Tuesday, January 3, 2023

"Christianity is essentially corrupt" - Andrew Willard

Snippets from "Let's Fight", June 2022, First Things.

The Christian pursuit of virtue is an unfinished war against vice; indeed, every virtue reflects a vice, because the virtue is acquired only in battle against a lingering vice. We don’t have courage merely in a generic sense. We have courage that has always been at war with our specific, historical cowardice, and as our courage develops, it develops with this cowardice reflected within it. Our courage is aimed at our cowardice. Our war shapes our peace.

What this means is that Christianity is essentially corrupt. Here, I beg the reader take the time to understand what I mean. Christians know they are corrupt. Part of their virtue is that they never stop seeking out and fighting their vice—it is their second nature. This is not because corruption is good. That would be absurd. It is because Christianity is the ever-shifting movement from the bad to the good, and it is only when we are engaged in the struggle for moral reform that we can see the badness of corruption. Only the almost good calls the bad by its name. It is our aiming at the good that constitutes the bad as ­corruption. The pagan is corrupt only from the outside, from the perspective of a third party. The Christian, by contrast, is corrupt on the inside, is corrupt in his own estimation. As John Henry Newman remarked to his congregation, “Your knowledge of your sins increases with your view of God’s mercy in Christ.” Or to quote the Second Vatican Council, the Church is “at the same time holy and always in need of being purified.”

The more Christian an epoch, then, the more we historians find its people talking about their corruption, which is why there are so many sources relentlessly listing Christians’ failures. Historians sometimes misinterpret these sources as demonstrating that Christianity wasn’t really the ethos of society, or that Christianity was somehow competing with rival worldviews. (Among the common people, these worldviews are supposed to have consisted of charming “folkways” that involve harmony with nature, sexual freedom, and herbal ­remedies—whereas the worldview of the elites is supposed to have been a cynical Machiavellianism.) This kind of reading fails to see that the most Christian people are the least Christian people. As long as there are Christians failing to be Christian, there is hope; the alternative is a fading away into surrender, apostasy, worldliness.
The Church’s corruption is not limited to the objects of her structures of discipline. Rather, corruption and sanctity are constantly intermingled. This means the objects of the Church’s reform must include the very structures of reform that she builds in order to defeat corruption. These structures are themselves corrupt: The reform requires reform. The Church must double back on herself in a spiral of discipline and grace. Rulers will abuse the Church’s social power; it will be corrupted, it will—at least partially—fail. But that does not make it less essential to the Church.

Even though the Church’s activities against corruption are themselves unavoidably corrupt, they are not futile. As she reforms, she is made more perfect, and so corruption gives way to sanctity. This is a real movement: The spiral of reform is an ascending spiral. The Church moves in an eschatological ascent, but this does not mean that she moves in a linear, Whiggish progression. Corruption is real and is constantly counteracting reform, constantly threatening to drag the Church back down into the world, and to various degrees succeeding. But even such regressions must be understood as the providential settings for new reforms, for a new calling of the Church out of the world—like ­Israel out of Egypt—to build new structures of discipline and form new strategies for sanctity. The his­torian of the Church, then, must have a subtle, patient posture toward the object of his work. He must listen to the Church, hear what she says about what she is doing, allow her both sanctity and corruption in the same movement, see her sin within her more profound dynamic of reform into sanctity.

Christianity’s movement, by contrast, comprehends its own negation (corruption). Christianity denies, ultimately, the possibility of a true binary, of a difference that does not operate within a unity. As Augustine explained, the man hanging upside down by his feet experiences pain only because he belongs to a right-side-up cosmos (he is upside-down). Sin is identified for what it is only within a world that is built to undo sin. There is an irony here: Only human beings are capable of sin, and redemption is the movement into ever fuller humanity. As a saint moves deeper into perfection, he is able to identify his sins more perfectly and resist them. Disordered goods become more obvious and more offensive exactly as goods become more properly ordered. The law convicts us even as grace saves us. In the dualistic modern world, such Christianity can be perceived only as the most profound hypocrisy, as logically absurd and morally reprehensible. Christians always talk about peace, and yet they wage war. They praise holiness, and yet they often sin. They call for reform, and yet they are corrupt. Christians, in short, are foolish bigots. This is what the sophisticates of the Roman Empire saw. This is what our elites see.

Conflict, then, is unavoidable. Christianity has the potential to destroy the world that persecutes it through the sacrificial power that wages war always for the weak and never for the strong. If the Church does not destroy this world, it must join it, through a downward spiral of violence without sacrifice and of suffering without power. Within the Christian dynamic, the martyr and the crusader are part of the same story. But within the framework of the modern mind, the Crusades emerge as grotesque at the same rate that martyrdom becomes incomprehensible. Christianity has become just another bit of the world, another religion, another lifestyle, maybe a good one—as Dickson would have it—but probably not.

The Church is corrupt. If the Church stopped being corrupt, that would mean that she had stopped taking risks, stopped venturing out into the world, stopped fighting. This is an unsettling and humbling thought. But the alternative is to make things simple, to accept the absolutes of the world, to accuse with ease and self-righteousness, to deny both the legitimacy of the crusaders and the holiness of the martyrs in favor of moral certitude. It would be a false solution. Instead, let’s fight.