SACRAMENTS, NOT SWEETS

James Zacchaeus’s story (“Thanks for Everything, Pope Francis,” June/July) is a testimony to what can result when a Catholic couple treats Christ’s commandments on marriage as divine guidance requiring obedience for their own good rather than an unachievable ideal admitting degrees of noncompliance in certain unfortunate, though increasingly ordinary, circumstances.

The latter understanding, sadly, seems to be favored by certain Catholic prelates. What they do not seem to understand, as Zacchaeus implies, is that such a view of the sacraments—however motivated by legitimate pastoral concern—treats the sanctifying grace we receive at baptism and confirmation as if it were not a divine quality. For if it is a divine quality, as the Church in fact affirms, then engaging in grave practices that result in the loss of sanctifying grace—mortal sins, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church—is no trifling matter. Thus, if the Eucharist is medicine for the sick, as the Holy Father maintains, it is clearly not meant for those who have lost sanctifying grace, since the wound is mortal, and the dead require something stronger than medicine (a good confession) to raise them.

On the other hand, if sanctifying grace is not a divine quality—if the water of baptism and the sacred chrism administered at confirmation are not metaphysically different from ordinary water and oil—then the Eucharist is just a religious cookie made out of bread. But in that case, there is no sanctifying grace to lose, and no sin, however grievous, can in principle bar anyone from receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood as long as one has a clear conscience.

The lesson is clear: sanctifying grace is either real or it isn’t. There is no light between these two poles. Anyone, whether prelate or professor, who suggests to you otherwise—as James and Elizabeth Zacchaeus have learned—is not acting in the best interests of your soul. 

Francis J. Beckwith
baylor university
waco, texas

PROSPERITY POLITICS

Contrary to Daniel Hummel’s analysis (“The New Christian Zionism,” June/July), the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) has always held that Evangelical Christian support for Israel must be based not on prophetic interpretation of Scripture, but on well-defined promises that God made to Abraham four thousand years ago. In my own writing on the subject, as the current ICEJ international spokesperson, and as executive director of ICEJ from 2000 to 2011, I have always and repeatedly stated that to build a Christian Zionist organization on prophetic interpretations of Scripture is neither wise nor even feasible, since the wider Evangelical church entertains so many divergent views.

The Abrahamic covenant was conditional only upon Abraham’s obedience, which was complete (Gen. 22:15–18). According to the New Testament, this covenant cannot be annulled (Gal. 3:17) and was sworn to by God himself, according to his divine word and character by which it is impossible for him to lie (Heb. 6:13–15). This position has long been mainstream in the Evangelical world. Great Evangelical leaders like Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Bishop Ryle of Liverpool, the Wesley brothers, Robert Murray McCheyne, and many more down to our day have stood in this theological stream. This is the foundation, theologically speaking, upon which ICEJ stands. It has not embraced any “new Christian Zionism,” as Hummel states.

As for the prosperity gospel, ICEJ has never embraced it other than to recognize that anyone who aligns himself with what God blesses will be blessed. All of Scripture teaches this. Neither I nor the leadership of the ICEJ has ever interpreted this blessing as the impartation of material wealth and prosperity.

Finally, there are many Evangelical leaders and others seeking to embrace our ministry who hold views that do not necessarily reflect our own. While we welcome them into our organization, ICEJ seeks to bring biblical balance and truth to their understanding, and while some of them may speak at our gatherings, we always state clearly that we do not necessarily endorse their theological positions.

Rev. Malcolm Hedding
murfreesboro, tennessee

I’m honored that my ministry with Faith Church Hungary was mentioned in Daniel Hummel’s essay on Christian Zionism. Hummel gives a detailed and balanced overview of how Christian philo-Semitism and support for the state of Israel have developed into a truly global movement. Walking the streets of Jerusalem today—and not only during the Feast of Tabernacles, but throughout the year—one can meet Evangelical groups from all over the world. Israel now has committed allies on every continent, including many nations beyond the English-speaking world in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and—to my great joy—Europe as well. This new Christian Zionism is one of the most important and prophetic movements of our age. It gives us a preview of the wonderful unity that will fully unfold in the future that was ordained by Jesus Christ when he “made both one, and [broke] down the middle wall of partition between us” (Eph. 2:14).

