Sunday 19 June 2016

Unorthodox Christianity versus Liberal Christianity

Among Orthodox Christians of various churches and denominations, there is a tendency to conflate unorthodox Christians with Liberals - but (leaving-out the inevitable gray areas of overlap) these are in principle quite different - and the tendency to lump the two together has been a factor in driving some extremely creative, honest and vital individuals altogether out of Christianity and into an opposition which has sometimes been devastating.

The lineage of Christians who have perhaps most deeply recognized the importance of imagination as a form of knowledge are all unorthodox - William Blake, ST Coleridge, Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield, William Arkle. But they are not Liberal.

A 'liberal Christian', by contrast, is not really a Christian; but instead one who (in practice - even when this is denied in words) subordinates Christianity to the changing dominant secular ideology of the day. This is almost always achieved by dilution' - that is, by a reduction in the scope, status, power, strength, devoutness, centrality of Christianity in their own lives - and the proposal and policy that this should be the case for others.

Liberals can usually be identified at a large scale by evaluating their attitudes to the 'hot button' or 'litmus test' political issues of their day - when they always side with the secualr ideology; and at a small scale by evaluating their attitude towards those (orthodoxly defined) sins that they themselves are most inclined and prone to - do they fully acknowledge that these are sins, and the necessity for repentance?

It is interesting that almost all high level creative activity is necessarily unorthodox - even when the individual is highly orthodox in their religious observances - consider Tolkien and Lewis.

JRR Tolkien was 100% orthodox in his Roman Catholicism - but in his best creative writings on or about Christianity, he is extremely unorthodox: e.g. the theology of his Silmarillion legendarium - with its many gods, and reincarnating elves; and the allegories of Leaf by Niggle or of Smith of Wootton Major.

CS Lewis was very conventional in his Anglican worship, and advocacy for others - but his creative allegorial theologies of the Narnia Chronicles, and of his brilliant and underrated The Great Divorce - are unorthodox.

Both Tolkien and Lewis are often (by legalistic and literalistic Christians) regarded as unorthodox (and rejected, and labelled as evil) by the mere fact of writing fantasy, and including magic in their worlds. (Numerous YouTube videos attest to this orthodox attitude.)

In sum, I consider the unorthodoxy of individuals to be a vital and positive feature of Christianity; not least because all creative people are almost always unorthodox when they are being creative - and if Christainity expels and excludes all creativity, or treats it as too hazardous for wise men to risk; then Christianity will become dead obedience to external rules - and therefore not Christian at all.

Of course there are hazards to unorthodoxy. And people may be deceptive - may attack, and attempt to subvert Christianity under the guise of creativity. But there is no 'safe' path for Christians - hazards lie on both sides - orthodoxy is prone to apostasy just as is as unorthodoxy. On the other hand, all paths are 'safe' given the right attitudes of love and repentance. 

The orthodox ideal should not be that indvidual creativity be weakened, shackled or destroyed because it is too hazardous, but the opposite.

The ideal is that ultimately (further on in our theosis) all real and true Christians will quite spontaneously become unorthodox - simply by the spontaneous exercise of their natural, God-given, creativity which is an intrinsic part of their real, divine selves.


John Fitzgerald said...

A good example, in my view, of the orthodox mindset would be the Irish Caholic Church in the twentieth-century - exceptionally legalistic and rules-driven. It would be difficult, to say the least, to imagine a Tolkien emerging from this milieu. And both Church and country have suffered since since with the vacuous, liberal, anti-religious reaction that has gathered such speed since the 90s.

One figure, criticised at times for political naivety, but with a rock-solid grasp of the importance of imaginative, unorthodox, yet non-liberal Christianity, is Rowan Williams. This is shown by his eloquent championing, over the years, of Lewis, Charles Williams, R.S Thomas and Dostoyevsky among others. Williams himself is a poet of some panache and verve. His poems are charged with vivid, original and often startling imagery and theological insight.

I exclude, in this critique, my own church (with a small c), which emphasises the Ignatian tradition of imaginative, Christ-centred contemplation, but it saddens me the extent to which so many Catholics (I can't speak for other denominations) tend to think in such straight, reductionist, 'it's either this way or that way' lines. Sometimes the most solemn and reverent churches, that rightly set such a high bar on the Sacred, tend to be the least open to the kind of unorthodoxy you speak of, confusing it with what used to be called 'free-thinking'. What a wasted opportunity for encounter with the numinous! The liberal end of the spectrum, on the other hand, make a big hoo-hah about 'creativity' (The Catholic weekly, The Tablet, is a good example of this) yet if what the religiously-minded artist creates doesn't hit all the PC notes then politie silence and the odd embarrassed cough is the best he or she can hope for.

