Saturday, June 4, 2011

Descent of the Dove - II

In Chapter Two of Williams' The Descent of the Dove he continues his intriguing theme from Chapter One, the work of the Church as a Reconciliation with Time, "a kind of reconciliation between the Church and the ordinary process of things ... she made preparations for drawing into herself the whole of normal human existence".

By this he means that over the course of the second and third centuries, through the persecutions, the Church becomes more aware of a certain process to which she is called. Between the rigorous ethical demands of the Montantists on the one hand and mercy toward sinners on the other; between the Evangelical Counsels and their call to utter abandonment and perfection on one side and the more ordinary life of average Christians on the other; between the demand to excommunicate "lapsed" Christians and the desire to accept them and reconcile with them - between these pairs of opposites the Church is seen to exist.

Indeed, we see this today. We have the rad trads on the right,
who at their worst are Puritanical rigorists and Pharisees; and we have the liberalists on the left, who at their worst are permissive indifferentists. These two opposites reveal the demands of timelessness (in Williams' terminology) and the need for process within time. We are not all holy at once, the "now" of redemption is a nnnoooowwwwww that is stretched out over our lives. But the Church, unlike the liberalists, seeks not to compromise with sinners, but to reconcile them, "redeeming the time" as St. Paul calls it (Eph. 5:16).

"The Rigorous view is vital to sanctity," Williams writes, "the relaxed view is vital to sanity."

What a great line that is!

Williams sees in the process of the Church becoming more institutionalized a kind of banishment of Prophecy, a kind of driving the Holy Spirit underground. ("If St. Paul came back to Rome, they'd kill him again for being a Prophet," a friend of mine observed.) But he is not simply a carping charismatic. I was worried at first that Williams' view of the Holy Spirit would be this individualistic one, in which the Holy Spirit, as in the Protestant model, works only individually and only in violent dramatic ways, such as healings and tongues, and so forth. But his view of the workings of the Holy Spirit is quite Catholic, for while he recognizes that God concedes to the "taming" of the Spirit (so to speak) as the Church is institutionalized and as she works toward the reconciliation with time and ordinary things, he nevertheless realizes that the Spirit is no less at work and no less present in the Church - indeed, in this very act of reconciling ordinary sinful men to her, calling them to an ongoing process of sanctification, whether rigorous (monastic, eremitic, celibate) or relaxed (as with those called to more ordinary vocations).

Williams points again to the hint he made in the first chapter of there being - spiritually speaking - something more to love, even erotic love, than one might first suspect. For one thing, Origen insists that while the Son is co-equal with the father, the Son is obedient to the Father. "A thing so sweetly known in many relations of human love is, beyond imagination, present in the midmost secrets of heaven." He also quotes a phrase "tossed out" by St. Ignatius of Antioch on his way to martyrdom, "My Eros is crucified". Williams remarks, "The Eros of five hundred years of Greece and Rome was to live after a new style; unexpected as yet, the great Romantic vision approached."

And finally, Williams ends this chapter with the image of Constantine presiding over the Council of Nicea, this image of the throned secular figure presiding over a Church council signifying not the corruption of the early Church the Evangelicals would see, but on the contrary signifying that "the acceptance of time was completely manifested ... a new basis - a metaphysical basis - was ordained for society. The Roman past was rejected; the effort of the Middle Ages was begun. Intellect was accepted; marriage was accepted; ordinary life was accepted."

The incarnation continues, "what I have cleansed that call not thou common." (Acts 11:9)

And thus the Holy Spirit continues to work in His Church.


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