Support for Israel grants blessings to each believer individually and to every nation, while anti-Semitism and its modern analogues, anti-Zionism and the BDS movement, unleash destructive forces in the lives of individuals and nations. Global Christian Zionism helps Bible-based Christianity to rediscover its roots; as Hummel rightly notes, it gives us “hope.” In the past, neither Rome, nor Constantinople, nor Moscow, nor even New York or Houston could unite the Church. But today, Jerusalem is a universal treasure of humanity that fills every believer’s heart—whether Jewish or Christian—with love and longing for the Messiah. Surely it is not coincidental that this attraction intensified fifty years ago, in 1967, when Jerusalem became the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel. Christian Zionists stand with Israel by supporting the Jewish state in its decades-long struggle and by defending our common heritage, Judeo-Christian civilization, and the truth of the Scriptures.

The history of Hungary is strongly connected to Israel. The two prophets of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau, were born here in Budapest. Six hundred thousand Jews were deported from Hungary to concentration camps during World War II. The Communist regime was also an enemy of Israel. But after the fall of Communism, many Hungarian Christians—tens of thousands of members of Faith Church among them—lobbied for our nation to face its tragic past and turn a new leaf in its relations with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Budapest in July of this year was an important seal on this new policy. He met with Hungary’s current leaders, who are among Israel’s strongest supporters in Europe, and with several other philo-Semitic heads of state from the region—the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—who were invited to Budapest by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

There are those who dislike this new Judeo-Christian spiritual and geopolitical alliance. They attack anyone who works to strengthen our bonds of friendship. Yet before the Messiah brings about a perfect solution, the future belongs to those who do everything in their power to establish the righteousness of Jerusalem and Israel—until it goes forth “as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth” (Isa. 62:1).

Rev. Sándor Németh
budapest, hungary

Daniel Hummel replies:

I thank my correspondents—both of whom I consider leading proponents of the new Christian Zionism—for the opportunity to clarify what I claim is new about their movement, and what role prosperity teachings play in it.

Christian Zionism today is “new” from a historical American perspective. For most Americans, Christian Zionism has long been synonymous with the agendas of home-grown Evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and John Hagee. “New” refers to the growth of Pentecostal Christian Zionism outside the United States, of which ICEJ is a leading example. I do not claim, nor did I imply, that ICEJ has wavered from its original commitments to covenantal theology. Indeed, it is precisely in order to distinguish the covenantal theology propounded by ICEJ from American-style dispensationalism that I decided to describe the rise of Pentecostal Zionism since 1980 as “new.” My claim is that, demographically and organizationally, ICEJ and its constituents—including Rev. Sándor Németh and Faith Church—have eclipsed the American movement. I assume that Rev. Malcolm Hedding, who was integral to ICEJ’s development into a formidable organization since the 1980s, would agree.

As for prosperity teaching, I highlighted in my essay how many of ICEJ’s most vocal supporters—and even its officials—weave prosperity into their support for Israel. Renê Terra Nova, listed officially as ICEJ-Brazil’s “Branch Director,” teaches of a direct link between blessing Israel and personal prosperity. Terra Nova began his 2014 Feast of Tabernacles sermon with the promise “Everyone who comes up to Jerusalem in the Feast of Tabernacles, the rain of prosperity is going to come over their lives.” Kenneth Meshoe, whom I cited for linking Zambia’s economic performance to its diplomatic relations with Israel, is listed as a “Board Member” of ICEJ-RSA (Republic of South Africa). As speakers with ICEJ titles, often speaking at ICEJ events, they surely represent an influential strand of thinking in the organization.

In any case, the question of official policy is less important than the spectacular success of Christian Zionists, from many different backgrounds and nationalities and organizations, who combine the covenantal theology that Rev. Hedding articulates with prosperity teachings that Rev. Németh and others preach. According to them, adherence to the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 12:3 (“I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”) can influence the material blessings or curses that a nation (i.e., “family”) receives from God. Rev. Németh admits to his belief that one’s relations with Israel—on an individual and national scale—lead to either blessing or destruction, both spiritually and materially. This view often leads Christian Zionists to correlate the success or failure of past nations and empires with their treatment of the Jewish people. (Nazi Germany is a favorite example.) While an interest in Genesis 12:3 is not new to Evangelical Christianity, the confidence with which new Christian Zionists claim that God rewards those who support Israel is a novel development. The admixture of prosperity teachings has made this belief especially appealing to Pentecostal Christians in the Global South.

