Friday, May 18, 2018

Embodiment and Holiness

     When, as a youngster, we left the familiar precincts of the Friends and moved into the Wesleyan orbit, I encountered something new. I'd been raised by Christian parents, gone to a Christian church, lived on the campus of a Christian (Friends) college, and rather assumed, I supposed, that I was a Christian. Apparently, though, it took more than just growing up Christian to be Christian. The matter of conversion began to come up as I grew older—more on that another time—and something else: holiness.
     The holiness I refer to was a product of the Holiness Movement of the mid 19th century in the US. Largely a Wesleyan development, it was born of a concern with social gospel—especially abolition and temperance—living a Wesleyan-style sanctified life free of sin, and a “Third Great Awakening“ desire to reform the waning evangelicalism of mainline Protestant churches. It produced, most famously, the Salvation Army, and other denominations, including the Johnny-come-lately Nazarenes and my own Free Methodists.
     A hundred years later, my church's concern with holiness seemed to me to be mostly about avoiding “sinful” occasions, such as dances, saloons and movie theaters, as well as the diversions usually found there, including smoking and drinking, and the loose women, gamblers, queers and other undesirables who frequented them. The many-time Prohibition Party candidate for President, for example, was a product of a distinguished (and presumably holy) Los Angeles family of Free Methodists.
     For a splinter group to drift a bit, or perhaps to rest on their laurels, as the initial disaccords fade into inconsequence, is understandable, and even predictable. (The upstate NY Methodist conference that ejected the founder of the F.M. Church has since repented of its action, officially, and the F.M.s now cooperate with the parent organization in publishing and theological education.)
It may even be that with time the F.M.s will grow closer to their Methodist forebears as both enter together into the postmodern era of understanding. And it may be that cows will take wing and fly themselves to the stockyards.
     When I consult a reliable evangelical definition of holiness, I get the following: “...holiness is a cutting off or separation from what is unclean, and a consecration to what is pure.”1 Catholics follow Aquinas, calling it “...a very real though hidden separation from this world...a great strength of character or stability in the service of God.”2    Whether one prefers the Mosaic turn of the evangelicals or the Thomist version of the Catholics, it is clear that holiness seems to require a life centrosymmetric to the Divine; a life of service. Simply avoiding sin could be seen, in fact, as a kind of passive-aggressive modus vivendi. If I'm not sinning, I must be okay, right?
     Well, no. A host of church fathers,3 headed by Augustine, point out that service, whether defined as love (the Christian commandment) or virtue (the Greek philosophical/Thomist version) requires not only the negative, the refusal to act in sinful ways, but the positive, the requirement to symptomatize. (Yeah, it's a fifty-cent word, but I kinda like it. Think about it.)
     One can argue that there is a moment when holiness strikes, and that is that. The Puritans did, the Wesleyans and the charismatics do also; even a variety of Calvinists also continue the 17th-century idea that acting holy and being holy are identical.
     Of course, there is a bit of a problem with holiness. A flaw in the diamond. A fly in the ointment. An itch where it can't be scratched. A …. you get the idea. It's called sin. Wesleyan sanctification or saintly virtue notwithstanding, sooner or later, everybody does it. Sta. Teresa did it in Ávila the sixteenth century, or so she said, and so did St. Teresa of Calcutta in the twentieth.
     In the Reformation, and particularly the Reform branch of Geneva and Calvin, holiness was derived from instruction in biblical truth from the pulpit. Inculcated with proper notions, behaving as instructed, and cognizant of grace, believers would, hopefully, join the holy elect. But which are the elect?
     Absent some divine sign—maybe a halo descending upon one entering the chancel—the only determination was a social one. Those who lived the holiest life could be, generously, assumed to be among the saints. And the holiest life was no longer the one devoted to churchly orders, but in the new, renaissance capitalist communities, it was one devoted to being a productive citizen, contributing to the building of a holy society to come, perhaps the New Jerusalem of the Radical Reformation. Acts—observed behavior—determined holiness.
     This Reformation notion found perhaps its most extreme realization in the American fundamentalist “new evangelicals” and the holiness movements' insistence on the primacy of all individual Christians' (and their churches') role as evangelists. Church services were little more than quests for converts (no service could conclude without an altar call); personal holiness depended on home Bible reading and prayer; and “witnessing” at work and school—in the absence of full-time mission work—was the least one could do.
