harbinger, a relevant contribution, or not at all.
     The answer, I found, was the latter. Like many moralists and theologians, Fletcher could not escape two beguilements. First, there is the temptation of closure. Since Augustine at least, and certainly since the advent of modernism, there is an accepted route through systematic Christian thinking, one that starts with foundation, proceeds to logic, and ends in conclusion, which is of course just another word for arrest, closure, finality. Conclusion becomes the present, extended into the future as alleged but impossible permanence, the final word, the authority; the immediate past disappears, a foggy quasi-memory, and if one must explain, one cites foundation as if there existed a direct, forgotten but unquestionable link from inception to finish.
     The second temptation to which Fletcher succumbs is a semantic one: confusing grammar with substance. This particular temptation goes back to the birth of Christianity, when theological writers tried, to our continuing confusion, to graft Greek philosophy onto the Christian root and, instead of producing an integral, monistic growth got a sort of divided stem in which the growth of neither half kept pace with the other, leaning it first to one side, and then to the other. I refer, of course, to the doubtful and dubitable fusion of the classical virtues prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice with the Christian “virtues” faith, hope, charity.
     The classical virtues have a certain semantic quality of direct involvement with action. We would have no problem identifying a prudent act, or an act of justice; such virtues clearly cannot be easily separated from the acts performed under their command, hence the classical Greek philosophers associated them with morality and the public good.

     Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deut 6:4, NRSV)

     Then there's the Old Testament. Deuteronomy gives the Hebrews not only the Shema, the declaration of faith, but the accompanying commandment that is the greatest commandment for them. Later on, Christ will quote Deuteronomy similarly, and Paul will add faith, hope and charity, echoing his earlier description, love never ends.2  The apostolic church had to be content with those statements, but as the church grew and began to produce bishops and other experts, most of them educated in classical, neo-Platonist and Aristotelian mode, the active, moralistic concept of classical virtue led them to view the Christian commandment of faith, hope and love as partaking of the same moralistic and behavioral orientation.
     The main argument for theologians, in fact, has tended to be over whether love and faith are bestowed by God or available inherently in human beings. Gift or get? (If such a question ever bothered the original disciples the way, say, they argued over which one was the best at discipling,3 it is not recorded in the gospels.)
     The early Hebrews had a lot of things to say about organizing the public good (see Leviticus and Deuteronomy), many carrying dire consequences—stoning was a favorite—but love is pretty much left in the individual's own hands. God, they warn, is apt to punish folks for failing to show their love for Him, thus leaving the most important business to divine care.
     Kenneth Burke4, now considered one of the early 'prophets' of postmodern thought, speculated that actions might be analyzed through the “Dramatistic Pentad5,” a five-part analytical tool that requires identifying the Act, Scene, Agency (means by which it is done), Agent (who does it), and Purpose. For Purpose, as the title of his book implies, one can often substitute “Motive.” Purpose, to make the distinction clear, is more of a classical notion: its question is “What is the expected or hoped-for result?” Motive, on the other hand, is more subjective. Its question is simply “Why?” Not “What do you want to happen?”, but rather, before any act is performed, “What motivates you to want to do it?”
     This distinction, thanks to a few centuries of Western thought, escapes many, especially those who, like Burke, concede the alleged irretrievability of any link between thought and action.

     You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? (Matt 7:16, NRSV)

     Matthew is often misquoted. A quick look at Google shows, on the first page alone, a misquote from guardian.com, a book title from 1908, and an lds.org writer who correctly quotes Matthew but immediately (still in the Google entry) switches to “works,” possibly because good ole Joe Smith misquoted while inventing the Book of Moroni. Misquoting Matthew as “by their works,” rather than fruits, follows the general trend started by John Chrysostom (another scholar of Greek philosophy) of identifying 'fruits' as identical with behavior, or acts.
     Christ's words, quoted by his apostle, are on the other hand specifically organic. His extended metonymy suggests a visceral or biologic relationship. Theologian Joseph McLendon, whose Systematic Theology6 develops a postmodern Anabaptist approach, envisions a three-strand methodology involving the individual's identity in terms of a bodily existence, a social existence, and a Resurrectional existence. In the first strand, “All of us are aware of compelling drives, needs, and functions that we locate in our bodily or organic existence.7
     It is perhaps inevitable, given the history of the church, that we early on began to view 'bodily needs' as contrary to the demands of Christian obedience. For example, the monastic movement, of vital importance to society in the Middle Ages, ironically began as a way to provide an eremitic-like existence for the monks.
      Bodily existence, to the post-apostolic Christian church, was distinct from mind, and from such things as soul or spirit. This was not entirely in tune with Hebrew views of the holistic man, nor with the Greek, which used soma to describe the body, and two words, pneuma and psyche, to describe the soul and mind, but nevertheless gave to their Roman students the famous phrase mens sana in corpore sano.8 Paul, in Hebrews, uses the two Greek words in a trope to emphasize the unity of man before God.9 The church largely follows Paul's lead in considering the soul's relationship to God without worrying about the Gnostic heresy of division between soul and spirit10.
     Today, in fact, 'pneumatology' is a theological term of art describing the study of the Holy Spirit, while 'psychology' is both a distinct discipline in medical and academic study and a popular usage for mental processes other than 'rational' thinking. Such is the unity within man that contemporary medicine must seek among combinations of verbal, behavioral and chemical means not only in its efforts to mend mental illnesses, but in treating and preventing physical afflictions as well.
     In the end, man's actions are a result of decisions determined in the mind, either conscious or reflexive, and the former are guided, in the light of the Resurrectionist being, by the greatest motive, love. Love is something quite distinct and separate from the calculations of utilitarianism, as Fletcher ultimately reaches with his identification of love with justice11, or the fanaticism of blind credulousness.
     Agape, as the Greek has it, whether bestowed as a gift or product of the Holy Spirit's work within man, is God's motive, not ours. It transcends both human rationality and human emotion. Which is, after all, kind of what the whole Christian thing is all about.

Notes:
1 (Westminster John Knox P, Louisville, Ky, 1966) Reissued 1997.
2Mark 12:28-31; 1 Cor 13:8a, 13.
3Mark 9:33.
4Burke (1897-1993), an Ohio U. and Columbia dropout, was an autodidact who nevertheless became a college lecturer and integral part of the NYC intellectual scene and deeply influenced the following generation of scholars.
5A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley, CA, U of Calif P, 1945). Reissued 1969.
6Vol 1: Ethics (Nashville, Abingdon P, 1986).
7Ibid, p. 78.
8Juvenal (c. 100 C.E.), Satire X (10.356-64). Full line: “orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.” Tr. “pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.”
9Heb 4:12.
10There remain some in the fundamentalist and dispensationalist communities who insist on the Gnostic version.

11i.e., “...the procedural principle of utilitarianism...and the normative principle of the commandment (“love your neighbor”) result in the greatest amount of agape for the great number of neighbors possible. That is justice....Love and justice are the same. [Moral Responsibility (Philadelphia, Westminster P, 1967), p. 56.]

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