Ultimately, even though ICEJ’s branch directors and speakers have been some of the new Christian Zionism’s most influential proponents, the story is much larger than one organization.

CASUAL CAUSALITY

Like G. Bruce Boyer (“Dress Up,” June/July), I have argued that formal civic dress was dealt a fatal blow in 1967, making this year the dubious fiftieth anniversary of the birth of a slob nation. From operagoers in track shoes and hiking fleece to professors in flip-flops lecturing students in pajama bottoms, the whole motley throng of lowest-common-denominator dressers face-planted on the slippery slope to slovenliness that fateful year half a century ago.

Concurrence does not confirm causality, but much else has changed over the past fifty years while sartorial standards were plummeting. Boyer suggests that self-indulgent narcissism and do-your-own-thing individualism have led to the loss of formal dress, even stirring up a kind of costumed charlatanism in the picture he paints of the man strolling Midtown Manhattan—a “solitary figure of freedom”—speciously clad as a cowboy. But one could also argue that the century-long push for casual dress by the young and educated bespeaks not too much individualism but too much collectivism in American society, the egalitarian spirit that poet Charles Baudelaire decried as early as 1863 in his essay on dandyism, mocking “the rising tide of democracy . . . which reduces everything to the same level.” Technological and social progress have brought us an inevitable sartorial “Facebookification,” in which billionaire owner and modest minion stand side by side without visual distinction, performing—to use the academic buzzword—perfect equality.

Over the course of twenty years attending vintage-themed events in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, I have often observed a certain personality type. This is the chronically overdressed “retro-eccentric” who believes he was born in the wrong era, and despises the common masses in their sneakers and jeans. But this sartorial reactionary, who usually owns a large number of hats, is never a conservative. He’s convinced that it’s things like free-market economics, organized religion, competitive sports, institutional power structures, and other traditional concepts that have corrupted society and made everyone a slob.

By contrast, believers in original sin will note that man is irrational and perverse, and that it’s stable social norms that clothe his body with dignity and elevate his spirit above the beastly. We are all sinners, and, if given the indulgence, will dress as poorly as we can. Especially if we no longer believe we are worth redeeming—or in the concept of redemption itself.

Christian Chensvold
new york, new york

G. Bruce Boyer replies:

Christian Chensvold is one of the few who wants to place style, taste, and fashion into the context of a larger zeitgeist. In answer to his point that conformity is changing fashion standards as much as or more than self-indulgent individualism, I agree, even though I’m feeling rather dull having to do so. I might have mentioned in “Dress Up”—you only have so much space in an essay—that I believe peer conformity can be, and perhaps psychologically is, more potent than vanity. I would be particularly interested in the relevant psychological studies.

RUSSIAN REGRESS?

Reading Eugene Vodolazkin’s “The Age of Concentration” (June/July) reminded me of several points raised by the Russian lay theologian Alexei Khomiakov, who in the nineteenth century laid a foundation for the modern Slavophile movement. That movement’s main contention—ultimately idealistic and Hegelian—was that a presumed “Russian civilization” (though the word “civilization” was not used until Toynbee) is and should remain essentially different from the West.

The Slavophiles’ idealistic Russian nationalism turned within a few decades into the pogroms and the Black Hundreds movement. Vodolazkin’s idealistic perception of a new age of “inner strengthening and social reconsolidation” is likewise masking a more brutal reality. The current Russian consolidation, which Vodolazkin praises, has been called by some observers the “post-Crimea consensus.” Most Russian elites, both liberal and conservative, together with the majority of the Russian population, accepted their nation’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian Crimea in 2014. Many of them also accept the war that Russia still wages in eastern Ukraine. This military campaign—dubbed “the Russian spring”—has been aided by propaganda and misleading narratives propagated by Russian intellectuals from the beginning.

