Acceptable Customs and Imperial Court Rubble

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Photo by Jordy Meow on Unsplash

was in a theological discussion this morning where someone suggested that a certain view (the view was penal substitutionary atonement, by the way!) must be acceptable, because it has a 1,000 year long history in Western churches. This made me think about what is going on here when we say that a view is “acceptable because it is customary.” Where does that sort of thought come from, and what do those words mean?

Historically, this sort of thing carried serious legal and institutional weight: for a view to be deemed unacceptable meant that coercion in various forms, as well as bribes and inducements, would be used against a person to enforce conformity. You could be killed, by the state, for having an “unacceptable view.” Or you might be treated “mercifully” and merely exiled, or stripped of citizenship. The common core of all of these punishments amounted to this: you would be silenced forcefully. Can’t win an argument when you can’t talk. (The use of exile is a particularly interesting phenomenon: to exile someone was often, more-or-less, the same as sending them out as a missionary. So when people were exiled, was it ever about a general concern for the truth of what they were saying, or was it always about someone wanting to control their little fief while damning those outside of it?) This approach entered Christian history in the early 300’s AD, with the Emperor Constantine, and it received a fuller and more enduring expression under the Emperor Justinian. Through Justinian, it has shaped legal codes and practices throughout the Western world up until today.

Now we live in a post-Vatican II world (that’s a Catholic reform that embraced freedom of conscience, among other things), and a world full of different Christian communions. The dream of Justinian’s unified Christian state religion, paired with dreams of brutal imperial expansion, has died an ignoble death. Let’s say it finally died in Franco’s Spain, the ashes of World War II still hanging in the air over the ultra-Catholic dictatorship that Hitler and Mussolini ushered in there.

But buoyed by the Catholic Church, Franco’s brand of brutal authoritarianism lived on longer than those of his allies, Hitler and Mussolini, and was even cheered on by the likes of William F Buckley Jr. in the United States. In that world, Vatican II signaled a dramatic move away from the traditional way of doing all of this. And while I’m talking about Catholicism here, the truth is that the Orthodox and Protestants (outside of the radical edges of the Reformation) all drank deeply from the same well that Franco drank from: the well of coercive state power as an instrument of deciding who wins the game of theological history. It was a game of “might makes right” at the heart of Christian thought and practice, and only the most marginal bits of the tradition were not deeply stamped by it, after 300 AD.

For Christians, we’re still just starting to deal with what that means. But let’s just say it is summed up, poetically, in the recognition that Constantine and Justinian’s dream of a church united by imperial fiat finally died in Franco’s Spain. Now that this bad dream is dead, what does it even mean for some views to be “acceptable” and others “unacceptable”? Here, I mean precisely that it is generally considered barbaric and evil to do the things that undeniably played a central role in creating the thing we now call “tradition”: to kill or exile or otherwise strip the citizenship and legal personhood of those with “unacceptable” views. The trouble with appeals to tradition, today (and yesterday) is that the very tradition being appealed to is a tradition of coercion. It’s like saying, “Franco said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Well, most of us now realize that people like that are horrifying: the dust of the Shoah is in their mouths.

But the zombie of Constantine and Justinian and Franco shambles on. Christian discourse is still riddled by bad old habits, born of about 1700 years of “might makes right” being applied to the central thought life of the institutional church: too often, we still act as if some huge and powerful Empire is going to come and crush anyone whose opinion is “unacceptable” for us. We still act as if those with “unacceptable” views can be dismissed by the most ridiculous and superficial sorts of straw-man arguments, maybe because it worked for imperial court theologians who had the force of law to back up their pseudo-arguments and “prove them right”. But there’s no more Constantine or Justinian or Franco to come and do that for them. Still, in these habits of terrible argumentation, some of the world that Constantine and then Justinian built, and which Francisco Franco unintentionally ushered out, shambles on. Just without the coercive force that gave it a kind of temporary life. Sometimes, people who have uncritically embraced traditions built by might-makes-right view the collapse of that world as a disaster: they actually long for the days when state dragoons would come and monitor people in their homes as uninvited boarders, until they conformed or fled. More often, they don’t even realize that much of the “tradition” they appeal to was built that way, and so was born broken by the thing that built it. (And still, there are jewels in the rubble of that tradition.)

But I hope and think that there will come a day when Christians, in general, understand how to have theological discussions that are rooted in the pursuit of truth, rather than the pursuit of a dominant imperial party line. We’ll start to know how to routinely and honestly ask ourselves the question of a free people: “What is true?” instead of asking ourselves the question of an imperial courtier: “What’s the party line?”

The upshot for this discussion is that notions like “certain views are acceptable because they are customary” represents a political calculus and an imperial legal principle, rather than a truth-seeking discursive norm.

I’d suggest that we now live in an age where, by and large, all views are acceptable in practice, because Constantine/Justinian/Franco is finally dead. And we can finally start to have a more open discussion about what is good, true, accurate, demonstrable, warranted, supported by a preponderance of evidence, etc. Still, even the seminaries are still heavily influenced by 1700 years of might-makes-right, and often you’ll find old professors who know how to rehearse the pseudo-arguments of ancient imperial propaganda, but not how to evaluate an argument on its merits. (I’ve been watching a bunch of professors try to have a conversation for a while now. Part of this reflection is motivated by me trying to understand how it is possible that so few of them know how to construct or evaluate an argument.)

Now, as once before Constantine: everything is permissible in the church. (Hear me well: what I’m saying is, precisely, that you’re not going to get burned at the stake anymore for criticizing a bad old argument.) This permissibility is the precondition for saying this clearly, and with the hope of exploring truth together discursively instead of pretending to prove it murderously: not all things are true.

As it turns out, burning someone at a stake or even nailing them to a cross never proved them wrong in the first place. Who knew?

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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