Plato’s Democracy: An Hexis of Consumptive Heresy II

[Part II of II. Here is Part I]

I have taken some space–and even that is a much truncated summary–to describe some of the key aspects of Plato’s conception of the human soul, the city, and the relation of soul and city through formation. One need not subscribe to Plato’s model city, or even his tripartite conception of the soul to recognize that cities and souls are both shaped by and shape one another. Plato’s Republic is not an historical analysis of how cities devolve from a pristine aristocratic state. Nor is his account completely compatible with the Christian understanding of sin and theosis. But in that it articulates the possible ways in which humans shape and misshape their communities and themselves, it is a valuable meditation, and warning, for us.

It seems to me that we Christians should first recognize the devolution of our own community to something resembling quite closely Plato’s society of free-choice consumption. This social consumptive structure and its virtue of choice (that is to say, it’s making a virtue of heresy) shapes us, and we continue that paradigm in our lives. Even and despite our faith and living.

While some, such as Frank Schaeffer, in his Dancing Alone, want to trace present-day U. S. relativistic pluaralism to the failures of the Protestant Reformation, here I merely want to agree with the diagnosis of where we’re at, it not agree with the analysis of whence we’ve come. (Though I do agree with Schaeffer as to the remedy.)

We present-day U. S. citizens sit atop a culture suffused with death and exploitation. It is not too difficult to understand what’s missing. Protestant Christians in general (and here I’m including mainline liberals with evangelical conservatives) find themselves, for various reaons, with an anemic incarnational doctrine, and the consequences are all around us.

What I mean is this: Whether it be the liberals who discount the Incarnation altogether, or the conservatives who hold to the Incarnation literally but primarily doctrinally, the full-blown understanding of the Incarnation remains absent from much of present-day Protestant Christianity. If one doesn�t even believe the Incarnation, then clearly the only alternative is this present existence. Liberal rejection of the Incarnation damns its adherents to a life of Qohelethical vanity.

However, just because one believes in the “literal” (i. e., real, historical) Incarnation, isn’t enough. Many Protestants believe in the Incarnation in its actual sense (God become man and suffered, died and was buried, and rose again on the third day), but understand it almost exclusively in a juridical sense. That is to say, for many, the point of the Incarnation is justification. They would not deny the sanctifying results of the Incarnation, but these function less as a consequence of the Incarnation and more as a consequence of some sort of exclusively pneumatological event (in charismatic terms a second “baptism” or “the baptism of the Holy Spirit”). That is to say, justification gets us in the door, but after that, it’s not so much Jesus with whom we have to do, but rather the Spirit. Aside from the Sabellian implications this has for Trinitarian theology, this dichotomy between Jesus as Savior and Spirit as Sanctifier is not only dangerous, but also as damning as the liberal rejection of the Incarnation altogether.

One of the ways this extremist understanding of salvation damns is that it removes God’s energetic gracious operations from the created world. (It also makes of grace a created thing. This, too, has terrible implications.) So it is no surprise that Zwingli and others denied any sacramental reality to the Eucharist. Once one has done that, one has entered the world of Manichean Gnosticism: creation is evil, spirit is good. But if creation is denied the infilling of the God-Man through the Spirit, then man is split in his very being. Salvation need not touch his body. Salvation is about knowing and believing the right doctrines, and willing the right actions. The body is nothing more than a vessel and is unessential to salvation. (This, of course, is little more than Platonic/Augustinian/Cartesian dualistic heresy, and is not worthy of Christian belief. Yet, how many of us have heard these sentiments–freed from the prison of the body–at some funerals?)

The problem is, God created the cosmos to be sacramental. Reality, God-given reality, is at its core sacramental. The first humans were allowed to eat of all but one tree. In the first act of consumption, of pleonexia, they rejected that sacramental reality for Gnostic wisdom. But even though we still reject that sacramental reality, we do so by way of denial. For too many U. S. Christians, reality is spiritual, illusion is material. We forget the ancient biblical understanding that creation is spiritual in its very materiality. And that it is so by virtue of the fact of the Incarnation.

Though we reject the sacramental nature of creation, we nonetheless were made, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory in his book, For the Life of the World so excellently notes, to live in sacramental relationship with creation. So we cannot but help to still look to creation for a fulfillment that can only be had if we are in union with the one Person through whom creation is sanctified: Jesus Christ. Without cruciform allegiance to Christ our relationship to the created order, to other humans also, is one of exploitation. We use matter and persons in order to be wise; which is to say, in order to exercise power and control. We deny the spirit of the matter, and so attempt to fill the void of spirit with matter. We relive the original consumptive heresy of Adam and Eve.

It is so obvious as to be beyond denial, but present U. S. society is suffused with consumer heresy. Viewing matter as merely matter, and matter as all that is, we and our neighbors deny the Incarnation, and empty our relationship with matter and other humans of any Trinitarian life-giving content. We want the wisdom tree’s fruit. And we are wiser, in a sense. Wiser about how to manipulate the created world to our own appetites. We have an end, a telos, a goal. And the one ineradicable instrument to that end, is choice, heresy.

So much of U. S. Christian worship, church planting, evangelism, is drenched in consumerist heresy. Newcomers are told that Church is about feeling comfortable. Worship services, newcomers are told, are our gift to you. Churches are marketed to groups. Teens, adults, young children, all have special niche programs created “just for them.” The message: “We’re here to fill up your emptiness.” But the void is being filled, not with the life-giving Trinity, but with more emptiness. No sacramentality, no spirit.

The consumerist U. S. society creates consumers. And Christians are not immune. Christians are as formed by the consumptive heresy as are their secular neighbors. And it creeps into all things Christian. From the original purity of sacramental understanding, the U. S. Christian polis has devolved into the heretical consumer multiplex. Souls and bodies are shaped in a demonic paideia, and in turn shape their institutions. Pleonexia has become the consumer virtue–“never satisfied”–and Christians follow suit.

The remedy, of course, is to recover the full meaning of the Incarnation and its sacramentality. Bread and wine become Body and Blood. Oil reveals the descent of the Holy Spirit. Vestments become touchstones of prayer as the fingers of the faithful brush the hem of the garment. These are symbols, but not mere symbols. They are alive with energetic grace. Which is to say they are alive with the uncreated God.

But this takes more than mere intellectual instruction. Plato’s model city, after all, trained the youth from birth, body and soul. This is what the Church has been called to do from the beginning. “You and all your household.” “The home is a little Church.” Babies are baptized, and taught by parental fiat and example that the Christian life is an agon, a struggle against, the flesh, against the consumptive heresy. It is a struggle to always remember that all of reality is suffused with the glory of the consequences of the Incarnation. All of reality is sacramental. The sweat-soaked marriage bed, undefiled, is a sacrament. The sleepy-eyed, tow-headed children risen from sleep to stand with parents before the icons in prayer is sacramental. The jar of Trader Joe’s olive oil, poured into the vigil lamp and become by prayer a means of grace, speaks of sacrament. The heavens declare the glory of God, because his glory infuses all. Blessed water is holy not because some priest recited magic words, but because the foot of a man who is God once stepped into the Jordan River in the Middle East. These children, as also we, are formed and shaped by the movement of bodies kneeling, the rhythmic breathing of recited prayers, and the Trinitarian reality that suffuses these created things offered in faith to God.

And maybe, being shaped in sacrament, we, too, may shape our own society towards sacrament. Activism, politics, convention resolutions will not do this. Only the slow, steady drip of water on stone, of daily prayers and repentances passed on to children, will accomplish this. There is no program. There is only living Tradition, struggle. Are we conformed to the pattern of the world around us? Or are we transformed by ecclesial paideia?