Mestizo Christianity

Mestizo Christianity

A “mestizo,” writes the historian Justo González, is a person who belongs to two realities simultaneously—and by virtue of this “both-and-ness” does not feel entirely at home in either of them.

He explains:

A Mexican-American reared in Texas among people of Euro-American culture is repeatedly told that he is a Mexican—that is, that he does not really belong in Texas.

But if that Mexican-American crosses the border hoping to find there his land and his people, he is soon disappointed by being rejected, or at least criticized, as somewhat Americanized—or, as Mexicans would say, for being a pocho.

The passage comes, of all places, in a book about Augustine of Hippo, the fourth-century church father (here).

Augustine

For González, Augustine’s youthful restlessness

was due not only to his distance from God … but also to the inner struggles of a person in whom two cultures, two legacies, two world visions clashed and mingled—in short, of a mestizo.

WHAT DOES HIPPO HAVE TO DO WITH TIJUANA?

This may seem like a strange description.

Saint Augustine, after all, was a Latin-speaking citizen of the Roman Empire, steeped in neoplatonic philosophy and converted to Christianity before becoming the most influential theologian after the apostle Paul.

How is he “mestizo”?

González’s point is that despite his classical (Latin) learning, Augustine was born and raised in Africa.

Thus when he finally made it as a rhetorician in the emperor’s court, he never belonged entirely. The accent gave him away, says James K. A. Smith, like “a stubborn hayseed halo around his eloquence.” And when he returned to Africa to live as a monk, the Berbers and the Donatists could see him only as an uppity “Roman” who was too big for his britches.

I encountered these passages in Smith’s new book on Augustine (here), and they made me consider how all of us feel this restless in-between-ness in one way or another.

Take me, for example.

In many ways, I am the ultimate “insider.”

I am a white Christian male in the buckle of the Bible-belt, residing in the same town where I was born. As a theology professor, I couldn’t be more “basic” if I drank coffee from a handmade mug, wore sport coats with elbow patches, and listened to U2 past 2004 (which, I do).

Yet even I feel caught between “tribes” in certain ways: Neither fundamentalist nor Liberal; neither Republican nor Democrat; neither OU nor OSU. 😉

MESTIZO SPIRITUALITY

For González and Smith, it was precisely Augustine’s “mestizo” status—that is, his painful awareness of his restless hybridity—that helped him grasp a crucial insight. Neither Rome nor Hippo Regius was the “City of God” (civitate Dei). To be a Christian is to be a pilgrim and a foreigner, and the civitate Dei is, for now, a tent city that is closer to a refugee encampment than the hulking cathedrals made of stone.

Smith writes,

The Christian isn’t just a pilgrim but a refugee, a migrant in search of refuge. The Christian life isn’t just a pilgrimage but a journey of emigration.

This is not because our greatest hope is leave earth (though Augustine flirted with that error on occasion). Rather it is because we were made to find our rest in God, rather than in the things God made.

Much of our restlessness and disappointment is the result of trying to convince ourselves that we’re already home. The alternative is not escapism; it is a refugee spirituality—unsettled yet hopeful, tenuous but searching, eager to fine the hometown we’ve never been to. … God is the country we’re looking for.

In the face of Rome’s decadent decline (sound familiar?), González sees Augustine’s mestizo mentality as a saving grace.

he, who was both African and Roman, and therefore both and neither one nor the other [could] develop a philosophy of history, a vision of God’s action, that did not depend on Roman civilization… .

If American evangelicalism is to survive, it will have to embrace this mestizo mindset, along with Augustine’s famous line from the Confesssions—the book Smith describes as “a hitchhiker’s guide to the cosmos for wandering hearts”:

“You made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in thee.”

 


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Love in the Ruins

Love in the Ruins

No one ever expects the English to be rascals.

That, at least, is the opinion of Dr. Thomas More, the self-confessed “bad Catholic” in Walker Percy’s strange and brilliant novel, Love in the Ruins.

they got rid of God two hundred years ago and became extraordinarily decent to prove they didn’t need him.

Love in the ruins

Regardless of the truth of More’s statement, it is clear that Percy’s novel desires to explore the relationship between belief and obedience; faith and morality; doctrine and ethics in the modern world.

