Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Descent of the Dove - V

Chapter Five is entitled "The Imposition of Belief" and Williams works his way through the glory of the Middle Ages touching on a little bit of everything, as the Middle Ages themselves did. He makes no apologies for the Inquisition or the sacking of Byzantium by the Western Christians. At the same time he does not flinch from the sanctity of St. Francis, St. Dominic or St. Thomas Aquinas.

In fact, in the case of St. Francis and St. Dominic, Williams sees a recapitulation in miniature of the problem faced by the Church as a whole. "Perhaps in them the alteration between the initiation and the institution is most clearly seen, between the flash and the prolongation. It is not suggested that the children of Francis and Dominic are unworthy of their Founders. But the Orders have a proper stability in time which Francis and Dominic could not have nor could desire to have. They looked to, they hastened to, their end; the Orders cannot do as much."

Williams separates as opposites the initiation, the flash, the consummation on the one side and the institution, the prolongation, the duration on the other. His over-arching view of the history of the Church applies this distinction throughout. The Church, in Williams' view, begins with a sudden flame at Pentecost and the expectation of an early end, a nearly present consummation in Christ; it is challenged by duration in time, itself a frustration and a paradox, for the Spirit of Christ "coinherent" in the Church is Himself timelessness. Suddenly something infused with and inspired by eternity must come to terms with the world, the world of time and space and human nature, the world which demands administration and corporation and institution. The challenge for the Church, in Williams' view, is how to keep this inspiration embodied, how to, in a sense, continue to bring a perfect and eternal God into a fallen and temporal world.

Clearly the Church is more apt to fail at this challenge when she is established than when she is hiding in the catacombs. And in a turn of events that turns the stomach, the Church in the Middle Ages even winks at torture when secular authorities question suspected heretics. But even in that case, when the Church seems most compromised by the world and the tactics of the prince of this world, Williams points out that the priests themselves did not torture or shed blood. Yes, they allowed others to do so, they enabled such horrors - but even in the face of worldly compromise, the teachings of Christ were at least hypocritically honored. And this tells us much of the power of this teaching and of the Divinity that guarded it.

The best line in the chapter deals with this - how even when the Church seemed most compromised by her establishment as Christendom, the Holy Spirit's work can still be seen in an irony within the heart of hypocrisy. "At least Society believed in belief; it believed in the Creed if it did not believe the Creed," Williams writes.

Today we no longer believe in belief; we no longer believe in the Creed much less believe the Creed. Today we are like the children of affluent hippies, whose parents give us everything and expect nothing from us in return. Today we don't even have anything to make us rise to the level of hypocrites. We not only miss the mark, we don't even have a mark to miss. If the mass of men can never be perfect Christians, no man can ever be a perfect post-Christian, for there is no such thing as perfection in his case.

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