Friday, February 24, 2017

Centered on Jesus III: Jerome the Ciceronian

St. Jerome

St Jerome (347-420) was one of the great saints of the Church (and one of the crankier ones). He was a great Bible commentator and translated the Bible into Latin, the common tongue of the western Roman Empire. In a letter, Jerome recounted a vision he had in which he was revealed to be kidding himself about his true loyalties:

"Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: 'I am a Christian.' But He who presided said: 'You lie; you are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For 'where your treasure is, there will thy heart be also.'"

Jerome was convicted of believing himself to be a Christian although his thinking and living were much
more shaped by his loyalty to the Stoic philosophy of Cicero. As a result he was trying to make Jesus look more like Cicero. In the vision, Jesus called him out.

I wonder, What might Jesus say about our truest loyalties? Few Christians in America are likely to be accused of being followers “of Cicero and not of Christ.” But, are there other persons, entities, or philosophies that shape our identities more than Christ? Where do we find our deepest values and sense of belonging?

There are multiple possible answers. But, in our current polarized political and social context, it does seem that many get their identity more from belonging to “Conservatism” or “Progressivism” than following Jesus or belonging to the body of Christ, the Church. In fact, these two identities have much of the character of religious conviction and communal identity. And the opposition between the two has the character of religious sectarian conflict. Some studies suggest that people are more likely to marry someone of another religious faith who shares their social/political beliefs and identity than the other way around. For more on this, see HERE and HERE.

For much of my priestly career, I regularly took issue with the seeming inability of many in the Episcopal Church to distinguish a Liberal/Progressive prejudice from a Gospel imperative (see HERE). But, it is clear that Christian Conservatives are just as unable to disentangle their social and political prejudices from the Gospel and quite prepared to “put Christian values on pause to get the work done” as Ben Carson said during last year's presidential campaign. Christian Conservatives are just as accommodated to culture as are Christian Progressives. They just accommodate different parts of the culture.

This is a problem because Jesus was not a first century manifestation of 21st century American Conservatism or Progressivism. Christianity is not seamlessly compatible with either. To try to make it so is a kind of idolatry. We who are Christians need to ask ourselves if we are followers of Conservatism or Progressivism and not of Christ. And we need to wean ourselves of our emotional attachment to those and other identities that compromise our identity in Jesus.

What would the verdict be if we were “caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge”? Are we followers of Christ? Or are we followers of someone or something else? Conservatism? Progressivism? America? Is our allegiance to Jesus Christ or do we pledge allegiance to something else? As Jerome learned in his vision getting this straight is no small matter.

When we give our allegiance is to something other than Jesus Christ – Conservatism, Progressivism, this or that political party, a nation, or anything else  we can find ourselves endorsing things that followers of Jesus ought not endorse and excusing behaviors followers of Jesus ought not excuse. And our charity will be cramped as we limit our reverence and gentleness to those with whom we identify and who follow whatever idols we follow. And that is sin.

See also: St. Ambrose and the Emperor

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