Monday, March 22, 2010

Living in the Fragments

Last week was March Break, which, in itself, is really neither here nor there. However, March Break has meant a couple of things the last nine years: a wonderful trip to Palm Springs, CA (thanks to my mother-in-law) and a chance to raid a fairly well stocked church library courtesy of Palm Desert Presbyterian. The attraction of the trip, I think, is clear to anyone who has been to Palm Springs, especially anyone who spends time in even the moderately frozen north (Toronto is, really, in the banana belt of Ontario, but we do get snow). The attraction of the other proves conclusively (in case there was a doubt) that I'm an unreconstructed geek. I look forward to this particular raid because this particular church library stocks books that I don't generally get to see. The lean is evangelical which can mean an awful lot, I know, from fluff to some well-considered theology and history. I lean to the second, if you had any doubts.

One of the finds this year was a surprise. It was the first of two volumes on World Christian History- Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement. Of course, I swooped in on the first volume dealing with Christianity up to 1453 (where I start to lose interest). What was intriguing about this book is that it didn't just outline the standard Mediterranean perspective, predictably divided into West and East, but, rather, it sought to tell the story of other Christian movements in the Near and even Far East. The book takes seriously these Christian movements and gave a good introduction to them. I was moderately familiar with the Near Eastern examples, but the story of a nascent Christian movement in China during the Han and T'ang dynasties was new ground for me. So, good book and something that I want to dig up again for my own library (and, possibly, the parish one as well).

Now, I mention this book not so much because I wanted to do a mini-book review, but because it fit in with some thing I've been pondering. To give background, I should explain that I was also reading some Ephraim Radner before the break, who has quite a lot to say about ecclesiology. (For those of you who don't know him, Radner is a moderately conservative Anglican theologian who is very smart, but reading his prose, as my wife would say, is a little like stirring concrete with your eyelashes.) Key to Radner's idea is that, since at least the Reformation, Christianity no longer represents a unified tradition but rather fragments of one. That is to say that we aren't so much speaking about a unified Christian tradition today; rather, the various Christian churches are splinters off of a Christian consensus which was largely held in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but which burst apart. This means that no individual denomination represents the tradition in toto, even if some have a better handhold than others (I'm think especially of Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions here).

Now, if you apply this understanding to what I was reading last week, it makes sense of the church divisions, but extends them backwards to include the splitting off of the non-Chalcedonians and, ultimately, to the Great Schism through the Reformation and into the age of Protestantism (whose characteristic theological disease, honestly, is splitting at the drop of a hat). The Irvin and Sunquist book is relentlessly ecumenical (it was, after all, reviewed by a panel of 43 scholars from all different denominations), of course, so this reading makes sense, but, while I fundamentally agree with Radner and with the spirit of this book, I wonder a little about this view of the church history.

I think what worries me is that this gives a wonderful justification for denominationalism because, if we're just living in the fragments, I'm not sure how we decide on the faithfulness of this or that fragment. That is, have we given up on reconstituting a greater Christian tradition? Has that effort gone the way of the now 'modernist' evangelical search for essentials, maligned by the 'Emerging Church' movement's post-modern scorn for meta-narratives? I wonder what the Fathers would have to say about this?

Well, actually, I don't wonder much. Read some Cyprian. Read some Augustine or Irenaeus or anyone really and you'd get a pretty pungent answer. Yes, we do know that there were splinter Christian groups throughout the Church's history, some of which were tolerated more than others, but none of which were ever really considered to be as good as the Church's own answers. While that raises the issues of 'victors writing history' and triumphalism, I think we hae to consider whether we are called to live in fragments or whether we should, impossible as it seems, look for ways to link those fragments, to return us to something resemble a common consensus on what is important for our faith. Is the day of a Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church really over?

What I find valuable in Radner and/or Irvin and Sunquist is the diagnosis of where we are, but I wonder if this is where we need to stay. How can we rebuild that greater Christian tradition? Or is the effort merely hopeless or, for that matter, a foregone conclusion? What do you think?



Fr. John N D'Alton said...

Hey Phil, I'm enjoying your blog. Your question in this post about whether there's any hope of re-building from the fragments is spot on. There's been so many failed attempts :-( But this raises the question, What if the original pre-fragmented unbroken church still exists? Would you consider it? I was a church of Christ pastor when i faced this same question, and then...

Phil Snider said...

Hi Father John;

I'm glad you're enjoy my blog. I have't had as much time to write it as I'd like, but it has been a useful platform for my thoughts.

As for my own future amid the fragments, I'm not sure that I've seen anyone fragmented that isn't so fragmented itself that we can identify it as the pre-fragmented church. Some are better than others, but we've lost even the concept of a truly catholic church that I don't know how we recognize it when we see it.

Some churches, I would agree, have better claims than others- Orthodoxy, Catholicism (in its Roman and Anglican forms), but even these have made departures from that early church experience that makes me wonder about them.