Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Hymn of Abdiel

If there is anything most people nowadays would not claim to like, it is institutions. Whether one's deepest distrust is reserved for the federal government or the Catholic Church tends to depend on whether one is right- or left-wing politically, but institutional things as such leave a bad taste in people's mouth.

A lot of popular theological trends and movements reflect this: the Emergent movement, typified in authors like Rob Bell and Donald Miller, is perhaps the foremost, but a thousand signs indicate its presence. It is decreasing sharply among Catholics -- especially younger ones, ironically enough -- but the 'cafeteria Catholic' approach to the faith of the Church is by no means gone; the Church's teachings on sexuality, the ordination of women, abortion, divorce, and Jesus being the only way to God, as well as on her own authority, fill the position that green beans and creamed corn did in high school. (A quip went round in some circles when Pope Benedict XVI was elected: "The cafeteria is closed.") Among Protestant Christians, the popularity of quasi-denominational, inter-denominational, and non-denominational churches, movements, and Bible studies is a reflection of it, I think. So, too, is the tendency to avoid deep theological study and discussion and to dismiss the traditionally conceived list of Christian obligations, including things like attendance at church, in favor of spontaneous and self-defined devotions, with an affinity for the more dramatic charismata.

Now, I will have completely failed to communicate if anyone goes away from this thinking I disbelieve in the universal priesthood of believers (the Second Vatican Council made a point of the universality -- from Greek, the catholicity -- of the Christian faith, and that every believer is apostolic in his or her own capacity). Equally so if I am taken to mean that everyone is called to be a theologian in the strict sense; or that miracles belong to the past, a claim which ought to be laughable to any Catholic in the light of the holy Mass; or that spontaneous prayer is anything but a necessary part of our prayer lives. And so on. My point is not that the present mood is a bad one, though I must admit forthrightly that it is not to my taste, and that may color my perceptions of it. The trouble is that we may well be in danger of forgetting the counterweight-truths to those of liberty, equality, and fraternity; which likely has as much to do with the fact that we live in a Western democracy as with anything genuinely spiritual.

Milton's Paradise Lost is kind of a slow read. ("I have a point. I promise.") However, the following passage seems to me relevant. Satan, at the announcement of the Son's appointment as Messiah, King of the angels, and all His glories, has chosen revolt, and has now set up his scheme to seduce the other angels to rebel with him -- ignore the weird spellings:

'... They came, and Satan to his Royal seat
... For thither he assembl'd all his Train,
Pretending so commanded to consult
About the great reception of thir King,
Thither to come, and with calumnious Art
Of counterfeted truths thus held thir ears.
Thrones, Dominations, Princedomes, Vertues, Powers,
If these magnific Titles yet remain
Not meerly titular, since by Decree
Another now hath to himself ingross't
All Power, and us eclipst under the name
Of King anointed ...
Will ye submit your necks, and chuse to bend
The supple knee? ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know your selves
Natives and Sons of Heav'n possest before
By none ...
This far his bold discourse without controule
Had audience, when among the Seraphim
Abdiel, then whom none with more zeale ador'd
The Deitie, and divine commands obei'd,
Stood up, and in a flame of zeale severe
The current of his fury thus oppos'd.
O argument blasphemous, false and proud!
... Shalt thou give Law to God, shalt thou dispute
With him the points of libertie, who made
Thee what thou art, & formd the Pow'rs of Heav'n
Such as he pleased, and circumscrib'd thir being?
... But to grant it thee unjust
That equal over equals Monarch Reigne:
Thy self though great and glorious dost thou count,
Or all Angelic Nature joind in one,
Equal to him begotten Son, by whom
As by his Word the mighty Father made
All things, ev'n thee, and all the Spirits of Heav'n
By him created in thir bright degrees,
Crownd them with Glory, & to thir Glory nam'd
Thrones, Dominations, Princedomes, Vertues, Powers ...'
-- Paradise Lost V.753-837

If that seemed a little abstract, these paragraphs from C. S. Lewis may illuminate it.

