Sunday, October 02, 2011

Reading 1 Clement: The Problem with Envy

I left off the last entry with the question of what caused the formerly healthy Corinthian church to fragment into discord and schism. Yet, this is a question that Clement seems to view in quite a different way that we would. Clement's letter is that never really indulges in that all too common (and modern) vice of wanting to name names or report incidents. One presumes that, if he was writing the letter in the first place, he has some idea about what was happening, but, past a general note about the division between the established leaders of the community and, presumably, a younger faction, we know little about the circumstances of the issue in Corinth. This, of course, continues to frustrate church historians. What is more, Eusebius, the father of church history, does nothing help. Indeed, all he does it to note the dissension and report that Hegesippus adequately covered the dispute (which is no help to us, given that we don't have Hegesippus).

In his discussion of this crisis, Clement is more concerned with considering spiritual causes for the Corinthian church's. What is interesting and chilling for us is that Clement charts these causes not as the flaws of certain bad individuals, but the direct consequence of the prosperity of the Corinthian Church. This robs us from the luxury of blaming others for our problems. Clement, however, doesn't let us off the hook because he argues that the very success of the Corinthian church contained in it the seeds of its own self-destruction. This success brought with it arrogance and a greater sense of self-importance which could only spell disaster for a spiritual community. If our success convinces us that, somehow, we deserve or, worse, caused our success; then, we are liable to stop recognizing our dependence on God and to start to think that our power is real. That, then, leads to power struggles as we fight over who should wield the power that, really, we don't really have. The result is that we spend more time trying to impose our vision of how we should employ our non-existent power rather than seeking God's will and direction about how to live out His Kingdom values. Self-will, as a result, runs riot and all we manage to prove is that we do that we aren't God and we don't know better.

For Clement, that process of the ecclesial self-destruction works itself out quite logically. First, the prosperity of the church encourages competitiveness, zelos and phthonos. This is interesting in itself because the two words, while frequently paired and almost synonymous, have very different tones to them. zelos is, more or less, positive, representing the kind of positive competition which draws out the best in people through competitive virtues going back all the way to Homer. phthonos is the destructive mirror image of zelos; the destructive competition which encourages cheating, lying and treachery. Yet, Clement pairs them as equally destructive and unjust. This implies that the kind of competitiveness which characterized the drive to succeed in Classical societies and, in rather different guises, our own has no place in the church. We do not strive to outdo each other in our Christian lives, but, rather, to be faithful servants of God. Our value is not found in our place in a hierarchy, whether ecclesiastical or spiritual, but, rather, in our faithful service to God and our neighbour.

Yet, if we are to be completely honest, competitiveness is a real temptation in a church. It is all to easy to look at someone serving in the church and be jealous of the accolades that they get in their service. It is all to easy to decide that someone else doesn't deserve their position of trust because we all know I can do that just as well or better. Jealousy and envy is alive and well in today's church because it is alive and well in me...and in many more people than me.

Perhaps this is why Clement spends so much time tracing out the examples of the impact of jealousy in the Old Testament, in the lives of Peter and Paul and even in the stories of Greek mythology. The destructiveness of these emotions becomes evident in these examples, by showing how ties of family, ethnicity and even faith cannot survive the destructiveness of jealous and envy.

Furthermore, this envy and jealousy leads directly to the kinds of dissensions and strife which Clement is trying address in this letter. This makes sense, of course. If we are looking askance at our neighbour and envying him, we are already storing up hostility and, ultimately, war against our neighbour. How can we contemplate peace and harbour jealousy in our hearts? Sooner or later, we will abandon peace and seek to 'restore' the balance of what is owed to us. Envy and jealous are the preludes to civil war, even ecclesial civil war such as the one evidently experienced by the Corinthian church and, arguably, the multiple ones experienced by churches today, large and small.

The logical result of this progress from our own individual jealousies and envy to the communal disruption of schism ultimately comes down to the weakening of our ability to live of what God has called us to be: the first-fruits of his kingdom. One of the most persistent scandals of the modern church is the scandal of church division. By this, I don't mean the diversity of worship styles, theological explanation or, even, ecclesiastical structure. Within certain limits, this diversity is a good thing. Rather, I refer to our inability as Christians to live with our differences and work together on what really is our common mission- seeking to further God's kingdom in the world today. While the ecumenical movement has softened the traditional denominational differences, we, all too often, allow ourselves to become distracted by the new fault lines of liberal-conservative, progressive-fundamentalist and such like. We all serve the same Lord, so why can't we work out a way to serve Him together?

In our next entries, we'll consider what Clement has to say about what we need to do just that: serve God together.

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