Sunday, January 09, 2011

Flight into Activism

Intrigued by Macrina Walker's intensive study of Fr. Gabriel Bunge's Earth Vessels, I took up its Google Books edition. His introductory comments made me want to jot down some thoughts.
This book is concerned with giving a genuinely Christian answer to the spiritual search of many believers. And a "practical" one, at that: that is, it should point out a "way" -- rooted in Scripture and the original tradition -- that enables a Christian to "practice" his faith in a manner that is in keeping with the contents of the faith.

For there is a very simple answer to the perplexing question, why the faith of an increasing number of Christians is "evaporating" despite all efforts to enliven it -- an answer that perhaps does not contain the entire truth about the causes of the crisis, but which nonetheless indicates a way out. The faith "evaporates" when it is no longer practiced -- in a way that accords with its essence. "Praxis" here does not mean the various forms of "social action" that perenially have been the obvious expression of Christian agape. However indispensable this "outreach" is, it becomes merely external, or (as a flight into activism) even a subtle form of acedia, of boredom, whenever there is no longer any corresponding "reach within". Pp. 10-11
His emphases strike very close to home. There are few things more beleaguering to me about conservative Christians these days than the attitude that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with modern Christianity; that our version of Christianity is the only Christianity we must be loyal to; that all we need to do is more of the same, except more "faithfully," "passionately," "boldly," etc. All our failures are just failures of will, nerve, or zeal; no possibility that we've become churches founded on a heap of delusions and distortions. Fr. Bunge addresses those who see the writing on the wall, the cracks in the foundation that too many seem to believe are merely cosmetic and even praiseworthy.

Fr. Gabriel recognizes that "practice" involves more than activism. I would extend that include more than just the social justice variety he names, but every form of religious behavior that is self-consciously grounded in moral or intellectual activity labeled by institutional authority as blameless and objectively efficacious. Take Eucharistic Adoration for example. Conservative Catholics view it as an intrinsic, unassailable good because it's what conservative Catholics defend against the heretical anti-eucharistic theology of Protestants, lib-Caths, and other supposed anti-Catholics. Many will argue that the Church's woes are due to the flailing "practice" of adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Usually some wordy theological justification is given that only convinces those who never needed any convincing to begin with. Then the solution is given: obviously to more effectively and emphatically promote EA, Holy Hours, etc. Before long, we find EA groupies easily annoyed, disturbed, even outraged over the failure of Catholics to jump on the EA bandwagon. There is no room here for digging a little deeper, for a careful, sober examination of the practice of EA in the ancient tradition or in the Eastern churches who do not have a single lick of anti-eucharistic theology in them. "No, EA is OUR thing. If you want to question EA, go join some anti-Catholic Church." Okeee.

This in my experience has been the natural pattern of activism. Activity X gets a pro forma justification by argumentum ad verecundiam, no real internal movement within the individual required, further ratification by collective action then must follow, ideally to the level of collective frenzy. Voila, activity X has become activism. By Western standards, Catholic and Protestant, this is how "the Spirit moves." This is the essential pattern of JPII's "new ecclesial movements." If you question movement X, you will be treated like the Arch-Partypooper.