'This thought is not peculiar to Milton. It belongs to the ancient orthodox tradition of European ethics ... It may be called the Hierarchical conception. According to this conception degrees of value are objectively present in the universe. Everything except God has some natural superior; everything except unformed matter has some natural inferior. The goodness, happiness, and dignity of every being consists in obeying its natural superior and ruling its natural inferiors. ... The justice or injustice of any given instance of rule depends wholly on the nature of the parties, not in the least on any social contract. Where the citizens are really equal then they ought to live in a republic where all rule in turn. If they are not really equal then the republican form becomes unjust. ... He who rules permanently, without successor, over his natural equals is a tyrant -- even (presumably) if he rules well. ...
'The greatest statement of the Hierarchical conception ... is, perhaps, the speech of Ulysses' in Shakespeare's Troilus. Its special importance lies in its clear statement of the alternative to Hierarchy. if you take "Degree" away "each thing meets in mere oppugnancy", "strength" will be lord, everything will "include itself in power". In other words, the modern idea that we can choose between Hierarchy and equality is, for Shakespeare's Ulysses, mere moonshine. The real alternative is tyranny; if you will not have authority you will find yourself obeying brute force. ...
'... Satan's main contention is clear. He is maintaining that the vice-regency of the Son is a tyranny ... Abdiel's reply is double. In the first place he denies Satan's right to criticize God's actions at all, because God is his creator. As creator He has a super-parental right of doing what He will without question ... In the second place, granting Satan's definition of tyranny, he denies Satan's facts; the Son is not of the same nature as the angels and was indeed the instrument by which the angels were made. Of course, if He is not their natural equal, 'unsucceeded power' on His part ... would not be tyranny, but just rule.' -- A Preface to Paradise Lost, pp. 73-77

For this reason, I cannot join in the general anti-institutional sentiment of my generation of Christians. It is not exclusively because, according to our creed, the Catholic Church is personally guided and protected from error by the Holy Spirit, though that is what we believe. It is because the proposed alternative -- the gathering of Christians in a non-traditional format, one that might be labeled charismatic or non-denominational or non-institutional or even non-religious Christianity, contains a fatal flaw; one noted by Lewis.

Every group of people orients itself around leaders. Leaders are of two kinds: those whose authority is derived from some sort of institution, and those whose authority derives in one way or another from themselves, whether we speak of the force of their personality or the force of their muscles. And, although the leader who compels us by his personal charisma is more appealing to most of us on aesthetic grounds, it is disappointingly clear that, if we want the rule of law and the order of reason, they are to be found in the institutional authorities, because those are based on an institution -- that is, a rational idea. The idea might of course be a lousy one in particular cases, just as a powerful personality may also happen to be a rational personality. It does happen. But the thing-in-itself remains. And a rule based on rules is rational, while a rule based on personal rather than institutional authority is, in one of two senses, a dictatorship. It may be a dictatorship in the original Latin sense, i.e., the rule of one who speaks well, and perhaps rightly; or it may be a dictatorship in a more sinister sense.

This would mean we would have to take stock and see what the hierarchy in our own situation is. Do I have parents? a spouse? children? a pastor? a flock? governmental authorities? persons over whom I have governmental authority? In those areas in which I am rightly a subject, am I submitting to the authorities which are in existence, those which sacred Scripture itself tells me in no uncertain terms are from God? (I am put in mind of the first reading for today's Mass, Ephesians 5.21-33.) In those areas where I have authority over others, do I exercise it with care and caution, and without the false modesty or diffidence that would make me unable to accept others' expressions of loyalty, gratitude, or reverence? (Clerics who won't let us kiss your rings, I am looking in your direction. Humbly.) Am I lording it over people who are really my equals -- or, alternatively, limply surrendering myself who have no right to control me, when I ought to shoulder responsibility for myself? (Me, I'm looking in your direction for both of those. Not sure whether that is to be done humbly or not.)

It is difficult to digest the truth in this. It is difficult because we are soaked and infected by the World and its values. Hierarchy means obedience. We Christians are perfectly okay with obedience, as long as there is nobody to obey in the immediate and earthly sense. We love reading and hearing and talking about obedience; we just can't stand it when we are suddenly expected to incarnate that obedience, to particularize our theoretical submission by offering up our own wills to some specific authority that we encounter in real life -- in the family, in the government, in the Church -- instead of the God that we had situated so comfortably in our pious, sanctified, and meritorious imaginations. But we will never be saints if we do not try. Every saint is a saint, whether recognized and canonized or not, because they gave God His way with them; and, depend upon it, that always meant giving themselves to Him through their earthly experiences, including their experiences of authority here. After all, unless God appears to you in a vision, there is literally no other way of conducting yourself.

I dare say it'll be an adventure, after the shock of humility wears off.

'So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found,
Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov'd,
Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd
His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind'.
-- Paradise Lost, V.893-898

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