I read somewhere–I can’t recall where exactly, to my regret–that there are two opposed forces within Christianity, constantly tugging it in two different directions. They might go by many names: conventional and unconventional, worldly and unworldly, fleshly and ascetic, or what-have-you. In Orthodoxy, they are roughly represented by the hierarchy and the monastics, respectively, though neither has a strict monopoly; there are “unworldly” elements within the first, and sedate, passive, and conventional elements in the second. And this duality, this push-and-pull division, is not unique to Christianity. There are austere Hindu ascetics and serene village Brahmins, Buddhist Lamas and Buddhist family altars.
Only one of the two forces can be dominant in a given area, in a given faith, at one time. A balance between the two is possible–and desirable–but not likely to occur, or to be stable when and if it does. We’re always drifting in one direction or the other, and back again, overreacting to an excess before we overreact to our overreaction.Jesus came to Palestine at a time of Worldly excess, when the religious establishment had come to mistake rote observation of the Law for fulfilling its spirit, and hypocrisy and bad faith were endemic. Mohammad had similar problems in mind when he began railing against the Meccan elites. It’s hard for me to tell what, if anything, the Buddha was responding to with his message of moderation, but in general I think new religious movements start out Unworldly, with “the voice calling in the wilderness,” shaking people up out of their conventional stupor. And it’s tempting to say that we should always be that way.
But we can’t. It’s simply not realistic for people dwelling in the world to remain in a fever of faith, any more than a married couple can expect to continually remain in the heady emotional state of being “in love.” It was a simple matter for the early Church to stay pure and intense and countercultural while they were a handful of catacomb-dwellers awaiting an imminent Second Coming. But then the Second Coming didn’t come as expected, and by and by Christianity triumphed over the Empire. You can’t stay countercultural when you’re really the dominant culture; monasticism, in its pure and uncorrupted form, only keeps the flame alive in isolation when what was once an outlying extreme starts to become the staid and placid norm. So the pendulum starts swinging back to the center . . .
. . . and then past it, propelled by its own momentum. By degrees, priests get relaxed a little, then comfortable, and presently apathetic. The Faith becomes just another aspect of culture to be observed. People go to Church not out of fervor, but of habit. Corruption creeps in, then cynicism, followed by scandal and contempt. New prophets come in from the desert, crying out for repentance.
I should add that the prophets are not always good. St. Francis was one; the yurodivy, fools-for-Christ, were others. But so were the ghastly Medieval Cathars, who thought the whole created world was evil. And the butchers of ISIS represent a terrible extreme of the purifying Unworldly impulse. If I understand correctly, Islam in the Middle East has for decades been mostly an aspect of Arab identity, used as a unifier by various dictators and strongmen who didn’t take it all that seriously and suppressed its more zealous forms. Now the pendulum swings back, in the form of a hammer.
(I leave out the most famous example, the Protestant Reformation; it’s too complex, and I know too little of it, to label it as simply “good” or “bad”)
For better or worse, the Unworldly triumphs for a time. But the fire can’t burn any longer the second (or third, or fourth, or twenty-seventh) time around than it did the first. Indeed, it may burn shorter. So the whole boom-and-bust cycle continues. Of course, this is a very simplistic analysis. At present, I think American Christianity is facing some of the worst elements of both, depending on denomination. It seems, to my ignorant outsider’s eye, that the whole Evangelical movement was an attempt at the Unworldly that got eaten by conventionality almost before it properly started. But overall, we are recovering from the Worldly. As I remarked in my last post, we have grown too cozy with political power, become too much an expression of buttoned-down American identity. Christianity, at its heart, is a call to repentance, and so it should remain (though, if I were to condemn all the Worldly things, I would be condemning the entire traditional Orthodox village life, with feasts and fellowship and the good-humored blessings of everything down to the postmaster’s horse).
People like to say that religion is fading, that we’re entering a new secular age. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine said much the same thing two centuries ago. Then, if my weak American History serves me right, came something called the Great Awakening, or perhaps two of them. I know that tent-revivals were involved, and charismatic preachers, and a whole new variety of American religious experiences, some of them goofy and even obscene, but all bursting with vitality. Some of those oddities and novelties, like the Mormons, are still with us today. So don’t mind the Dawkins, children. It’s just the pendulum swinging back.