But maybe this is how it should be. The unorthodox, it often appears, are ahead of the curve in so ways. They are forerunners, blazing a trail for others to follow when the time is right. Like the Magi, they have to follow the star and trust that what (and Who) it is guiding them towards is nothing less than God Himself, the Divine fount and wellspring - wild, fierce, unpredictable, untameable - next to Whom our neat socio-political categories look simply silly - not in the slightest bound to the timid legalistic wheel that continues to drag and pull back so many of our contemporaries.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - I regard Rowan Williams as a Liberal - because he takes the non-Christian side on all the current litmus test issues (relating to the sexual revolution), and therefore comes out as someone who is putting Secular Leftism first.

He was also, as Cantaur, often evasive to the point of dishonesty.

I agree he has a creative side, but then so do plenty of non-Christians. When I recently had a review of Grevel Lindop's Charles Williams biography published in a symposium in Journal of Inklings Studies, RW had a review also - it was fully of dreadful lefty 'ism' lit crit stuff, and moral grandstanding of the 'hand-wringing' variety.

So we will have to disagree on that topic!

Thursday said...

Rowan Williams is sometimes a great scholar of Christianity, if not quite a Christian scholar. A great talent, often misused.

360 Decrees said...

Legalistic and literalist Christians miss the significance of the element of play in the appropriating and converting of features of pagan mythology into tropes for the entertainment of children and the child in us. It is clearly the work of the victors, the new dancing on the grave of the old. Pre-Christian Europeans peering into the present might, if not outraged at our irreverence, be fearful at our reckless invoking--what we would call evoking--of forces we appear not to understand or believe in, and just for fun.

I don't have my copy of The Great Divorce at hand, but I recall that Lewis added a sort of disclaimer at the end by having George MacDonald warn the narrator that he was not to represent his experience as anything more than a vision: "I'll have no Swedenborgs among my children." Lewis clearly wanted to hear as little as possible of the predictable carping over his rendering of Hell as a cage with the door wide open rather than as a 'slammer', to say nothing of his interpretation of Christ's descent into Hell: "There is no one to whom he has not preached." (It was common in Production Code era Hollywood to forestall similar nose-twitching by putting cheery disclaimers at the beginnings of films like Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and On Borrowed Time.)

Bruce Charlton said...

COMMENT FROM THURSDAY: "Yes, I might quibble with some of your examples (Blake seems mostly a man of the left), but in general this is totally true.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are many, many, many people who are non-Christian, but definitely not leftists or liberals, namely people of other religions (...) This doesn't mean their views are necessarily good, but they certainly aren't leftist or liberal.

(Liberal/leftist views are always bad, but just because religious/conservative/traditional views are religious/conservative/traditional doesn't mean those views are always and necessarily good.)"

AnteB said...

There seems to be an iconoclastic tendency among "strict, orthodox" Christians that for some reason views all original and creative views and works of art as carrying the seeds of idolatry and thus must be suppressed.

This iconoclastic tendency exists among all religions and sects and is no doubt strongest in the other great monotheism (as you call it here).

I think your way of distinguishing between real Christians and liberals are one of those genuinely original "Charlton ideas". I haven´t come across the perspective before but once I did it seems so obvious and simple.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AnteB - Thanks.

As I said there are (as always) grey areas or 'hard cases' that are hard/ impossible to decide but in the vast majority of cases where we need to form a decision, it is very easy indeed to know whether someone is an unorthodox (real) Christian or a liberal (pseudo-) 'Christian'.

Of course there are legitimate worries about how 'other people' might or will misinterpret unorthodoxy - but that is not the question being considered here. And the potential misinterpretation of unorthodoxy is 'balanced' on the other side by the potential for people to misuse ultra-strict Christian orthodoxy as camouflage to pursue a life motivated by anti-Christian impulses such as pride, despair, sadism, masochism, hatred, and power-seeking.

I think Christians need to be more confident that God would not have placed us in a world like this one without the ability to discern truth and goodness *sufficiently* for the purposes God has in mind for us.

Of course, many/ most people choose not to deploy this discernment, or to ignore or misuse it - but we ought to be able to agree that it is there so than everybody, no matter what their situation, has the *capability* to know what they ought to do.

William Wildblood said...

Another fine post. Unorthodox Christians (not all but many) are often striving to penetrate more deeply into the heart of Christianity and see how it exists in terms of higher worlds. Liberal Christians, by contrast, generally interpret it entirely in the context of this world.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - Blake certainly was a political radical - but of course being a 'leftist' 200 plus years ago was a very different matter from being a leftist with nine generations of experience of the consequences.

My point is that Blake's unorthodoxy was a creative consequence of his intense and lived spiritual Christianity - and NOT a consequence of fitting his religion around his politics; nor was it an excuse or rationalization for his unrepented sins.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I suppose the prejudice of orthodoxy against unorthodoxy derives from the primacy of churches or denominations in the theology of many or most Christians - which understands the church as primary; and the individual's salvation as deriving from church membership, participation, ratification, approval etc.

Many or most Christian churches claim exclusiveness - but in the end the truth of this matter boils down to fundamental conviction derived from personal revelation - is it, or is it not, conceivable that the creator God, our wholly loving Father, placed us all in this world with our destiny *absolutely* _dependent_ on a specific institution?