     The quest for holiness thus skipped over the second of the Reformation's three solas—sola gratia. Grace may be God's, but behavior—i.e. works—can be evaluated socially. This is the point where my academic background begs me to insert some quote from an authority to buttress my point. Instead, I'll insert an anonymous note scribbled carefully by a previous (and skeptical) reader in the margins of one of my used books, Robert Webber's Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1999).
     Webber, in discussing the Nicene Creed's “Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church,” says “This confession is not about the church, but an experienced reality of Christ's presence in the church.” (p. 84). My previous reader, painstakingly using a straight edge to guide (and cramp) his gel-ink pen, writes “when was this ever experienced?”
     Which is, ironically, pretty much what Webber was writing about—that the church is not and never has been especially holy, at least as theologians and reformists imagine holy; that is, as perfect inclusions of perfect, sanctified and/or elect people. The church is like a collection of professors, lawyers, mechanics or doctors—folks engaged in the practice of their faith. Like the professionals in our metaphor, they don't always get it right.
     In America, since the Puritans of New England fled even the Long Parliament days back home, the sine qua non of holiness has been “consistent God-fearing behavior,” as Sydney Ahlstrom describes it in his magisterial history of American Christianity.4 But, Michael Polanyi provides a glimpse of what holiness can mean to a postmodern/postchristian believer in his discussion of tacit knowledge.5
     Tacit knowledge is not the knowing created by immersion in theological arcana or Sunday sermonizing. It is knowing established by the constant habit of doing. It might begin with an descriptive outline of something, but by developing a behavior thus described, the knowing becomes not only ingrained as habit, but more fully grasped and put to use in ways that resist description.
     Two examples: one is riding a bicycle. One begins with a set of training wheels, a careful push from a caregiver or teacher, a few words of advice, and a somewhat hesitant, staggering start, punctuated, perhaps, by a skinned knee or a bruised elbow. Cut to the adult breezing down Figueroa Avenue on a ten-speed, making constant instinctive alterations of balance, flipping through gears, inches from passing automobiles, relaxed and even guiding the bike back and forth without hands on the handlebars.
     Or, one glances across Alumni Park and glimpses a friend near Tommy Trojan. There is no method or description that can explain how it is we recognize that one individual in the crowd, but we do.
     A man who lived at the beginning of the Reformation, but joined the Brothers of the Common Life, wrote “Today thou confessest thy sins, and tomorrow thou committest the very same thou hast confessed. Now, thou art purposed to look well unto thy ways, and within a while thou so behavest thyself, as though thou hadst never such purpose at all.”6
     “I would I were able, at least for one day, to do Thee one worthy service.”7
     The history of reform movements within Christianity, from the beginning, is that sooner or later the original piety and enthusiasm fades, to be overtaken by forgetfulness, misdirection, dissension, greed or fear. Dominican missionary friars become Inquisitors, pious Presbyterians become slave-masters, humble evangelists become proud plutocrats. Individuals, as well, find the road of life in Christ to be difficult to sustain over a long haul.
     As I was writing this, a new pope released his statement on holiness, in which he writes not as a theologian, but a pastor: “My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities. For the Lord has chosen each one of us 'to be holy and blameless before him in love (Eph 1:4)'8.”
     Francis' lengthy document is one I must spend some time with, but at first read it is evident that he gets it. This is a guy worth listening to.
     I leave with this idea: that Holiness is difficult to imagine or teach, but it can be learned.

1Baker's Encyclopedia of the Bible, quoted in Kay Arthur, “What is Holiness?”,,. Retrieved 4/17/2018
23 Pope, Hugh. “Holiness.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. NY: Appleton, 1910. Retrieved 17 Apr. 2018.
3Yes, there were a few mothers, too. My favorite is Sta. Teresa of Ávila, whose La Vida de Santa Teresa de Jesús and El Castillo Interior (which influenced Descartes) ought to be required reading for people interested in holiness.
4A Religious History of the American People, New Haven, Yale, 1972, p. 145.
5Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension, Gloucester, MA. Peter Smith, 1983.
6Thomas À Kempis. Of the Imitation of Christ. Ch. XII, 6.
7Ibid, X, 4.

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