Schism and Spiritual Unity

In one of his writings on the doctrine of the church in relation to ecclesial life in seventeenth-century England, John Owen makes what I think are a number of incisive and helpful comments on schism and unity.  As a Congregationalist, Owen was susceptible to accusations of schism and divisiveness, but he suggests that a poor conception of church unity and a misguided zeal for that conception underlie the charges against the Nonconformists.

For Owen, the unity of the church is fundamentally spiritual, a function of believers being joined to Christ their head by faith.  However, Owen argues, in his day many conceived of unity in terms of (humanly devised) external uniformity of order and liturgy and then sought to impose that uniformity on all churches in the land.  This misconception generated charges of schism against Owen and his Puritan comrades and, intriguingly, was the principal cause of ecclesial disunity.  Externalize unity and impose that external unity on others and those of a different ecclesiological persuasion will (justifiably) resist this.  Hence those who are overzealous for unity are also the chief culprits in schism.  Though Owen has in mind especially the Anglican leaders of the time, he mentions Rome as an egregious example of supplanting spiritual unity with an external unity ‘of their own invention’ (Works of Owen, 15:111-12):

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Desiring the Kingdom: Liturgical Orientation

I commented in an earlier post about my reading of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and noted how much I’ve enjoyed reading it. I, for the record, am still enjoying the volume immensely, it being my holiday reading on airplanes, stuck in airports and on the occasional couch. I want to read the whole volume before offering any really critical interaction, but for now, I thought it would be fruitful to muse over one specific passage that highlights a central thrust of the work. In discussing the Pledge of Allegiance, Smith states:

What are the students doing when they recite this each day? Many will just be ‘going through the motions.’ However, given that we are liturgical animals who are deeply shaped by practices, I’m suggesting that a lot can happen when one just goes through the motions. The routine begins to inscribe habits of the imagination within us; the repeated saying of allegiance works itself into an orienting allegiance. What begins as a merely stated commitment begins to work itself into a functional commitment” (109).

It is at this point that I think Smith overplays the roles of practices as such, and offers something of an overly reductionistic anthropology. I will refrain from developing this critique until I’ve read the whole volume, and, I should add, I think his critique of a Cartesian anthropology as itself reductionistic is correct. Smith’s account of human persons as essentially lovers is, in my mind, the right way to go. But are we truly formed by practices, even when we are “going through the motions” as Smith suggests? Continue reading