I personally believe that at least some of the institutional Christian churches are extremely valuable at the large scale and in specific contexts - and without them there would be very little Christianity in the world (there would be some - in a broad brush sense, from direct revelations - but very little); but specific churches are often net unhelpful, frequently do more harm than good to an individual's Christian Life, and are not necessary at the individual level.

In other words, I believe that individual Christians can and must - at the bottom line - judge the churches; and not vice versa.

Christianity just is something that happens at the individual personal level, by choice, and through the activities such as thinking and living and loving... or not at all.

William Wildblood said...

I agree. In a sense the whole point of Christianity, certainly more than any other religion, is the reality of the person. Therefore it is not unreasonable that one's approach should be personal, and that may mean unorthodox. At the same time I would submit that this unorthodoxy must be within the context of orthodoxy which is a tricky balance to strike but we have to do so otherwise anything goes.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William: "unorthodoxy must be within the context of orthodoxy which is a tricky balance to strike "

Yes, and I think that the way this works is that both orthodox and unorthodox Christianity *when valid* come from the same roots - therefore, insofar as this is true, unorthodoxy will, as a matter of course and quite spontaneously, fit with orthodoxy *in all essentials*.

AnteB said...

"And the potential misinterpretation of unorthodoxy is 'balanced' on the other side by the potential for people to misuse ultra-strict Christian orthodoxy as camouflage to pursue a life motivated by anti-Christian impulses such as pride, despair, sadism, masochism, hatred, and power-seeking."

Absolutely. In a way I believe those ultra-strict people (to the extent they are motivated by the reasons you mention) subvert the Good as much as the liberals they despise but in a different way. There is a blogger that Bonald links to, Mundabor, and I think he is an example of such an ultra-strict person. There is a profound darkness in that blog that is motivated by a supposed "love of the truth".

"I think Christians need to be more confident that God would not have placed us in a world like this one without the ability to discern truth and goodness *sufficiently* for the purposes God has in mind for us."

I hope you are right. For a long time I have struggled with how to know what is right, which church is the truest etc at the same time as I have mistrusted my own narrow and subjective viewpoints. Now I believe that we have only our conscience and our personal disposition to lead us (and maybe the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit seems to lead people in different directions) and that is probably a freedom God have given us.

AnteB said...

Sorry if my last post was pointing fingers at specific persons. It was unnecessary.

"Yes, and I think that the way this works is that both orthodox and unorthodox Christianity *when valid* come from the same roots - therefore, insofar as this is true, unorthodoxy will, as a matter of course and quite spontaneously, fit with orthodoxy *in all essentials* "

There is problem with this though, and that is what is "the essentials" probably can´t be agreed upon. I believe many mainstream Christians would consider yours (and Arkle´s?) faith in the Heavenly Mother and friendship with God as the primary goal with existence as beyond the pale. And as we know many Christians consider everyone outside of their church to be far outside the bounds of orthodoxy - so far that they have nothing important to say.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AB - Of course people will disagree - they disagree in science and in every other domain of human activity. Full consensus never happens, and even consensus among reasonable and informed people is extremely rare. But the point remains valid at the ultimate level: IF Christian variants come from the same true roots they will agree on the essentials - and the essentials are very few and very simple, albeit difficult to put briefly and unambiguously into words.

Nathaniel said...

My understanding was that Tolkien and Lewis weren't unorthodox so much as expansive and Universal (or "catholic" if you will, lol).

The Church or churches tend to limit themselves to being very specific (i.e. how to obtain salvation for yourself and others), but in their works the authors open up the immense possibilities of God's universe to our mind - which is important and especially necessary for our age of dead materialism!

Our churched ancestors tended to believe the Universe was far more mysterious and wonderful than we tend to now, so a modern church without that alive, magical, or even animistic background can seem very dry! Those who proudly claim orthodoxy and live for correction of errors appear to be trying to limit God in a sense, or to restrict everything to a simple system they hope to control or manage correctly, and tend to often develop a coldness of heart.

(I think your assessment of needing to "go forward" or perhaps "grow towards God" is right. I certainly side with traditionalists, but liberals have successfully created a fear that needs to overcome - that all things which perhaps appear new or different are attempts at liberal subversion - and we cannot completely freeze time to a specific golden age or become dry, brittle, and easy to destroy)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathaniel - In their fiction/ fantasy, Tolkien and Lewis were unorthodox to many of those who are alert about such matters - at least that is what they complain - and such people would not allow expansive and Universal as an alternative category. The mere mention of magic or wizards is enough to rule them out from orthodoxy - unless these were explicitly portrayed as necessarily evil.

Nathaniel said...

I suppose you're right. I was watching a Catholic kids cartoon about St. Patrick with my son, and it had an evil Gandalf-looking character who had to be defeated.

That perspective seems flatly wrong though when Christians openly accept miracles and other supernatural characters - certainly we could accept that good and bad magic exist, but good magic seems much the same or similar to miracles, angelic abilities, etc.

The obvious parallel is the Pharisees accusing Christ in being league with the devil for his miracles.