At the First Things retreat last weekend, Robert Louis Wilken delivered a somber and moving address about friendship. Wilken emphasized the need for a founding bond that is more than just personal, one that touches agreement on some fundamental questions of being and life.
His words recall Nietzsche's 1878 work, Human, All Too Human, which bore the subtitle “A Book for Free Spirits.” The very first section speaks of the same first-things sort of tie that genuine friends have with one another. After noting the “chills and fears stemming from isolation, to which every man burdened with an unconditional difference of viewpoint is condemned,” Nietzsche admits to seeking a refuge, a shelter from it. When a man's viewpoint runs against the herd's, when your nonconformity prompts the world to “whip you with it's displeasure,” as Nietzsche's precursor Emerson put it, you keep your integrity but lose your fellows.
However much Nietzsche glorified his solitude, it hurt him. “What I always needed most to cure and restore myself, however, was the belief that I was not the only one to be thus, to see thus—I needed the enchanting intuition of kinship and equality in the eye and in desire, repose in a trusted friendship . . .”
For the past few weeks on and off I’ve been reading poems from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Stundenbuch, (“Book of Hours”). Das Stundenbuch is a collection of mainly theological poems, divided into three parts: “Of Monastic Life”, “Of Pilgrimhood”, and “Of Poverty and Death”. Two thirds of the delight of Rilke is his sublimely elegant verse, and so I’ve been reading it in the original German. I’d like to share here three short poems from the first part, “Of Monastic Life”, in rough, fairly literal translations (my own).
It’s necessary to understand that most of the poems in this portion of the book are written from the perspective of a cloistered monk, and in most cases the poems use the stable features of monastic life (prayer, solitude, silence, labor, study) to say something about the spiritual life, or to express a prayer. Rilke's own life was far from admirable, but now and then he strikes a profound chord.
Du, Nachbar Gott...
You, neighbor God, when now and then
in dead of night, with heavy knocks I wake you, –
It’s so, because I barely hear you breathe,
and know: You are alone in the hall.
And when you have a need, there’s no one there,
to bring a drink to satisfy your fumbling.
I’m always listening. Give a little sign.
I am close by.
Only a narrow wall divides us two,
By chance; since it could be
that, but a call from your mouth or from mine,
And it caves in
without any fuss or din.
It is built out of your images.
Those pictures stand in front of you like names.
And when at times the light in me burns out,
by which my depths perceive you,
It wastes itself like glints upon their frames.
And my senses, which are quickly tired,
are homeless and apart from you.
Du bist so groß, daß ich schon nicht mehr bin…
You are so great, that I already cease to be,
when I but place myself in your vicinity.
You are so dark, my little light
beside your hem is without sense.
Your will goes outward like a wave
and every day is drowned therein.
Only my yearning reaches to your chin
and stands before you, as if greater than all angels;
one stranger, paler, and as yet unsaved,
and stretches out his wings to you.
No more for him—the bankless flight,
on which the moon swam over, pale,
and of the worlds he knows at last enough.
With his wings he means as if with flames
to stand before the shadows of your face,
and hopes by their white light to see,
whether your grey brows damn him.
Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille wäre…
If only just for once it were so still.
If only chance and guesswork would fall silent
and the laughter of my neighbors,
If the noise, which my own senses make,
did not prevent me so from watching – :
Then could I in a thousandfold reflection
approach the edges of you with my thought
And own you (only for a smile’s length),
In order then to give you to the living
as an act of thanks.
On the First Things podcast, Julia Yost asked me about my “NFP Journey.” I have indeed been reading, in preparation for marriage, not only classics like Fulton Sheen's Three to Get Married (which I highly recommend), but also testimonials from married Catholics in the midst of the fray. I'm finding Simcha Fisher's bracing and candid Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning an excellent resource. Fisher pinpoints the problems with overly-rosy sales pitches for NFP, and reminds readers that the fabled “marriage-building” powers of NFP don't automatically spring forth—they are part of the journey of doing God's will as a family, which often includes much stumbling, repentance, and reconciliation along the way.
To those considering simply giving up and hitching their wagon to some form of contraception, Fisher advises taking a look at the comments on any online article about contraceptive technology to get a dose of reality: “When it comes to facing fertility, all God’s children got angst.” Sex and children are great blessings that require careful, committed stewardship on the part of each couple. There's no licit shortcut, no one-time fix. Fisher offers words of fortifying encouragement: “If NFP brings you suffering, it doesn’t mean your marriage is a failure, or that you’re invincibly worldly or immature. It just means that love, like all the best things in life, is complicated.” Fisher's book is funny and conversational, but it most importantly corrects the cutesy hyperbole of some NFP advocacy with the reminder that Christian marriage, like all Christian walks, means following Christ, and following Christ means the Cross.