For his own part, Dr. More is afflicted by Christian belief as by a terminal condition—“God, the Jews, Christ, the whole business”—but as he admits:

I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally, I do as I please.

I am a Renaissance pope.

Nevertheless I still believe.

LOVE IN THE RUINS

I read Love in the Ruins early this summer and found it enthralling.

It is a dystopian apocalypse set near New Orleans, after the “Christ-forgetting, Christ-haunted” United States has been pulled apart by tribalism, identity politics, racial tension, and technology gone wrong.

It was published in 1971 but reads as fresh as ever.

The main character (More) is an alcoholic psychiatrist, whose daughter died and whose wife “ran off with a pagan Englishman.”

Like all of Percy’s novels, it is filled with theological insights, and like all good novels it resists cliched conclusions.

Despite the dark setting, the book is frequently hilarious—as when the evangelical (“Knotheads”) throw a patriotic Pro-Am golf tournament on July 4th, complete with a giant banner that reads: “Jesus Christ, the Greatest Pro of Them All!”

I’ll let you read it.

A CRATER OF THE GOSPEL 

For now, my interest in the book has to do with that opening quotation (about the Brits), and with what Jamie Smith speaks of as “craters of the gospel.”

Smith’s point (via Charles Taylor) is that while modern culture is increasingly post-Christian, many “craters” of the gospel’s influence remain—like pockmarked impact-zones upon the surface of the moon.

I’ve noticed something like this even in the moral concerns of avowed atheists like Sam Harris and Dax Shephard, who have almost a hyper-sensitivity for certain ethical issues, despite acknowledging that all such “absolutes” are mere human preferences.

they got rid of God … and became extraordinarily decent to prove they didn’t need him.

Far from ridiculing the moral outrage of such atheists, however, I am grateful for it in some cases—even as I ponder the extent to which they realize they are harvesting from vineyards not their own; “plowing craters” so to speak; without fully understanding that “An enemy did this” (Mt. 13.28).

How long can it last?

What will be the longterm results of such selective “worldview-appropriation”?

Likewise, it seems that many so-called “believers” have more in common with Dr. Tom More than with his post-Reformation namesake — even as we cite prooftexts to justify our “doing as we please.”

Which camp does more damage?

NOT PIGS NOR ANGELS

Regardless of the answers, Percy’s novel is both brilliant and hilarious, even as it holds out hope that when “lust [gives] way to sorrow,” we may realize

It is you [God] that I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels.

Check it out (here), if you need a summer fiction read.

 


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Is beauty a guide to God?

Is beauty a guide to God?

“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”

Thus begins the poignant novel by Julian Barnes (Nothing to Be Frightened Of).

The story represents a wrestling match with mortality in a post-Christian age. Yet my interest in it pertains to a much narrower topic: what one might call the Aesthetic Argument for faith; that is, the argument from beauty.

The question runs as follows:

Can the experience of beauty be a guide to God?

The possibility is raised by James K. A. Smith in his recent book, How (Not) to Be Secular. In his words:

[Barnes] seems, if not tempted, at least intrigued by an aesthetic argument […] : that religion might just be true simply because it is beautiful. “The Christian religion didn’t last so long merely because everyone believed it,” […] It lasted because it makes for a helluva novel.  

“A helluva novel.”

While there are several classical arguments for God’s existence (see Aquinas’ Five Ways), it should not surprise you that this isn’t one of them.

Yet consider also the words of a very different source, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). As he writes:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced, and the art which has grown in her womb.

For the former Pope: sainthood speaks to “goodness,” while artwork points to “beauty.”

Yet as Rod Dreher notes (here), neither goodness nor beauty are, strictly speaking, arguments at all.  But they can be gateways to truth—like what Francis Schaefer called “pre-evangelism.”

They are, to use the phrase of N.T. Wright, “the echo of a voice.”

The idea, for both Barnes and Benedict, is that even atheists and agnostics have moments in which they are—for lack of a better word—ambushed by an aching beauty.

And more specifically, a beauty that bespeaks Transcendence.

Amidst doubt and skepticism, there comes a haunting sense that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins).  And at certain moments: “it will flame out like shining from shook foil.”

Behold the (non-)argument for God from beauty.

EVOLUTIONARY ART 

But surely there is a natural explanation for this feeling. Right?

