On the Visibility of the Church

In an earlier post I commented on Nathan Kerr’s new book, Christ History and Apocalyptic. There is a very interesting conversation taking place at The Church and Postmodern Culture: Conversation, also revolving around Nate’s book.

Nate was kind enough to respond to my initial post and I thought I would print his response below and follow-up with it in this post as it raises some very intriguing questions, or it does for me anyway.

Here is Nate’s response:

Darrell: Your concluding observation that Constantinianism is what happens when Gnosticism is the reigning paradigm is both insightful and also very suggestive. If I were to put Reno’s point another way, I would expand it to say that Constantinianism occurs as an idealization of the church with respect to a particular political, social, cultic, or political identity. This does not mean that the church is not “visible” and not concerned with a certain institutional “solidity” within Constantinianism. However, I think the point about disembodiment is to suggest that this visibility is rendered “epiphenomenal” with respect to a more originary and transcendental reality. In other words, “visibility” does not equal “embodiment,” especially as the visible church is representative of a more hidden “spiritual” and “invisible” reality. That dichotomy between the visible and invisible is the docetic heresy, which of course is closely tied to gnosticism. And I think this dichotomy also privileges the intellect and knowledge over the will and action in helpful ways, which also sharpens the gnostic charge.

Though I’d like to hear more about what you mean when you speak of gnosticism as “the reigning paradigm.”

In response, beyond thanking Nate for taking the time out of what I know must be a very busy schedule to respond, my first thought is I’m having a hard time just getting a conceptual grasp of all that Nate posits in his response, which is entirely my fault. I am a generalist when it comes to many of these areas and simply do not have the background knowledge needed to really do this justice. With that caveat, let me just throw out some thoughts in response—I may be way off, but here we go. What I hear is the idea that one could have “visibility,” say in the form of crosses on buildings, or a scripture verse engraved in stone in a court room, or a statue of a religious nature, giving a certain “visibility” to an idealized conception of a “religion” or a church in the public mind, as that which can underwrite the more “real” and “solid” state, business or economy, but this would not equal “embodiment,” because…why? Well, my sense is that embodiment goes deeper, to a practice, to a formation, to a liturgy, to something woven into the life of a people through the Spirit and is ultimately a mystery. How is this “visible” though? How is the embodiment of mission (or is mission precisely the embodiment?) made visible in a way that escapes an idealization so this visibility is not just an epiphenomena? Or, are we simply asking: How do we escape the dualism’s of modernity?

As to the question about Gnosticism and the reigning paradigm, I was thinking along the lines of what Harold Bloom has written about America, in that for all the supposed “visibility” of Christianity, the American religion is, at heart, gnostic. I’m thinking of Gnosticism, specifically, as that which evacuates the physical. Nature abhors a vacuum. Something rushes in. By the Church (at least the Protestant modern Church) relegating its concerns to the state of men’s souls only and heaven one day, we have, I’m thinking, conceded space and time to…whatever, the state, global capitalism, economies of power. Are we Constantinian because we are gnostic? Is that what has happened?

I still have not finished Nate’s book and maybe these areas are addressed, but I think the further interesting question is- how exactly is the Church visible beyond its own borders (Yes, Word and Sacrament: But perhaps these are the erasure of borders)? If Christ redeemed all things, all creation (Col 1:15-20), meaning also space and time, as reflective culture making creatures, how is that redemption made visible (space and time) beyond the salvation of individual souls? And, does that redemption ever break into the present reflected in lives but also in physical cultural artifacts or is it always waited upon—is it always only a future consummation? Is it always wilderness and tabernacle?

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