Reading John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine this week, I was reminded of a saying, now popular among academic historians, that I first encountered as an undergraduate. From the very outset of church history, the proverb goes, there was “not a single Christianity, but many Christianities.” Professors spoke these words very slowly for effect, or italicized them in textbooks, pleased to have staged so great coup in such a pithy turn of phrase. Indeed, the immediate effect was to strip Christianity entirely of all substantive content. Viewed in isolation from any unifying idea, local “Christianities” became mere myths, or worse, masks for the pursuit of political interest.
Newman was familiar with arguments like these. Many of his contemporaries maintained that
Christianity ... is to each man what each man thinks it to be, and nothing else; and thus in fact is a mere name for a cluster or family of rival religions all together, religions at variance with one another, and claiming the same appellation, not because there can be assigned any one and the same doctrine as the common foundation of all, but because certain points of agreement may be found here and there of some sort or another.
But Newman realized that a consequence of this belief in plural Chistianities is the emptying of all meaning from whatever idea was once signified by the word Christianity. If there really were at any time not one true faith, but many, then believers would lack any way of distinguishing between genuine Christian teachings and worldly corruptions, except by unverifiable private dispensation. Likewise, historians would have no reason to refer to the many religious traditions invoking Christ’s name as “Christianities” if there were no essential agreement among them—just as contemporary Aristotelians would be wrong to refer to themselves by that name unless there were some continuous thread of philosophical development connecting them to Aristotle.
Newman argues that the existence of some principle governing the development of Christian doctrine, according to which the original idea of the faith was not lost or fragmented, but reasonably elucidated and applied to varying circumstances, is a logical precondition to any talk of Christianity today, for believers and secular historians alike. Anyone who attempts to reinterpret church history on their own terms, by invoking their own standards of true doctrine—Newman called this a “principle of demarcation”—fails to fully appreciate the significance of Christ's intervention in history with the Incarnation. As Newman understood it, faith in the continuity of doctrine
is a sort of degradation of a divine work to consider it under an earthly form; but it is no irreverence, since our Lord Himself, its author and Guardian, bore one also. Christianity differs from other religions and philosophies, in what is superadded to earth from heaven; not in kind, but in origin; not in its nature, but in its personal characteristics; being informed and quickened by what is more than intellect, by a divine spirit.
Growing up as young Evangelicals, my friends and I were taught to describe ourselves as “Spiritual but not religious,” and to clarify whenever possible that “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.” Newman, at least, appreciated the grave danger in such ideas.
Four years ago, my grandfather Art Wiser gave me The Christian and the Sword by the Anabaptist elder Peter Walpot. It sat unopened on my bookshelf until recently, when I realized that I need to explore and strengthen my Anabaptist convictions. The book is actually the fourth article from Walpot's Great Article Book, Die Fünf Artikel des Grössten Streites Zwischen Uns und der Welt, written in 1570 to synthesize and clarify key points of the Anabaptist witness. The Christian and the Sword lays out the biblical basis for non-violence, and also details the relationship of the Christian to the State. On this Walpot is uncompromising:
Therefore, we as God's children need to be and become like innocent children, without domination, without vengeance, without pride, . . . not pompous—all these things standing in the way of our salvation. Take note, secular authorities! If you ask whether you can be Christians, the answer is given by the Son of God himself: “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
What the Anabaptists were willing to suffer—persecution, martyrdom, eviction—is a testament to the strength of their convictions. This has continued to the present day, when Anabaptist groups such as the Brethren Church in Nigeria face persecution not only for their Christianity but also for their pacifism.
Writing in an era of state-mandated religion, Walpot laments that:
. . . if the king, or prince, or authority is papist, then his subjects must be papist; if he becomes Lutheran, they must also become Lutheran; if he is Zwinglian, they must also be Zwinglian; and what the government believes, its land and people must also believe. They enforce this with the sword, the hangman, fire and water, tower and dungeon, an so it happens that one believes in order to please another and goes with the crowd; everyone believes whatever his lord wishes.
Although now our faith is not mandated by the state, it seems that it is less and less compatible with secular authority. A recurring theme during this election cycle has been the loss of influence among conservative Christians. The public square is not naked, but ordered by today's gods: power, mammon, radical individualism. Politically, at least concerning where to cast our vote, we seem to be homeless.
For much of Anabaptist history, hostility from the state was the norm. And, compared to the brutal persecution faced by Christians all over the world today, we in America still live in a time of unmerited grace. If we can draw any lessons from Walpot, it is that our current safety and freedom should not be taken for granted. The plight of Christians today seems to echo that of the Reformation-era Anabaptists.
But more on that later ...