Indeed, several thoughtful ones have been proposed.

The most popular evolutionary argument (see here) for how art emerged has to do with its benefits in attracting mates. We have art, so to speak, because the artist got the girl and produced offspring

(That’s true actually.  Just ask my wife.  Incredibly, my youthful musical skills managed to mask both my acne and my near total lack of long-term earning potential. We have four kids.)

Still, there is a problem with the purely evolutionary argument.

In short, it tells us why artists might a procreative advantage now, but it fails to show why anyone should have found such art beautiful or moving in the first place.

As should be obvious, the meaning must precede the mating, or there is no evolutionary advantage to such artistry.

And to all appearances, this beauty-conciousness is hard-wired into us.

To be human is to be unique as homo artifex.

And there are few analogues within the animal kingdom. My dog leaves the room when I pull out the guitar, and she was mostly “meh” on last year’s Oscar nominees.

We alone seemed awed by beauty. Perhaps, then, the former Pope and the agnostic author (Barnes) were on to something.

Life itself is, to quote Barnes, “a helluva novel.”

But do not all novels have an Author?

NOT PROOFS, PERSISTENT WHISPERS

In the end, my own view is that there are no ironclad “proofs” of God’s existence—much less of the more specific question of “Which god?”

Metaphysics doesn’t work that way.

And perhaps it’s for the best.

Because in the worst cases, such “proofs” come into conversations like Elijah’s earthquake on the mountaintop. They thunder through the internet and through theology textbooks.

But as with Elijah:

“the LORD was not in the earthquake” (1 Kings 19).

If you want proofs, take math.

The Christian God desires trust sans certitude.

Hence, as with Elijah: He comes (often) in the “whisper” (1 Kings 19.12).

Thankfully, however, in moments of transcendent beauty, such whispers can be annoyingly persistent.

“The lower classes smell”

“The lower classes smell”

Why our ideas matter less than we think.

Back in 1937, George Orwell claimed this about the divisions within British society:

The real secret of class distinctions in the West can be summed up in four frightful words: The lower classes smell (~Road to Wigan Pier).

The statement sounds offensive and reductionistic. Perhaps it is.

Yet Orwell’s goal was actually to challenge his fellow highbrow socialists on whether their ideas about dismantling the class structure were actually strong enough to work in the field—where people live, and sniff.

In the words of James K. A. Smith (citing Wigan Pier):

Orwell’s point is that the root of class distinctions in England is not intellectual but olfactory.  The habits and rhythms of the system are not so much cerebral as visceral; they are rooted in a bodily orientation to the world that eludes theoretical articulation, which is why theoretical tirades also fail to displace it. … “For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling.”

In other words, you cannot solve a gut-level problem with a philosophy.

The visceral trumps the voluntary; fundamental dispositions are more caught than taught; and the “nose” (now speaking metaphorically) is mightier than the brain.

Now the kicker:

Almost every other kind of discrimination could be countered theoretically, with the weapons of facts, ideas, and information, “But physical repulsion cannot.”

What does this have to do with us?

Just this:

In America, we seem to have entered a cultural-political climate in which both sides are “physically repulsed” by one another. Sickened, even.

And sometimes for good reason.

Yet if this is so, then one should strongly question our ability to bridge the gap with education, rational discourse, or (gasp) blog posts. Orwell’s point is this: revulsion trumps reason every time—try as we might to overcome it.

In short, our “ideas” are not nearly as important for the way we engage the world as we would like to think.

As Smith argues, we are not primarily “thinking things” as Descartes posited. Nor even “believing things” as much of Christian culture claims. Even demons believe (Jms. 2.19).

For Smith, both of these mistaken anthropologies place too much emphasis upon the cognitive realm (“ideas”), whereas the Bible focuses more upon reforming the heart, the gut, or even “the bowels.”  (Even the biblical references to renewal of the “mind” are not given in a Cartesian sense.)

We are primarily loving-desiring beings.

And as such, much of our behavior is the product of pre-cognitive, affective, gut-level, and visceral reactions.

“The lower classes smell.”

But how does one disciple the olfactory senses?

How do “the bowels” get redeemed?

Next time.

 


See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (here). For a less academic version of Smith’s argument, see You are what you love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (here).