Here is only one of many examples of the brutal reality misrepresented by the essay. Vodolazkin states that the individualistic principle “That’s your problem” played prominently in Russia during its post–Cold War rapprochement with the West. This suggests that the principle is Western in origin. It also suggests that Russia, in its current antagonism toward the West, is now discarding the principle. However, the Russian state’s conduct toward its soldiers fighting in Ukraine disproves this suggestion. Russians killed in military operations there are not even given proper burials. They are either burnt in special crematoria on wheels, or buried with numbers instead of names on their graves. Russian media and most intellectuals keep surprisingly silent about this scandal. Even the mothers of the fallen soldiers are silenced, by either threats, or money, or both. When the Russian soldiers Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev were captured in 2015, Russian authorities behaved as if it were the soldiers’ “own problem.” Eventually, the two returned home in a prisoner exchange—on the insistence of the Ukrainian government. Nor does the Russian state seem to care about another of its soldiers recently captured in Donbas, Viktor Ageev. According to Ageev, Yerofeyev was killed upon his return to Russia, because he had told too much to the Ukrainians about the Russian presence in Donbas.

Vodolazkin tries to justify the wall between Russia and the West, which was raised in paper by the Slavophiles and then in concrete by the Communists. He implies that the wall should exist because of a metaphysical incompatibility between the two civilizations. I think this is a wrong assumption. There are no metaphysical reasons for a wall between East and West, which—to use Benedict Anderson’s famous definition—are only imagined communities. The only reason why Russians are currently rebuilding the wall is to protect the “personal” political regime of Vladimir Putin. The only incompatibility between the West and modern Russia is between truth and post-truth, care for human life and waste of life, international cooperation and geopolitical manipulation.

Cyril Hovorun
loyola marymount university
los angeles, california

Eugene Vodolazkin is fascinated by the Middle Ages, and I am not at all surprised that his scholarly interests bring him to view the current epoch as a new Middle Ages. However, I fear that this attempt to synthesize the complexities and contradictions of our age will not succeed, and that in a few years the author will abandon his concept of the “age of concentration.” A century ago, Sergei Esenin noted in one of his poems that “One cannot see a face at point-blank range. / The big picture becomes apparent only at a distance.”

In the Soviet Union and subsequently in Russia, I have witnessed a series of historical periods, each of which was much too easily referred to as an “epoch”: the Cold War, the period of “developed socialism,” “perestroika,” “the rebirth of the Church,” and so on. With all due respect to the author, I must say that this kaleidoscopic sequence of various “epochs” (some of them overlapping) has taught me to view the proclamation of the appearance of any new epoch with a measure of skepticism.

This is all the more true if the purported new phenomenon conceals ghosts of the past. In the case of Russia, Vodolazkin’s “concentration” is not original and in fact possesses imperial roots. “Russia is concentrating” was a famous phrase used by Prince Alexander Gorchakov, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs, in a dispatch circulated to Russian embassies in 1856.

The Gorchakov missive has an almost contemporary ring: “Russia is being reproached for isolating herself and for her silence when confronted with facts that are not in keeping either with the law or with justice. It is being said that Russia is angry. It is not that Russia is angry, Russia is concentrating.” These words were written soon after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War of 1853–1856. Would it be true to say that today’s Russia is not angry at Europe and America, but that it is “concentrating”?

Vladimir Putin reminded us of “concentration” some two years before Vodolazkin, with explicit reference to Gorchakov. Shortly before the 2012 presidential elections, he published a programmatic article titled “Russia is concentrating: Challenges to which we must respond.” Can the concept of the “epoch of concentration” be rooted in the politics of mid-nineteenth-century Russia and simultaneously in that of the Russian Federation of the early twenty-first century? If so, that would indicate a narrow sphere of relevance for a concept that claims to describe a process involving the entire world.

I also cannot pass over without comment a deeply troubling aspect of the picture of the world depicted by Eugene Vodolazkin. He predicts the restoration of nation-states as the basic organizational structure in the life of peoples. My first and most essential question to the author is: What countries does he have in mind? Does this mean that in the “epoch of concentration,” Russia too will become a nation-state? If the answer is yes, then this is an ominous prophecy of the disintegration of Russia as we know it, since Russia has never been a nation-state. Its very makeup is imperial, and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was unable to become a federated state. The mentality of Russian citizens, the political system, Putin’s authoritarian regime—absolutely everything is oriented toward a multinational unitary state.

Russia has never undertaken the task of constructing a nation-state, nor has she ever imagined herself in that role. For that reason, if Vodolazkin’s prognosis should ever come to pass, it would entail a catastrophe of historic proportions—a catastrophe the magnitude of which would dwarf the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is possible that we should be prepared for this.

Sergei Chapnin
moscow, russia

Eugene Vodolazkin replies:

Both of my correspondents proceed by affixing my name to positions I do not hold and subjecting these to severe polemical censure. I even wondered, at first sight, whether they were discussing some other text altogether.

