A Different Sort of Church History 2

In “A Different Sort of Church History 1” I was building something based on E. H. Broadbent’s The Pilgrim Church. Here is some more of that.

    Part of the broad context for Broadbent, and indeed for all of us still now, is the breakdown of the state-church system. Like so many human empires, the state-church, Christendom, appeared strongest as it was dying. When the Christians of Christendom were believing no longer in Christianity but in rationalism and propriety, the state-church, and this is particularly true of Kierkegaard’s Denmark, was asserting its power while it was, through the neutralization of its distinctives through disbelief, losing its power.

    Kierkegaard, if he had been better known to British people in 1930, might have had a place of honor in The Pilgrim Church, but the honor would be diminished by Kierkegaard being a voluntary loner. He was urban, he was well-read, and he was a bit ashamed of his father’s rural origins, so one can hardly imagine attaching himself to a group like the holy sect portrayed in Babette’s Feast  or many of the communities honored by Broadbent. But he was certainly in himself focused on holiness, one who sought first God’s kingdom. A good introduction to that aspect of him is Vernard Eller’s The Simple Life.  Eller quotes Kierkegaard:

When the prosperous man on a dark but star-lit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him, and it is not dark close around him. But precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason he cannot see the stars, for his lights obscure the stars, which the poor peasant driving without lights can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in their prosperity and good days they have, as it were, lanterns lighted, and close about them everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable — but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars.

In this parable, the one who “carries his light with him” and therefore “cannot see the stars” is like those who have already “received their reward” and therefore have nothing more to receive (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16) or like those of whom it can be said: “You already have all you want” (1 Corinthians 4:8).

    There is no history left for the self-satisfied, for those who are already complete. After the communist governments of central and eastern Europe went kaflooie in the late 1980s and early 1990s, some people (“media pundits” I think we call them) spoke of “the end of history.” They were either joking or a very sad sight. If the fight (against communism, for instance) that has absorbed my energies and that I have used it to define myself is apparently over and done with, then there is  no more history, and I can relax and take it easy (or go shoot myself). But if the fight that absorbs my energies is “the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12), then there is plenty more to be done.

     A good introduction to the Christendom that Kierkegaard railed against is the character William Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Read it only till you get the measure of the man — through, perhaps, the visit of Elizabeth Bennet to his parsonage. The characters in this book, all of them Christians, seem to care nothing about holiness (though perhaps I am prejudiced) but much about morality, which is a very different thing, namely, propriety defined by tradition. Rev. Collins provides some comic relief, but the lazy, conceited, and avaricious Anglican priest is a stock character. The people in that novel are rural elites, and Kierkegaard lived within an urban elite. But the religion is the same: respectable Christendom of the first half of the nineteenth century.

    A letter from Mr. Collins to Mr. Bennet is the occasion of his being introduced into the story and gives a clear idea of the place of many clergymen as servants of the concerns of the aristocracy:

having received ordination at Easter, I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England. As a clergyman, moreover, I feel it my duty to promote and establish the blessing of peace in all families within the reach of my influence,

and then he raises the ticklish issue of his inheriting the house the Bennets live in and hints at his wanting to look over the Bennet girls for possible wooing. Part of Mr. Bennet’s assessment:

There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well.

He means that he expects to get a few laughs at Rev. Collins’s expense. That personality assessment and Collins’s intention with regard to the Bennet family are soon confirmed. He is quite an empty head, filled only with his conceit and the conventional proprieties. There is no surprise either that Elizabeth turns him down or that he is initially unable to believe her refusal sincere. He can neither get the joke nor understand how anyone could disagree with his self-satisfaction any more than most of us can imagine, on our own, the persistence of the “good fight” or the eschatological orientation of our well-built churches.

All these people [Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, so far] died in faith, not yet having received what they had been promised — but they had seen it and greeted it from afar and had acknowledged that they are foreigners to this earth. Those who talk like that show thus that they are seeking a homeland elsewhere. If they were thinking about the land they had left, they could have gone back. But they wanted a better land, a heavenly land. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

  • Vernard Eller’s The Simple Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973) might still be downloadable from House Church Central.
  • I’ve recently read chapter 14 of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory  (3rd ed.; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) and learned there that Austen’s “moral vision” or “theory of the virtues” has been discussed quite seriously and that, for instance, C. S. Lewis regarded it as “profoundly Christian.” Quoting MacIntyre: “for Jane Austen the touchstone of the virtues is a certain kind of marriage and indeed a certain kind of naval officer (that is, a certain kind of English naval officer).”
  • I had an uncle named William Collins who was nothing like Austen’s character.

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