Thursday, March 18, 2004

Individualism, Communion, and Piety

It occurs to me that two disparate conversations from the history of this blog are actually connected. The connection hinges on the relationship between individualism and communion and their relationship to ethics.

We might say the pietism isn’t wrong-headed per se, but puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Pietism makes ethics an individual thing, and sanctification the property of an individual. Although certainly sanctification has to do with individuals, it has to do with them in their co-inherence. Sanctification is about edifying the body of Christ.

We see this most clearly in the ethical addresses of Paul to the communities to which he writes. Or the parenesis of Peter and others. Always, although the ethical life applies to individuals, it applies for the building up of the body.

So how does this relate to our discussions. For one, it relates to the critique of evangelical Catholicism as being a pietist movement. I believe this is essentially wrong-headed because it sees the ev cath movement as being individualist in its emphasis. But at the heart of the evangelical catholic movement is a “taking care for” communio-ecclesiology, a respect for the catholicity of the church, and an honoring of the communion of saints across time. In these senses at least, the ev cath movement cannot be accused of pietism.

But it is also true that it applies to our approach to hermeneutics. Here again individualism is the key issue (something Matt has pointed out in critique of Chris’s congregational piety). And we might reference Emerson to make our point clear:

“Whoso would be a man (sic) must be a nonconformist…. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. I remember an answer which when quite young, I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? My friend suggested, - “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.”

Now, I don’t mean to say that those who take a more Evangelical approach to the interpretation of Scripture (no intermediary necessary, Scripture above tradition, etc.) are necessarily in Emerson’s camp. Far from it. He goes much further than they would go. But the logic lies in the same direction. The Scripture is read and interpreted in the church , not as the property of individual believers. This way lies pietism, and ultimately, the tyranny of the individual.

Certainly there is potential tyranny in the other direction. The Magisterium conceptualized as a force that can “put the slap down” on heresy, always itself already clear what heresy is and isn’t, is itself a form of tyranny to be avoided. Nevertheless, the middle way, and the important direction to take, when speaking of ethics as well as of hermeneutics, is to understand them both as being a part of “the church”, not apart from it, or as the particular property of a subset of the church, the individual or a local congregation or an individual denomination. The ethical life of the Church is ontologically the perichoretic life of the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. The interpretation of Scripture takes place only in this body and only by this spirit. And the church only reads Scripture rightly, and only lives its life rightly, as this one body.

This may be another way of answering the question re: evangelical Catholicism that gets beyond the issues of pietism and hermeneutics. More importantly, I believe it shows why our calling theologically in this period is to work out an adequate ecclesiology informed by a more robust pneumatology. But that is for another post.

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