Tuesday 15 February 2022

Despairing of This World is a problem for 'traditional' forms of Christianity

After I became a Christian, my path was towards a traditional and orthodox understanding, based upon a strong church. 

There were two problems. The first is that there were exceedingly few strong and Christian churches even a decade ago but since the birdemic there are none. 

The second line is to seek a traditional and orthodox Christianity based-upon either a small but devout church, or some traditionalist section from within one of the large churches: the first is mostly followed by serious Protestants, the latter by serious Catholics - both Eastern and Western. 

But there is a problem with any serious attempt to lead a traditionalist life for one who is realistic about This World, and that is the tendency to despair about This World - and to live entirely in hope and expectation of The World To Come

I saw this most vividly and explicitly within the most traditionalist branches of the Eastern Orthodox church, towards which I was gravitating under the influence of reading Fr Seraphim Rose. Rose died in 1982; but even forty years ago, he could perceive that the tradition of Orthodoxy had been broken (by the Russian Revolution, after which there were no Orthodox nations). For one who bases his Christian life on tradition - that break must be irreversible.

It meant that we had entered the End Times, and that the best that could be hoped was each individual person becoming ever more isolated from the True Church; using personal discernment to try and discover and cling-to whatever he could of traditional doctrines and practices. But aware that this path could only decline, dwindle-towards... well, not nothing, but very little

And to treasure that 'very little' was the only and best prospect. 

Realistically and honestly; such a Christian mortal life could only be a lifetime of incremental retreat and rearguard fighting; destined to lose; and therefore, all hope would be directed towards escaping this mortal life with faith intact

In other words; traditionalists were called-upon to live without hope for this mortal life - except the real-but-shrinking hope of holding-onto enough of Christian faith to reach the next world of resurrection into Heaven. 

Hope was therefore to be directed almost (but not quite) entirely towards our own death. 

This is indeed a possible way of surviving spiritually in this mortal life; and it is a path some people within the orthodox traditional churches have apparently chosen - including some who do not seem fully to realize that they have chosen it.

I say this because such Christians apparently continue to interact with this mortal life as if there was hope of reversing its spiritual decline; but they betray their real feelings by expressing an almost impatient desire for their own death (when God wills it, obviously - not by suicide) and/or for the end of the world. 

Indeed, most Christians will have experienced exactly this feeling from time to time. 

Yet I think it is mistaken. I believe that a fuller view of Christian life will recognize that God will not sustain any situation - any person's life, any civilization - without good and positive reason. 

So long as we personally are alive, and our civilization continues; this is because there is important spiritual work yet to be done in-line with God's plans - IF we make the right choices.  

In other words, we ought to (must) continue to hope for this mortal life as well as for the immortal life to come - yet this hope needs to be realistic and truthful, and therefore spiritual rather than material. 

We need, I think, to be able to accept that these may be (seem to be) the End Times in which this world (including its churches) is in terminal decline, a decline that cannot be reversed and will lead (overall) to massive physical suffering...

And yet we need to have a hope-full, positive, attitude to the spiritual possibilities of this life. 

In practice - for me, and perhaps most people - Christian hope cannot be wholly negative and defensive in the way that seems to be entailed by traditionalism

Therefore, I think it is absolutely reasonable to suppose that God will always be working to enable each person to have solid grounds for positive spiritual achievement in his or her own mortal life - whatever the fate of The World.

Consequently I came to reject a Christianity based in traditionalism and orthodoxy of theology that (when honestly conceptualized, as by Seraphim Rose) offered no realistic and positive hope for this mortal life. 

To be positively hope-full for this mortal life (as well as for the life to come) entails moving the focus away from civilization, nation and church to the level of the individual Christian. 

Which led me to 'Romantic Christianity'.   

I hope I have made it clear that I regard traditionalist/ orthodox Christianity to be a valid option, a genuinely possible way of Christian life. 

But it is a desperate situation to be in - and one that cannot be sustained by many people. There is a tendency to lose the slender and dwindling hope altogether - and then to despair of This World. And such despair is a sin - because This World, however corrupt, is yet God's creation. 

Which may be why there has been such a massive apostasy from traditional Christian (and other) churches - especially at the levels of leadership: an abandonment of Christianity in this world - and its replacement with mainstream secular left values. 

There is an alternative way of being Christian - one which offers the possibility of a hopeful attitude to this moral world, and a sense of positive purpose for this mortal life; but it involves regarding tradition, orthodoxy, church, human-groups as being of secondary, not primary, importance. Indeed, I believe that the alternative is a deeper and more validly Christ-derived truth. This is the motivation for much of my theological writing. 


ted said...