I begin with Sergei Chapnin’s letter—it is closer to my conception of what constitutes a genuine exchange of views. Chapnin doubts that the world is moving toward an “age of concentration.” He is right that I view the whole world, not only Russia, in terms of this phenomenon. And he is naturally entitled to empirical doubts concerning this “concentration,” just as I am entitled to expect the realization of my hypothesis.

Yet Chapnin’s “first and most essential” question to me asks which specific countries I had in mind when I spoke of the restoration of nation-states. I had thought my essay sufficiently clear on this matter: I was referring to the United States, where Donald Trump was elected by the American people in hope of refocusing the government’s efforts on internal affairs; to Great Britain, which left the European Union for similar reasons; and to a good half of the countries still belonging to the E.U. This process of nationalization affects Russia as well, but Russia is merely one participant in a general movement.

Some comment on the word “national” is in order, since it has badly misled Chapnin. In political contexts, by standard usage, “national” simply means “pertaining to a state or nation.” Thus in all formal questionnaires asking about “nationality,” the desired information is citizenship, not ethnic provenance. It would seem that Chapnin has confused the word “national” with “nationalistic,” the latter of which makes an ideological assertion of the preeminence of one ethnic group over all others. If I am correct in this diagnosis, then Chapnin and I have no disagreement; my views of nationalism are just as negative as his. For a multiethnic country like Russia, an ideology of Russian chauvinism would indeed have fatal consequences.

Cyril Hovorun, a university instructor as well as an Orthodox priest, is not one to confuse concepts. But he employs clichés so freely that they seem second nature to him. One instance is his use of the term “post-Crimea consensus” to describe the recent détente between rival factions in Russian politics. I wish to remind Hovorun that the cessation of the war of all against all that I discuss in my essay took place long before the events in Crimea. And it was a process that affected each of the numerous ethnic groups residing in this country, not only ethnic Russians.

Hovorun further states that I am trying to justify the existence of a wall that separates Russia and the West. He must have passed over the lines I wrote about looking forward to the demolition of that wall, where I spoke about our societies’ common spiritual roots and about the objective need to unite. That is in fact one of the leitmotifs of my essay.

Hovorun’s image of the world is so bare and simple that it could be called (rephrasing Stendhal slightly) “The Black and the White.” Thus we are presented with a clearly defined geographical distribution of evil and goodness between Russia and the West, with the location of evil hardly a well-kept secret. Particular mention should be made of the following historiosophic revelation: “The only reason why Russians are currently rebuilding the wall is to protect the ‘personal’ political regime of Vladimir Putin.” In my view, that’s a pretty feeble argument coming from a university-level educator, and an amazing one coming from an archimandrite.

I wrote my essay without belonging to either the Slavophiles or the Westernizers because their positions are too one-sided. Truth is never situated at the extremes. The philosophy that guides me is Christian personalism, and my measure is the human being much more than the state. When I speak of problems, I do so in an attempt to solve them. Is not the ongoing shift of epochs (however they might be named) obvious to all? And is not the metaphysics of this process a subject worthy of an open discussion? Political clichés are incapable of shedding light on the issue, just as a Haydn symphony cannot be performed on a village accordion.

I thank my opponents for their responses, though my arguments were misunderstood, because they reflect in miniature the situation in a world where free thought has become the subject of geopolitics. People who argue by echoing the words of their state’s official propaganda are not engaging in dialogue; they are delivering monologues in a vacuum. Statements of this type are meant for proclamation rather than persuasion; many words are spoken, but they no longer have any effect. Our current political folklore has exhausted its possibilities: Our ritual dances in support of the good guys against the bad ones are but a front for hard-nosed practical interests. Whenever these interests change, new dances or new “guys” are easily provided. What we need now are new words, and those are only possible in the context of a new spirit.

The current global situation is very, very alarming. There is urgent need for a positive intervention. I am convinced that a new worldwide conference similar to the one held in Helsinki in 1975 is essential to discuss the changes that have occurred in the world and to hammer out a foundation for a just world order. A conference of this type could initiate a long-term process involving the entire world, with philosophers, historians, writers, lawyers, churchmen, and journalists taking part alongside the politicians. It should be open to all who are ready to join in an effort to lead us out of the current impasse.