Friday, June 13, 2008

Conversion and Continuity

In previous posts, I have suggested that Alasdair MacIntyre's thoughts on 'epistemological crises' can help us to understand something of the psychology of conversion. He contends that these crises--when our worlds are turned upside-down by the revelation of new facts--require a re-evaluation of the view we previously held of the world, and that a successful resolution of this crisis builds a new world view that has marked continuities with the old one. He is arguing against modern ideas that posit a complete break with the old. "Not only incompatible but incommensurate," to use Thomas Kuhn's approving formulation.

In my last post on this topic, I suggested that the encounter with Jesus Christ risen from the dead is just such a world-inverting moment for most of us, even those of us who have grown up Christian and who suddenly wake up one day to the recognition that we hadn't properly accounted for the ramifications of the Resurrection. How we view our lives before this has much to do with how lasting and coherent our conversion is.

Let me begin exploring this idea with the early Church itself. The first great heresy, that of Marcion, insisted on a radical break with the past, which meant dispensing with the synagogue and the Torah. What the advent of Christ meant for Marcionites is that the God of the Old Testament, previously thought to be good, is in fact a 'demiurge' who had fooled everyone up until now.

Orthodox Christianity rejected this as an incoherent narrative. The Father of Jesus Christ is the same God as the One Who saved the people of Israel from Pharaoh and initiated a covenant with them, Whose abode was the temple on Mount Zion. This, of course, set in motion a need to demonstrate the continuity of the Old Testament and the New, a project that has always had its detractors.

As I was thinking through this post, it seemed to me that a feature also of Gnosticism is the claim that the 'orthodox' narrative is incoherent. Gnostics, like Marcionites, adapt the coming of Christ (not necessarily including a death and resurrection, which is important to note) to some history other than the Jewish one that the Church held onto. While I had intuited this, I couldn't quite muster the argument to persuade myself that it was true. Then, in the most recent issue of First Things (sadly no longer available to non-subscribers online), Gary Anderson did it for me, in his review of Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews by Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson. The thrust of the book is to demonstrate that while explicit mentions of the resurrection of the body in the Hebrew bible appear to be rare, at least in a form that modern Christians and Jews would recognize, nevertheless, it is clearly in continuity with the earliest Biblical witness about the nature of the God of Israel. Resurrection of the body (carefully distinguished from immortality of the soul) is not an intrusion of foreign elements into Second Temple Judaism, but is the end of a trajectory that can be traced back even to Adam and Eve, in the story of the death of Abel and birth of Seth.

Anderson writes in his review: "When God intervened to raise Jesus from the dead, the categories for understanding this event were already well situated in contemporary Judaism.

"It is truly surprising then that contemporary 'pluralists' like [Elaine] Pagels are so positive in their assessments of ancient Gnosticism. Had the Gnostics won the day, the Church's ties to the synagogue would have been greatly impoverished. What is desirable about that?" [FT June/July 2008, p. 41]

To sum up: the world view of the Apostles in the Upper Room with the Virgin Mary was that of Second Temple Judaism in some form or another. When the Risen Christ entered that room, showed them His hands and feet and ate and drank with them, their worldview changed, but only in ways recognizable through the language and other cultural tools that were a part of the chosen people's worldview. Hence, Christians, to be true to the faith, owe it to themselves to take the Old Testament seriously, and, significantly, even (or especially?) the inter-testamental "Apoocryphal" or "Deutero-Canonical" literature, which sets the stage for the revelation of God's Son. For pioneering work in this area that is relevant to our post-modern West, I can do no better than to recommend (Anglican) Bishop N.T. Wright's magisterial series The New Testament and the People of God.

Catholic disclaimer: I would like to note that Wright's work, which is, in my opinion, the most significant work of its sort and is likely to be that for some time, could use one corrective. So all you ABD theology students, give ear! Wright's project is to produce work on Pauline theology and Jesus in His historical context. Had I anything like the chops of Bishop W, I would add a sixth volume to the work and write it on "Peter" understood in terms of the historical context of the early Church and its theology as indicated in the non-Pauline epistles of the NT and the Johannine literature. In my humble opinion, and writing as a Catholic, I believe that this would do greater justice to Bishop Wright's title for the work, as well as to the historical record.


Bob said...

Fr. Peter,

Another excellent post. I completely agree with the idea of the conversion bringing on a new way of seeing rather than a destruction of all that was known before. Things like antinomianism (and Marcion) are perfect examples of this being taken to an extreme. The severance of "all things Catholic" in the evangelical church is another good example.

Seen in the context of evangelism, to present the unregenerate with a view of Christianity that centers around the individual discarding all elements of their current life in order to become a "true" disciple is another example of this lack of continuity. Many people are "not far from the Kingdom of God" and merely need to apprehend the Name of the One who calls them. Our approach as evangelists (IMHO) can be greatly improved by keeping this in mind.

I tend to view the crises we're discussing as an alternate explanation. If I have a flawed world view, I will always have to face the reality of things "not fitting". These will need to be ignored or discarded. When an improved world view is presented, many of the things that did not fit before will suddenly make sense. But that doesn't mean the all that "fit" under the former view cease to "fit" in the new. Discoveries in science are good examples of how each new insight solves problems from the past as well as upholds the valid explanations of the past.

Though our minds be depraved, our experiences and observations in this world will never be invalidated by insight to the True life. Redeemed, Regenerated, Re-created? Yes. Invalidated? No. The earth isn't rolled up and discarded, rather the New Jerusalem descends from heaven and renews the face of the earth. A story told again and again throughout the Old Testament and finding its ultimate expression in the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension.

Conversion is no different.

Thanks for a very thought provoking post!

(I think I'll be planning a retreat this October. I'll contact Br. Edward once I set the dates.)

Gottfried de Villa Dei said...

Fr. Peter,

I wonder how Elaine Pagels, being so profound Gnostic scholar, can overlook that Gnosticism is mainly an attempt to give a religious sanction for one's pride [superbia, the first deadly sin]. The Gnostic misunderstanding of the true sense of the Old Testament has been already proved by Origen (I mean their ignorance of the spiritual or allegorical senses of the Scripture- which is sadly quite common in the nowadays Church]. We should read more the Fathers and discover virtues of the interpretation as sensum.

P.S. In Poland, where I live, no one claims the Gnostic Gospels to be anything more than late works. Also, all authorities I know agree, that Gnosticism has very little to do with Christianity, being a separate religion only using Christian requisites. So no one can seriously talk about any possible victory of the false Gnosis.


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
Locations of visitors to this page