This is one of my favorite posts of yours as I can see my own lack of optimism for this world, while holding to hope for thereafter. I agree with you: it starts with one. Each individual can repent, and while this may not translate (or make a dent) to the greater culture, it does still matter that each person has an opportunity to turn toward God.

Dave Bagwill said...

Thanks for that outstanding summation of your journey! I resonate with it to a very large extent.

A said...

This is a wonderful post, thank you so much for articulating this collection of thoughts so clearly.

I have noticed this, but could bring it forward so clearly! I too have an interest in traditionalism, but have had to stop attending to so much of it. Not just the everyday negativity we get from the right in response to some new evil, but even trying to look at early monastics for inspiration - it's mostly about a negation of this world and a focus on death. I find it depressing to read most of the time, though sometimes helpful when closer to death (such as when especially ill).

What we do seem to be missing in general is a recollection of the traditional everyday lived Christian faith of lay people. This isn't entirely absent, but hasn't been well articulated - as you've done. Living life in constant communication with God, focused on love, entering life as if a great adventure... this is what we need.

Ingemar said...

It seems to me that most traditional Catholics are Jansenists in denial--that is, they act like there is a small Elect and that because the Church at present is growing ever corrupt, they have to go back to the purer doctrine (with a bias towards extreme penance and how the vast majority of souls, even Catholics and even clergy) are bound to hell.

This, I reckon, is because they put more faith in the institution than He who made the institution. Even as a Catholic, I balk at the idea that Jesus died on the cross so that He could put a man garbed in white on a throne in Vatican Hill to tell others what to do.

Traditional Catholics have to get serious about where the metaphysical buck stops--does the Faith consist in the immutable teachings of Christ, or is it fully vested in the Roman Pontiff? If it's in the former, how do you know the latter is wrong? And vice versa.

Which leads to another strange and seemingly contradictory phenomenon--sedevacantists (those who believe the Petrine see is empty) tend to be ultramontanists (papal infallibalists with a maximalist view towards Papal authority). If the Pope can't err, what is a Catholic to do when he does?...

The most extreme sedevacantists are called "home aloners." They conclude that because there have been no valid episcopal ordinations in generations, all living priests are mere men and the Eucharist had never been confected--leaving Baptism and Matrimony (the only Sacraments that don't require clergy) as the only channels of sanctifying grace left on earth. It's a form of Romantic Christianity by negation, I suppose.

Stephen Macdonald said...

This is perhaps the most lucid summary Dr Charlton has provided us. It is extremely compelling, and frankly produces genuine joy in me.

Joseph A. said...

"Fr. Z." (John Zuhlsdorf) is a Roman Catholic traditionalist blogger who attempts to deal with the world and its trials joyfully (with ready ire when appropriate). He repeats certain ideas, over and over, that he wants to impart to his readers. One is that it is an honor to be placed by God in a time such as ours. If the Lord will not put more on us than we can bear, then we're capable, in cooperation with his grace, to avoid despair. You have made similar points, I believe. We'll need to remember those words if/when the regimes of the world start using Christians as candles again. Another motif is his "brick by brick" image in rebuilding a solid Roman Catholic life -- in recovering a neglected praxis. No, France isn't likely to start acting like the Eldest Daughter of the Church anytime soon, but there are possible and actually achieved goals of restoring life to the spiritual veins of our civilization. The pilgrimages to Chartres are an example of this. I see something similar in Russia . . . of course, it's not the age of Alexander I, but miracles are happening. Yes, there is much work to be done, but, praise God, could anyone in 1970 imagine that hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians would hold processions in Russia's largest cities for the major feasts fifty years later? I don't dismiss apocalyptic talk. The last 110 years have been unsettling, to say the least. Yes, men are always sinful; societies always corrupt. But there has never been so much wickedness so widespread over the face of the earth. Pre-industrial societies could not afford such madness. Technology has allowed for the sick to wallow long in their disease, but I'm hopeful (speaking horizontally) that it cannot last long. I do confess, though, to moments of despair when I read about the transhumanists' ravings and think that they may possibly open up the gates of hell far wider than before. Jesus Christ is the victor, I know, but there is so much loss, so much waste -- the spoiling of such beauty as is the world. You mention some trads' retreat into what Nietzsche would have called the new Buddhism. It's understandable, psychologically, but it just seems ignoble to abandon our stations at a time of great need.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for the appreciative comments folks!

John J. Fitzgerald said...

When is the first meeting of this desperately needed new church? Bags are packed...

God Bless!